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Käthe Kollwitz was a German Expressionist artist who rose to prominence in the early 20th century, in a variety of mediums such as painting, etching and sculpture.
The artist regularly used her work to provide social commentary on the struggles of the poor, particularly in relation to themes such as poverty and hunger. She was also fiercely anti-war at a time when the European continent was experiencing seemingly endless conflicts between competing forces. Her artistic style would evolve over time, initially following a more traditional method akin to realism, before slowly moving into the more modern, emotional forms of Expressionism. An increased focus on female artists in recent years has allowed artists such as Kollwitz to return to the public conscience.
The artist was born in Königsberg, Prussia to a large family. Karl and Katherina, her parents, came from religious and political backgrounds and these influences would direct the style of her work. Additionally, her grandfather and uncle were also involved in politics at different times in their lives, and would educate Käthe on some of these issues from a young age. Her left-leaning family were receptive to her interest in art, and encouraged her to follow this path even before her teenage years. As with most elementary art courses, she would first be introduced to drawing, which laid the foundation to most other major art mediums. There was also some early work with sculpture that piqued her interest in this art form.
By the mid-1880s, Käthe Kollwitz had progressed sufficiently to begin a more formal process of artistic education and was now no-longer in need of her father’s assistance. She was fortunate enough to be taken in by the School for Women Artists in Berlin, which helped her to avoid the barriers commonly experienced by women looking to become professional artists. At this stage the artist was already pushing towards her early realism style, and focused on the lives of the ordinary workers that she might come across in normal life, such as sailors and peasants.
The 1890s marked her arrival as a professional artist. She set up her own studio for the first time in Königsberg, though shortly after she moved on to Berlin, having married Karl Kollwitz, a young medical student with whom she shared similar values. Having succeeded with oil painting, she was also starting to find a passion for printmaking and drawing, which better suited the dark, atmospheric work that she would start to produce.
Käthe Kollwitz is most famous for two specific series of work, namely The Weavers and Peasant War. Both focused on the lives of the poor, with her depictions being honest, perhaps even depressing. She was a cultured individual by now and would regularly visit theaters to enjoy a variety of shows. Indeed some of these would influence her work and soon enough a number of fellow artists would start to take note of her career, often praising its qualities. These two successful series came about between the years of 1892 and around 1908, a period in which she also gave birth to two sons. The artworks marked her arrival as an Expressionist artist, where precision was replaced with emotion in order to communicate the suffering and hardship suffered by the subjects in her work.
The artist would then head off to Paris where she would receive advanced training in sculpture. This city had already produced many of Europe’s best sculptors, and she wanted to be exposed to the highest level of tutoring possible. Whilst here she also was awarded the prize of access to a studio in Florence for a year, which she gratefully accepted. Whilst working in a modern style, she was still open to the methods of the Renaissance and treated her time in Florence as an opportunity for study rather than making much use of the studio itself.
On returning to Germany she would be impressed by a younger generation of Expressionist artists who helped to influence her own artistic direction. She was now an experienced artist with a deep artistic knowledge, with skills honed in a number of different mediums. Sadly, the outbreak of WWI brought turbulence to her life, most notably with the death of her son, Peter in 1914. This led to a period of severe depression, perhaps inevitably, whilst also further strengthening her pacifist values.
In later life the artist was awarded with a number of notable positions, including becoming professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts as well as the Master Class for Graphic Arts at the Prussian Academy. These sit alongside the notable awards that she received earlier in her career which help to highlight the impact made by her work, and the respect that the wider art community had for her impressive and consistent oeuvre.
Käthe Kollwitz’s political leanings had been apparent from an early age but would cause her issues towards the end of her life after the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. Having been investigated on multiple occasions, it is likely that she only avoided significant punishment because of her international reputation, as well as her decision to desist from expressing her political opinions openly for the rest of her life. This would not have been easy for her to do, but she deemed it the best course of action with regards to protecting her family. The war forced her to relocate several times and eventually she passed away, aged 77 on the 22nd of April, 1945 in Moritzburg, Saxony, Germany.
Käthe Kollwitz’s greatest legacy was in how she brought attention to the lives of the poor and promoted her socialist values through inventive, expressive prints and sculptures. She helped to bring new opportunities to female artists across Europe, as well as encouraging others to speak out on social issues through their work. Her artistic abilities were recognised in the form of multiple awards as well as significant positions that she held in later life. Her best known works include the Weavers and Peasant War series, with other notable contributions continuing along the same themes.