Käthe Kollwitz and the art of war

Art in focus: the great pacifist German artist’s woodcuts depict the bereaved: mothers, parents, widows

'The Mothers', by Käthe Kollwitz

'The Mothers', by Käthe Kollwitz

 

What is it?

The Mothers is a woodcut by the great pacifist German artist, Käthe Kollwitz. It is the sixth plate from her portfolio War (Krieg) which consisted of just seven prints, plus a cover print. The woodcuts were made over the years 1921-1922, first published in 1923, and exhibited in 1924 at the recently established Anti-War Museum in Berlin. Just one of the prints depicts combatants, marching enthusiastically towards war. All the others focus intensely on those left at home, the bereaved: mothers, parents, widows. The circle of grieving mothers is a sculptural block. Like several of the plates, the resemblance to a tombstone is unmistakable.

How was it made?

The directness and apparent simplicity of Kollwitz’s work was hard-earned. She thought carefully about the most effective and accessible means of expression, and deliberately embraced drawings and print media, including lithography and woodcut (she also made sculpture), so that she could avoid the high art connotations of, say, oil painting. Then she refined and simplified her compositions through numerous preparatory studies and revisions. By the time she came to make her War woodcuts, she had more or less dispensed with the depiction of specific incident and individuals, and moved on to more universal allegorical expressions of tragic themes in the most economical possible terms.

Having begun work on the ideas that became War, she found it hard to settle on a suitable medium until she saw an exhibition of Ernst Barlach’s woodcuts in 1920. The stark rawness of her large prints is misleading. Rather than being made in one expressive burst of feeling, each was carefully calculated, evolving through many states and adjustments.

Where can I see it?

Kollwitz’s War portfolio is included in an exhibition of her work at the National Gallery of Ireland, Käthe Kollwitz: Life, Death and War (until December 10th). It comprises some 40 of her prints and drawings, including two works from the gallery’s own collection, the rest from the outstanding collection of her work at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. It was programmed to coincide with Remembrance Weekend (November 11th-12th), which also sees the launch of a new exhibition, Aftermath: The War Landscapes of William Orpen (until February 11th). Orpen went to France as an official war artist in 1917, visiting the site of the Battle of the Somme. Besides paintings, he produced poems.

Is it typical of the artist’s work?

It is typical. Kollwitz’s work is marked by its fierce, increasingly pessimistic engagement. Born in 1867 (birth name, Schmidt), to parents with a strong sense of moral justice, she married a doctor and lived in an impoverished quarter of Berlin. The living and working conditions of the urban poor appalled her and her early etchings are animated by a spirit of compassion and protest that characterised her work from then on.

One can understand her pessimism. An idealist and a pacifist, she saw her hopes for political change come to nothing. Then her son, Peter, was killed shortly after the outbreak of the first World War. Politically left wing, she was enthusiastic about the Soviet Union until she visited there in 1927 and became disillusioned. With the rise of the Nazis she was harassed and sidelined, though never labelled as “degenerate” – a term they applied to abstract or modernist artists. They even appropriated some of her images to use for propaganda purposes, which must have devastated her. A grandson was killed during the second World War and a great deal of her work was lost when her Berlin apartment was destroyed. She died just two weeks before the end of the war.

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