Monday, May 7, 2012

The Degenerate Prints of Kathe Kollwitz

The works in this article speak to a human truth about the depths of one's despair, death and the wretchedness of one's existence to survive without their loved ones. The artist whose brave hand unflinchingly created these pieces is Käthe Schmidt, more famously known as the artist/printmaker Kathe Kollwitz. She lived and worked in one of the most tumultuous periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, and experienced atrocities few would want to survive, but she spoke the truth with her scathingly critical lines and her rapiered compositions.  For her labors, she was eventually dubbed a 'degenerate' by Hitler's art elite, and while that's a matter of skewed opinion, history has since borne her work out as among the most moving tributes to humanity, on a par with the works of Goya, Delacroix and Dix.
Kathe was born on July 8th, 1867, in the East Prussian industrial city of Konigsberg. Her modest upbringing 'sparked' from a household fervently interested in discussions on social/political issues and Karl Marx; plus her maternal grandfather, Julius Rupp, was the leader of the Free Congregation movement. 
Both her father and grandfather were a big influence upon Kathe and her career. Rupp had strong socialist views and had been imprisoned for his religious beliefs, while Kathe's father, Karl Schmidt,  was a moral idealist. He encouraged his three daughters to have sympathy for the plight of the working-class, and he taught by guiding them rather than forcing his will upon them. He wanted his girls to be strong, believe in themselves and develop their individual talents. This was radical thinking in a period where women were encouraged to be mothers and housewives. 
The Schmidt family's involvement with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) enabled Käthe to meet Karl Kollwitz, whom she would eventually marry.  He was similarly passionate about politics and introduced her to the writings of August Bebel, who's socialist ideas wrote about the dissolution of marriage; and freeing women from their second-class status. Käthe was very interested in politics, and frequently read the work of Karl Kautsky, who was the period's best interpreter of Marx' theories.
Kathe's father believed she would become a great artist, and to encourage her, he arranged for Kathe, at the age of 14, to take art lessons with a local engraver, Rudolf Mauer. Two years later, Käthe went to study under the painter Emile Neide, and then she studied at the Berlin School for Women Artists under Karl Stauffer-BernIn 1888 Käthe went to study at the Munich  Women's Art School. She also joined the informal Glücks-Café Composition Club, and the Munich Etching Club.Through her studies, it became apparent that her true interest was in the expressiveness of line and drawing, not with paint and color. She almost exclusively devoted herself for drawing and printmaking from this point forward.
Karl Kollwitz and Kathe were married in 1891 after Karl became a doctor. They moved to a working-class neighborhood of Berlin and both worked on pursuing their respective careers. In May, 1892, Käthe gave birth to her first child, a son, named Hans. Four years later, Käthe gave birth to her second son, Peter. Having children was a burden to her career, but her husband provided live-in support so she could continue her work. "I was more productive because I was more sensual, I lived as a human being must live, passionately interested in everything."
Soon afterward, Kollwitz began to exhibit in Berlin, and received both criticism for her sex, and praise for her talent. Regardless, she soon rose to the artistic surface and generally received accolades for the honesty and truth of her work. She is known for having produced a series of lithographs illustrating the 1844 Weaver's Uprising, based upon the writings of Marx, who had proclaimed it as the birth of a German workers' movement. Kollwitz went on to produce other series of prints and drawings based upon social/political and deeply personal issues: namely losses of sons and children which was something she'd experienced firsthand during the World Wars due to the deaths of her son Peter, and Peter's son. There ones sees her lines are simultaneously as sharp as a razor blade and softly caressing as a warm blanket.

Kollwitz' work has shone as a beacon of light in the darkness  - letting us see the depths of her own despair, but also those of the German people. They suffered loss and shame and world rebuke for their atrocities, but they were human, too. Mothers lost their children,  husbands, fathers and brothers. Children starved to death and everyone suffered collateral damage from battles. There was no relief.  I have seen her etchings and lithographs and rarely do I see someone so adept at drawing that the lines literally pulsate and 'breathe'. Kollwitz is among that caliber of artists, and I, for one, am grateful that her work exists to remind us what life is about, that expression, passion and emotions can jump off a page and leap into your heart, grab it, shake it up and make you weep. Her piece below is one such piece where a mother walks through an abandoned battlefield in the stealth of night, through blood and bodies strewed as far as one can see, shining a lone flashlight in the sea of dead faces, one after another, in a desperate search to find her child. It rips at our soul and we feel her plight. 
Kollwitz' work shows all of that and more through her prints, but while she received praised for her skills, she was eventually marked as a 'Degenerate' artist in WWII Germany, set up as an example of what 'not' to do, what was 'unacceptable' to the sterile genetic and artistic views of Adolph Hitler and his insane sense of Germanic euphemistic harmony. Her images of death and loss and Marxist worker revolts spoke against Hitler's watered-down group of 'sanctioned art' and she was put up to public revile. Thankfully, her work (and those other 'degenerate' artists) survive for us to know and be reminded that with wars' victory and glory comes sacrifice and tragic loss. The saying goes, 'that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger'.... Kollwitz'  own self-portrait series shows her pain and suffering, and a steely reserve to survive. If that's what it means to be a degenerate artist, then so be it. I'd prefer to have her crusading line (and anyone like her), draw the truth any day.


  1. Her work is so powerful, thank you for honoring Kollwitz with your article.

  2. A true goddess!! She weds passion and printmaking like no before or after her. Kathe Kollwitz reminds us the world is more that power and money - it can be a place of compassion.