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Art Imitating Life: Berlin Through the Eyes of Käthe Kollwitz

by Brittany Shoot
Denmark

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Celebrations for the historic occasion have been planned for months, and next week, Angela Merkel – Germany’s first and now second-term female chancellor – will lead festivities at the historic Brandenburg Gate. The massive symbolic structure, which was previously located in East Berlin, was the site of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, in which he instructed the former Soviet leader to “Tear down this wall!”

Berlin’s history is fraught with complication and contradiction. A microcosm of Germany’s larger turmoil, the city remains a symbol of the country’s previous division. Filled with memorial spaces, art galleries, and preserved remains from World War II, Berlin is home to the unobtrusive retrospective museum dedicated to the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz.

Kollwitz was a German printmaker and sculptor whose life was marked by horrors and grief that often translated into vivid, inspiring work. Born Käthe Schmidt in the mid-1800s in East Prussia, Kollwitz attended art classes from a young age and studied at the School for Women Artists in Berlin, followed by further art studies in Munich. In 1889, she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor who began working in low-income areas of Berlin. From their location in the most destitute areas of the city, Kollwitz saw much of her community’s suffering firsthand and began depicting the painful everyday scenes through her lithography prints and bronze sculptures.

The most prominent themes of her work include motherhood and death, as well as the remarkably appropriate fusion of the two. Her more notable works in this area include the sculpture Mother with her Dead Son (sometimes called Pietá) and her well-known lithograph Deutschlands Kinder Hungern! (Germany’s Children Are Starving!). Her sketch entitled Tod und Frau (Death and Woman), which depicts a skeleton seizing a woman from behind, is all the more disturbing due to the small child clinging to the mother’s body, trying to save her from being pulled away.

Surviving much of her only family in death – her son as a soldier in World War I, her husband to illness in 1940, and her grandson as a WWII solider – shaped Kollwitz’s already solemn outlook. There is little personal glory in suffering turned artist genius, but living amidst great hardship contributed to Kollwitz’s striking work and is worthy of considerable recognition. Her stark depictions of starvation, familial bonds, sexual assault, and survival are awe-inspiring and remain plaintively relevant today.

On occasion, Kollwitz’s work retains a hopeful rebellion. In her infamous charcoal drawing Nie wieder Krieg (Never Again War), an angry young person looks defiant with a raised hand. Her impressive sculpture Tower of the Mothers symbolizes strength in numbers and a community spirit that can be seen from all sides of the rounded bronze casting.

Her museum in Berlin is tucked away on a side street and seemingly small. But its four floors and garden contain an impressive collection of her work, including several pieces in varying stages of development. In these displays, viewers can see her work transition from beginning to end, as well as series work including The Weavers, The Peasants, and a variety of her self-portraits. In all of these collections, Kollwitz displays a range of struggles and conditions pre-WWII. Notable in her series of self-portraits is Kollwitz’s lack of egotism and vanity. Instead, the drawings document her aging process.

During life, reception of Kollwitz’s work was mixed. She was honored as the first female elected as a professor and member of the Prussian Academy of Arts and was an active member of the Berlin Secession – a group of radical, independent, mostly male German artists who sought alternatives to the state-run artist association. When the Nazi Regime took power in 1933, Kollwitz’s art was removed from museums. After her home was bombed in the mid-1940s, a substantial part of her work was lost, but much of what remains is currently on display in Berlin. In death, she also found recognition. In 1991, Kollwitz’s face was placed on a state postage stamp recognizing “Women in Germany History.”

While there is a tremendous amount of important local work from this time period, there are few female artists as affecting and personal as Kollwitz. Her work displays an essential understanding of Berlin’s difficult history through the empathic eyes of someone who lived in the midst of traumatic events. On this historic anniversary, it is crucial to remember the female contributions to Germany’s complex history and to honor the brave, outstanding work of artists like Käthe Kollwitz.

About the Author
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches.

Brittany earned concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Communication, and Psychology, and has a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts. She likes to think of herself as a recovering academic but suspects that another degree in animal ethics might be in her future. A vegan and empathic animal advocate, she hopes to eventually operate her own farm sanctuary. When she isn’t taking photos with vintage film cameras and eating avocados, Brittany can be found moonlighting as a teacher, pet sitter, and farmhand. Visit her website at www.brittanyshoot.com.

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