The Art of Tragedy: 150 years of Käthe Kollwitz

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07 July 2017 |Sabine Oelze  | DW

“A true icon of pacifism and class struggle as well as one of the most recognized German artists of the 20th century, Käthe Kollwitz was born 150 years ago. DW takes a look at her life and art.

Königsberg (known today as Kaliningrad). Her father recognized her talent for drawing and showed great support for her artistic development by sending her to a private arts academy. This was unheard of in the mid-19th century, as women were not admitted at state-run academies of that caliber at that time.

She went on to take private lessons in Berlin and in Munich. Having married her childhood sweetheart, medical doctor Karl Kollwitz, the pair moved to Berlin where they lived in an apartment that also served as Karl’s surgery. This is where Käthe got to witness the state of squalor that many impoverished people in Berlin were living in at the time, observing the clientele that would come to her husband’s practice. She went on to chronicle their hardships in her art.

Workers’ rights

Kollwitz wrote the following words in her diary in September 1909: “Man abandons wife. Wife bewails her abandonment. It’s the same old song. Disease, unemployment, booze – on repeat. This one had 11 children. Five of them are still alive, but the grown-up ones have all died.”

woman art
Käthe Kollwitz’ sketch of a dwoman with her deceased child is one of her most recognized works

The plight of children was particularly upsetting for Kollwitz, something she witnessed firsthand in the immediate proximity of her husband’s work. She decided to specialize in depicting the misery of those suffering poverty and oppression.

The first major cycle of work she presented portrayed the famine of Silesian weavers in the years 1891 and 1892.

For five years, she concentrated her efforts on highlighting the undignified conditions that the weavers had to live under, resulting in a major rebellion.

The second major cycle of her work also picked up on this theme: Kollwitz illustrated scenes from the German Peasants’ War of the early 16th century. The peasants’ struggle against the feudal overlords is depicted in great detail in this cycle, highlighting their aspiration of being treated as equals.

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