Why Käthe Kollwitz, an Icon of German Modern Art, Is Still So Controversial on Her 150th Anniversary

Her work, deemed too empathic, is snubbed by contemporary artists and the market.

Käthe Kollwitz around 1910. Photo: Hänse Herrmann, Kollwitz Estate ©Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

There aren’t many artists whose work can spark vehement political debate half a century after their death; Käthe Kollwitz, one of Germany’s most important artists of the early 20th century, has earned this unusual honor.

Back in 1993, Germany’s then-chancellor Helmut Kohl (who passed away last month) ordered a large-scale bronze copy of her Pietà sculpture Mother With Her Dead Son to be installed in the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s New Guardhouse, located on Berlin’s main avenue, Unter den Linden. It was only a couple of years after German reunification, and the Guardhouse—which in the 1930s served as a memorial to victims of the Great War, and was turned into a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism by the East-German government in 1960—was again renamed as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. The memorial immediately became the subject of heated debates, not in the least due to the choice of artwork.

Astonishingly enough, by opting for a sculpture by Kollwitz, Kohl successfully challenged the left for one of its identificatory figures. For decades in West Germany, placards with Kollwitz’s famous “No More War!” poster from the 1920s were a common sight at peace demonstrations. In East Germany, the artist (who died in April 1945, a few days before the end of WWII) was venerated as a national hero and thus used for political ends—undeterred by regular references in the West to her diaries, in which she argues for the political independence of art.

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child (1903) ©The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy Ikon Gallery

Kollwitz, born on July 8, 1867 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), studied art at a time when women were still denied access to art academies. Instead, she attended courses at schools for women artists in Berlin and Munich. In 1898, she became famous overnight with the publication of her graphic cycle “A Weavers’ Uprising,” consisting of six works on paper based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers. She was almost awarded a prize by the jury at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung (Germany’s belated equivalent of the Paris Salons), but Kaiser Wilhelm II vetoed their choice. (“Orders and symbols of honor belong to the chest of deserved men,” he once said.)

That didn’t stop her. In 1919 she became the first woman in the Modern era to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, later becoming the first woman professor there (she took up teaching in 1928). By this time, having lost her son Peter in WWI in 1914, she was already a public figure. With her political art, often disseminated in newspapers and on posters, she sought to reach a broad audience, and in this she succeeded. So much so in fact that in 1933, the Nazis forced her to resign from the Academy and effectively prevented her from exhibiting her work.

By the mid-1950s, just 10 years after her death, her socially engaged art was no longer much valued in the art world. The American art theorist Lucy Lippard once explained this disappearance from the radar by referring to Kollwitz’s closeness to real life that was incompatible with the artist clichés of the Post-War period: Rather than presenting herself as a lofty genius or an outsider, she worked on themes such as poverty, hunger, motherhood, death, or bereavement.

Käthe Kollwitz Revolution 1918 (1928) ©Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

Käthe Kollwitz Revolution 1918 (1928) ©Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

In 1967, the centenary of her birth, German critic Gottfried Sello summed up this approach to her work in the West-German weekly Die Zeit, writing, “In spite of her progressive ideas, Kollwitz is an arch-conservative artist.” But what does this perceived conservatism mean? Perhaps that in their complex linking of history, aesthetics, and politics, her drawings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and sculptures can be read in very different, sometimes contradictory ways: German conservatives admire her artistic craftsmanship and, perhaps tainted by ambiguous nostalgia, the fact that she is a witness of the period of the German Kaiser. Meanwhile, the Left celebrates her anti-war stance and the class-consciousness reflected in her art. And the feminist movement identifies Kollwitz as a role model who challenged the misogyny in the art institutions of the time and helped to pave the way for later generations of women artists.

However, contemporary reception of Kollwitz in Germany centers on a less-politicized view of her life and work. A major biography by historian Yvonne Schymura (Published by C.H. Beck, in 2016) is at pains to view Kollwitz as “free of political and personal engagements.” This same trend is reflected in the exhibitions celebrating the artist’s 150th anniversary this year at Germany’s two Kollwitz Museums, one concentrating on her self-portraits (Käthe Kollwitz Museum Cologne); and the other, on her circle of friends (Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin). Meanwhile, a special show at Galerie Parterre in Berlin’s Prenzlauer-Berg district, where she once lived and worked, focuses on her links to the city of Berlin. (The extensive accompanying book Käthe Kollwitz und Berlin has just been published by Deutscher Kunstverlag.)

In the United States, on the other hand, her work seems to stand for a specific historical period, as illustrated by the exhibition “World War I and the Visual Arts,” due to open at New York’s Metropolitan Museum at the end of July. Curated by Jennifer Farrell, the exhibition presents Kollwitz’s art alongside works by Otto Dix, Fernand Léger, George Grosz, and Edward Steichen.

And in the UK, the British Museum and Ikon Gallery are presenting the show “Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz” this September, an exhibition that sets out to “illuminate what it means to be an artist and sustain a creative life,” as described in the press release.

Käthe Kollwitz, Sturm (Riot). Plate 5, (1893-7) Etching with Stippling ©The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy Ikon Gallery

For the Düsseldorf-based artist Katharina Sieverding, winner of the 2017 Käthe Kollwitz Prize awarded by Berlin’s Academy of Arts, Kollwitz’s work is characterized by a high degree of empathy. “Kollwitz addressed social and political issues and she wanted her art to make an impact,” says Sieverding. “Affect plays an important part here. And self-determination played a central role in her life and work.” In Sieverding’s view, one reason for the distanced response from within contemporary art is the way Kollwitz’s oeuvre was overshadowed by the reception of the artist as a person.

In fact, at some point it became symbolic of something artist would do best to shun. According to Yury and Sonya Winterberg, authors of a Kollwitz biography (Bertelsmann, 2015), the slogan “No more war, no more Kollwitz!” has been making the rounds at German art colleges for decades. Apparently, pathos and an emotional response to proletarian misery is incompatible with the prototypical ironic and hedonistic self-image that many German artists have come to identify with (especially since Martin Kippenberger).

In fact, a series of paintings by Kippenberger, painted in 1984 (and then again in the 1990s), illustrate this attitude: entitled Krieg böse (War Wicked), they feature variations on the theme of Santa Claus standing next to a crossed-out gunboat. He may have been making fun of the pathos of Anselm Kiefer. But he may also have been targeting Kollwitz’s famous anti-war poster.

In the mid-1980s, the Guerrilla Girls expressed their esteem for Kollwitz with a feminist action-figure that bore her name. (Although Members of the group remain anonymous while speaking to the press, they carry “code names” to help distinguish themselves. As namesakes they choose influential women artists like Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gertrude Stein, or Georgia O’Keeffe.)

Today, art’s status as a viable form of protest and resistance is being critically challenged more rigorously than it has been for a long time, but so far, Kollwitz has been strangely absent from this discussion. Unlike similarly politically progressive and articulate artists like Corita Kent (1918–1986) and Alice Neel (1900–1984), or Kollwitz’s coeval, the American painter Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), the familiar art-world dynamic of obscurity, rediscovery, and reevaluation doesn’t seem to be so easily set in motion for Kollwitz.

The problem with the equation seems to be the prerequisite of obscurity. As Berlin-based curator Hans-Jürgen Hafner told artnet News, Kollwitz’s work “cannot be productively demarginalized.” And this is because Kollwitz, whose name graces schools, streets, and squares all over Germany, whose face features on stamps, and whose art is present in museum collections around the world, was never really forgotten. On her 150th birthday, Google’s German homepage even dedicated one of its famous doodles to her.

Käthe Kollwitz, Tod und Frau (Death and Woman), (1910) Etching proof ©The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy Ikon Gallery

So what is the secret of Kollwitz’s ongoing public popularity and why does it necessarily mean that very few contemporary artists refer to her? “In my view,” explains Cologne-based artist Claus Richter, one of the few contemporary artists to openly admire her, “Käthe Kollwitz is a fantastic observer, her works are so hard while possessing an incredible tenderness. And although this doesn’t seem to be a valid criterion for ‘good’ art today, I’m always deeply moved by her drawings and sculptures.”

Over time, Kollwitz developed her art towards a universal humanist visual language. From her delicate early etchings to the later, almost expressionistic woodcuts, lithographs and sculptures, grey increasingly gives way to black and a compact heaviness gains the upper hand. The best thing to do is to visit the nearest museum with works by Kollwitz to see for yourself. For the present to take a bold new look at Kollwitz’s oeuvre, it must first lose its old fear of Betroffenheitskitsch, the German word often used to dismiss her work, meaning empathetic kitsch. There is good, hard art to be discovered.

Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell

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