Käthe Kollwitz

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Kollwitz was one of the most talented and renowned graphic artists of the early twentieth century. While her art was clearly social and political in meaning, her mastery of light and form resulted in a purely aesthetic statement that has seldom been equaled in the graphic arts.

Early Life

Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz was the fifth child of well-educated parents. Her mother, Katherina, was the daughter of Julius Rupp, a nonconformist Lutheran minister who left the state church to found the first Free Congregational Church in Germany, a group that emphasized rationalism and ethics. Kollwitz’s father, Karl Schmidt, was a lawyer, a follower of Karl Marx, and an activist in the Social Democratic Workers’ Party who, finding his socialist beliefs in conflict with the militaristic regime of Otto von Bismarck, gave up the practice of law to become a master mason and a successful builder. Kollwitz’s later reminiscences of her childhood recall the warmth, the social and moral idealism, and the mutual respect for the rights and freedom of others that characterized her family’s thinking and that strongly influenced her own development.

Karl Schmidt was an enlightened father who encouraged his daughters to develop their individual talents, looking beyond the traditional female roles of wife and mother. An avid reader, the young Käthe was drawn especially to the works of Émile Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—naturalistic works which dealt with the social problems of contemporary society. Another author who contributed to her intellectual development was August Bebel, whose pioneering treatise on the social and economic emancipation of women, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (1879; Woman Under Socialism, 1904), argued that capitalism had enslaved women and only socialism could free them from their second-class status. This, combined with her father’s influence, did much to shape Kollwitz’s own socialist outlook on life as a woman and as an artist.

At an early age, Kollwitz also evidenced an interest in the visual arts and a talent for drawing. Her father, determined to develop this potential, provided her with the best training available. Since women were denied admission to the Königsberg Academy of Art, she studied privately with the engraver Rudolf Mauer and later with Émile Neide, a local painter of some renown. In 1885-1886, she studied with Karl Stauffer-Bern at the Art School for Women in Berlin, and then, in 1888-1889, she worked with Ludwig Herterich at the Women’s School of Art of the Munich Academy. As her taste in the visual arts matured, it paralleled her taste in literature; she was primarily drawn to artists whose work reflected the problems of contemporary life— Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya, William Hogarth, and Honoré Daumier. She was also excited by Max Klinger’s graphic series, particularly Ein Leben (1883; a life), which is an indictment of the moral hypocrisy of the double standard held against women.

Life’s Work

In 1891, Käthe Schmidt married Karl Kollwitz of Berlin, despite the disapproval of her father and of her former colleagues at the Women’s School of Art in Munich, who looked upon marriage as a betrayal of one’s commitment to art. Kollwitz, however, never doubted her ability to combine her role as an artist with that of wife and mother and had wisely realized that she would have more freedom as a wife in Berlin than as an unmarried woman in her father’s home in provincial Königsberg. She was fortunate that, throughout their long marriage, her husband shared her socialist beliefs, encouraged her independence, and was supportive of her work.

Her husband’s medical practice in a Berlin working-class neighborhood gave Kollwitz an immediate and intense experience of the problems and hardships of the lower classes, and this experience began to interact with her art, which she now perceived as an effective instrument to help achieve the political changes that she believed would result in a better society with equality and justice for all. Disdaining the idea of art for art’s sake, she proclaimed that her art had a social function, that she wanted to be effective in a time when people were so helpless and destitute, Throughout her career, she drew her subjects from the same sources that had inspired Rembrandt, Goya, and Daumier—the downtrodden, the poor, and the oppressed. She had, however, a greater awareness of the particular responsibilities, sorrows, and joys of women in the lower classes.

Early in her career, Kollwitz chose to work in the graphic media—prints and drawings—rather than painting. She was undoubtedly influenced by Klinger, whose depictions...

(The entire section is 1988 words.)