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Käthe Kollwitz Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Käthe Kollwitz was the first comprehensive treatment of this influential artist to be written in English, although other publications, primarily lists of her works or reproductions of her prints, did appear before 1972. The book was not intended only for youthful audiences or for students of biography, as it is a significant contribution to the history of German art from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1945, but the clear, accessible writing and Kollwitz’s exemplary life give the work great appeal for young readers. It can be used by students in several areas of the curriculum and deserves study especially because of the moral stance adopted by the artist throughout her life.

The narrative describes Kollwitz’s social background, taking a traditional psychological approach to the role of her maternal grandfather, father, and closest female sibling in the formation of the artist’s attitudes. Throughout her life, Kollwitz was a solitary, taciturn person, sufficiently fulfilled by her relationships to close family members and by artistic expression. Her father was disappointed that she was a girl: He believed that her obvious talent would go unnoticed because she was supposed to be destined for marriage. Indeed, her sister Lina’s interest in art—as considerable as Küthe’s, according to reports—was abandoned at the time of her early marriage.

Kollwitz, who had met her future husband at the age of seventeen, did not marry until many years later. The authors relate in some detail how, under the tutelage of a single teacher and then at art schools in Berlin and Munich, she attempted to perfect her technique—not as a painter but as a printmaker, lithographer, sketcher in black and white, and, finally, as a sculptor. For her sculpting, she was inspired by Ernst Barlach and a few others, but she was largely self-taught.

After her marriage, the artist continued to create, using a studio near the family home in Berlin. Her two sons, and children in general, were of the greatest importance to her. With the help of a housekeeper and because of her husband’s uncharacteristically modern attitude of pride in his wife’s work, Kollwitz spent a lifetime testifying to the needs of the poor, who could not speak for themselves. Her posters for social action, her large parental figures that she sculpted to mourn the death of her son, her illustrations of such books as the naturalist drama Die Weber (1892; The Weavers, 1899) by Gerhart Hauptmann, and her series of woodcuts on the subject of death are all unforgettable. Kollwitz was also a mentor to young artists, a foster parent, and a teacher and valued colleague for Berlin artists and museum directors, although she remained remote from them in her daily life and preferred to admire them in private.

Käthe Kollwitz is also an absorbing account of the artist’s attempts to preserve her works from the depredations of the National Socialists. It captures for the reader such horrors of World War II as the bombings in Berlin, which destroyed Kollwitz’s home and studio and injured her granddaughter, who had tried to preserve Kollwitz’s art during the attacks. Kollwitz had moved temporarily to a safer part of Germany because of her age.

The book enumerates the brave witness that Kollwitz made to her faith in art and her “degenerate” artist friends during the Hitler years: by appearing at their funerals, by signing petitions, and by bearing with fortitude being stripped of all her honors and even seeing some of her works burned in public. These examples, and many others, convey an extraordinary, quiet heroism, particularly for a frail woman in her seventies. It is a fitting tribute to her character that Barlach sculpted an angel bearing her features for a church in Cologne, Germany. This angel not only preserves the face and meaning of the artist for others but also is a witness to finer aspects of the German spirit. It is a reminder of those who did not participate in the Hitler era and were not defeated by it. Kollwitz has become a symbol for each of these individuals.