Artists & Designers

Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)

The influential work of Käthe Kollwitz resulted from the horrors that marked her life. Born in the Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1867, she was destined to experience the direct consequences of both World Wars. Her progressive middle-class family promoted her artistic career by enrolling her in private lessons with Rudolph Mauer in Königsberg and sending her to study in Berlin under Karl Stauffer-Bern in 1885. In order to persuade her to choose art over marriage, her father sent her to study in Munich following her engagement in 1889 to Dr. Karl Kollwitz, whom she nevertheless married upon her return to Berlin in 1891.

Kollwitz’s studio was next to her husband’s medical practice and she often drew and socialized with his working-class patients. Influenced by Max Klinger’s writings and prints, she gave up painting in the early 1890s in order to focus on printmaking, which would allow her to reach a broader public. Kollwitz developed a naturalistic style marked by its legibility and used her art to create social commentaries on the emerging workers’ movement as well as other emotionally charged subjects including poverty, war, suffering, and death. From 1898 to 1903, she taught at the Berlin School for Women Artists. On a trip to Paris in 1904, she visited the Académie Julian and learned how to create sculptures, producing her first three-dimensional works in 1910. In 1913, Kollwitz founded the Women’s Art Union in Berlin.

During World War I, Kollwitz lost one of her sons at the age of 18 just ten days after he deployed. Devastated, her work from that point forward would reflect the terror and pain that the war had caused, particularly its effect on women. Cheap mass production of her anti-war prints allowed her to reach a wide audience, and her success peaked during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933). In 1919, Kollwitz became the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Art, where she was given the title of professor. She ran a printmaking studio starting in 1928 and the following year received the Prussian honor Pour le mérite.

With the rise of Nazi power, Kollwitz’s fortunes turned. Her participation in a petitionary action against the Nazis in 1932 led to her expulsion from the Academy and the loss of her studio once Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Soon after, she was banned from exhibiting her work. Her later work focused on the anticipation of death and the mourning of mothers for their children, and she produced sculptures that embodied the themes explored in her prints. During World War II, she lost her husband and grandson; she left Berlin for Moritzburg in 1943 after her house was destroyed, along with much of her art, in an air raid. She died in 1945, two weeks before the German surrender, and is celebrated today for her powerful works that confront social injustice and human suffering.

Excerpt from

Kelsey Martin and Nicole Myers, DMA exhibition text Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism, 2018.

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