British Museum blog

Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story

Frances Carey, art historian

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The seated figure of an elderly woman cast in bronze presides over a square in a part of north east Berlin known as Kollwitzkiez, the ‘Kollwitz district’, where Käthe Schmidt (1867-1945) came to live in 1891 on her marriage to Dr Karl Kollwitz. The sculpture by Gustav Seitz, installed in 1960, was commissioned under the DDR (German Democratic Republic) just as the renaming of Wörtherplatz and Weissenburger Strasse had been done in her honour in 1947. The nearest U-Bahn station is Senefelderplatz opened in 1923 and named after another notable figure in the history of printmaking, Alois Senefelder, who is credited with the discovery of lithography in 1796. When I stayed on Kollwitzstraße in the summer of 2009, the formerly bohemian neighbourhood of the 1990s after Die Wende (‘The Change’, i.e. including the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification) was fast shedding its down-at-heel appearance. All the familiar signs of rising property values and gentrification were plain to see, much more so now: handsome, well-buffed apartment buildings, smart shops, cafés such as Anne Blume (called after Kurt Schwitters’s subversive poem of 1919), and nearby parks and playgrounds with brightly coloured equipment for children. TripAdvisor waxes lyrical about the area as a tourist destination.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901 © DACS, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901, lithograph, 269 x 204 mm © DACS, 2014 (1951,0501.81)

It is a far cry from the surroundings where Käthe and Karl (d.1940) were to spend almost the whole of their adult lives. Prenzlauer Berg, the larger district in which Kollwitzkiez is situated, was developed as a working-class neighbourhood to cope with the great surge in population after 1871 when Berlin became the capital of a united Germany; by 1900 the population had grown from around 800,000 to 1.9 million. Street after street of Mietskasernen or tenements (literally ‘rental barracks’) were built where conditions were dire. The Frauenkunstverband (Organisation of Women Artists), co-founded by Käthe Kollwitz in 1913, protested that 600,000 Berliners lived in dwellings with five or more people to a room while 100,000 children had nowhere to play. The title of the polemic by Werner Hegemann published in 1930, Das steinerne Berlin: Geschichte der grössten Mietskasernenstadt der Welt (Stony Berlin: History of the Largest Tenement City in the World) captures the impact of this remorseless urbanization. Prenzlauer Berg was dominated by these tenements and the breweries that were the major employers.

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) 1909, 6th state, etching and engraving 382 x 530 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Kollwitz was rooted in the nineteenth century, drawing much of her inspiration from the narrative realism and emotive power of writers such as Dickens, Ibsen and Zola. She grafted her reading of fiction, whether it dealt with near contemporary circumstances or ostensibly historical ones, onto the direct experience of ‘the lives of others’ who were beset by the uncertainties of casual employment, deprivation, high maternal and child mortality, and often domestic violence. In this challenging environment she found a beauty and a grandeur that became her mainspring as an artist. It was a largely black-and-white world, but with many gradations of tone and texture. For the realization of its expressive potential she turned to drawing and printmaking, above all to the example of Max Klinger (1857-1920) and his championing of graphic art as having an important status of its own. His series of ten etchings and aquatints called Dramen, Opus IX (1883) comprised six tragedies set in Berlin among the different echelons of society. Two dramas – Eine Mutter (A Mother) and Märztage (March Days) – unfold over three plates each, while the other four have just a single sheet apiece. Märztage seemed to refer to the failed liberal revolution of March 1848, but Klinger made it clear that he had in mind the contemporary context of Germany’s Social Democratic movement in 1883.

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I (A Mother I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 318 mm (1981,1107.23)

Max Klinger, Mârztage I

Max Klinger, Mârztage I (March Days I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 358 mm (1981,1107.28)

Käthe Kollwitz was similarly inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The Weavers, 1892), which she saw at its first performance in 1893, to create a print series that was more about the conditions of the poor around her, than Silesia in 1844. Her second graphic cycle Der Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War) executed from 1902-7 and published the year after, used the religious and economic conflict of 1524-5 as yet another vehicle through which to express the heroism of the working class. This series along with her later work after the First World War in woodcut and lithography, earned her significant influence on the development of printmaking in Russia and China in the 1920s-40s and beyond.

Within a few years of commencing printmaking in 1890-91 Käthe Kollwitz had demonstrated considerable artistry and technical competence. Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt) – three etchings and three lithographs completed in 1897 – propelled her to the front rank of artists in Germany. When she went to Paris in 1904 she was given a glowing testimonial for Rodin from Hugo von Tschudi, Director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Her greatest champion was Max Lehrs, Director of the Dresden Print Room who both acquired her work for the collection and published the first catalogue of her prints in 1902. He likewise encouraged a curator, later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Campbell Dodgson (1867-1948). Dodgson bequeathed to the British Museum (which was not then permitted to buy the work of living artists) a remarkably fine body of impressions from the most innovative phase of Kollwitz’s career: none more so than a sequence of three states of the harrowing subject of Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead Child) of 1903, which shows Kollwitz’s mastery in every aspect of its accomplishment. The artist and her younger son Peter (b.1896) were the models at a time when her elder son Hans (b.1892) had narrowly escaped dying of diphtheria. The sculptural quality of her treatment of the motif anticipates her later interest in working with a three-dimensional medium which was one of her objects of study in Paris.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child)

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash, 415 x 480 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3928)

Frau mit totem Kind has none of the resignation of her later sculpture (1937) of a mother and her dead son, ‘something like a Piéta’, of which the artist said ‘There is no longer pain, only reflection.’ In the 1903 print there is only pain, but however much she drew upon personal experience and observation, it is nonetheless a carefully contrived artistic composition.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), woodcut, 1924, © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait) 1924, 6th state, woodcut, 209 x 301 mm © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Kollwitz’s most unwavering commitment was to being an artist: ‘It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.’ (New Year’s Day, 1912). Her intensely examined life as expressed in all her work, not just the many self-portraits, her journals and correspondence, is humbling to recall amidst the middle-class comforts of modern Kollwitzkiez. I admire her because she succeeded in doing what a great contemporary artist has advocated: ‘I thought women as artists should focus on how to start, lead, and sustain a creative life. It’s not a question of style or a break with tradition.’ (Bridget Riley, 2004).

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. In the episode Kathe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness, Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz, who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. anthony dennis says:

    I enjoyed learning about Kathe Kollwitz and went on to read more….
    as she said in her last letter, ” war accompanies me to the end…”
    but what a wonderful artist. Her depiction of poverty cuts into the
    mind like the best of Blake.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lesley Heather says:

    I had the immense privilege of visiting the Kathe Kollwitz museum in bBrlin. It left me humble at both her skill; and insight into the human condition with her soul to depict it. Go if you can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I discovered Kathe Kollwitz in the early 70’s and have been a great admirer of hewr work ever since. Her art prompts tears of pain , sadness, empathy and love. A great human being who was probably a deeply humble person. Thankyou for honouring her contribution to Germany.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,341 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

This photograph shows a mountainside in #Angola featuring large engravings which may be thousands of years old. This rock art is found at Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume, one of a group of four rock art sites located in the south-west corner of Angola, by the edge of the Namib desert. The area is a semi-arid plain characterised by the presence of several inselbergs (isolated hills rising from the plain). Of the four sites, Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume is the largest, located at the top of an inselberg, 726 metres in height. There are large engravings on the slopes of the outcrop, most of them consisting of simple or concentric circles and solar-like images.

Our #AfricanRockArt image project team have now completed cataloguing 19,000 rock art images from Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa, and will be completing work on sites from Southern African countries in the final phase of the project. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our African #rockart image project and the incredible images being catalogued.
Photograph © TARA/David Coulson. Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

This painted panel, from Kondoa District in #Tanzania, shows the white outline of an elephant’s head at the right, along with some figures in red that it is possible to highlight with digital enhancement.

Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Watch the incredible discovery of this colossal statue, submerged under the sea of thousands of years. This colossal 5.4-metre statue of Hapy was discovered underwater in what was the thriving and cosmopolitan seaport of Thonis-Heracleion. It once stood in front of a temple and would have been an impressive sight for traders and visitors arriving from the Mediterranean.

Come face to face with the ancient Egyptian god Hapy for yourself in our‪ #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016.

Colossal statue of Hapy. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt. About 380-250 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. The discovery of this stela, which once stood at the entrance of the main entry port into ancient Egypt, was an extraordinary moment. Its inscription detailing taxes helped solve a 2,000-year-old mystery!

This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through the cities of Thonis and Naukratis, and it originally stood in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis.

A bilingual decree found in 1881 refers in its Greek inscription to ‘the Temple of Heracleion’ and in hieroglyphs to ‘the Temple of Amun-Gereb’. Together these objects revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the same place.

Learn more about the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition.
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that the #SunkenCities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptian cities were believed to be lost.

Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. The amazing rediscovery of these lost cities is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

See more magical moments of discovery in our #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

#archaeology #diving #ancientEgypt

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,341 other followers

%d bloggers like this: