Käthe Kollwitz’s Profoundly Human Art

Käthe Kollwitz, “Self portrait” (1891–92), gouache on paper (all photos Alice Procter/Hyperallergic)

Käthe Kollwitz is an artist’s artist. There’s a chance you’ll recognize some of her more famous works without knowing her name, but her influence on 20th-century socially and politically critical art is unmistakeable. Although her art is better known in her native Germany than in the United States, several smaller solo exhibitions have taken place here over the years. However, the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective is the first in North America for 30 years, and the first ever in New York. 

The show focuses on her printmaking, rounded out by a few drawings, paintings, and sculptures. It opens with a handful of self-portraits, dating mostly from the 1890s, of a woman in her early 30s, quietly but confidently drawn, with deep shadow and rich texture. They’re unassuming at first glance, but Kollwitz is flexing her skills, figuring out her style. She’s not afraid of monochrome, and is willing to use pitch-black shadows to endow her images with a haunting solemnity. It’s her print series that really shine, though, and convey her storytelling and empathy at its strongest, especially as she took on subjects related to war and revolts. The result is a beautiful, moving, and profoundly antiwar exhibition.

Several of her most famous series are represented here both as finished works and proofs, and the show as a whole emphasizes Kollwitz’s process and technical experimentation. Though a few early works include color, the majority date from after 1905, when she began to limit her palette to black and white almost exclusively, finding that its starkness and subtlety were better suited to her social and political themes. MoMA’s gallery walls are the same inky blue that she continued to use occasionally. The hue is atmospheric and moody, but does not overwhelm the art. The few colored pieces on display are both a respite from and proof of the potency of her monochrome palette. Even in “Female Nude, From Behind, on Green Cloth” (1903), the model’s skin is almost gray; rather than softening the image, the addition of a vibrant green gives it a sickly, strange pallor.

Stylistically, her work belongs in the lineage of Goya’s nightmarish The Disasters of War print series (1810–20), but the twin currents of realism and care for her subjects set her apart, and these images never tip into caricature. The earliest series in the show, A Weaver’s Revolt (1893–97), composed of lithographs and etchings, is inspired by the uprising of Silesian weavers in 1844, though also informed by famine among the weavers in 1892–93. The first three plates show the desperate poverty that prompted the revolt, beginning with a starving child, while plates four and five portray the weavers marching and storming a gate.

Even in these images, the artist focuses on human suffering, rather than a triumphant revolution, and on the mothers carrying their children. Kollwitz does not show the violent climax of the revolt. Instead, the final plate is the aftermath, as the bodies of weavers killed in the revolt are carried into and laid on the floor of the mill. The decision to present both studies and finished plates in this case is incredibly effective. In the ink and pencil study, a woman clasps her hands together as she watches over the scene; in the margins are sketches of the same figure seated or with her head bowed differently. In the final print, her hands are in fists at her side; the resulting grief-stricken, helpless fury, rather than the more passive surrender of the first draft, is so much more powerful.

The corridor between the two main gallery rooms is devoted to the versions of plate three of Kollwitz’s Peasants’ War series (c. 1901–8), which displays both her narrative and her artistic process. Her earliest versions began with an allegory image of Inspiration, in the form of a young man teaching an older woman how to use a scythe as a weapon. In contrast, the final version of plate three depicts the woman alone, tightly fitted within the frame of the plate, sharpening her scythe. Seeing Kollwitz’s ideas develop from preliminary sketches to test etchings, which she then reworked with ink and pencil, offers remarkable insight into her practice. 

One of Kollwitz’s recurring subjects was the most brutal image of grief: mothers weeping over their dead children. These images are not majestic pietas, yet they are just as raw and agonizing. She often used herself as a model, and looking at the preparatory sketches it’s easy to feel the anguish of drawing her own sleeping child, Peter, as a corpse. Kollwitz’s work is most remarkable and beautiful for its unflinching empathy, and the depth of emotion and pain that she puts before her audience. A whole wall is devoted to the development of the etching “Woman with Dead Child,” through 1903, making it possible to trace her evolution from naturalistic studies to the finished version in which mother and child seem to share one body, and she has almost completely obscured the mother’s face. The resonance of these works has not diminished. How many times have we seen a scene like this represented in the arts? 

Eleven years later, Peter was killed in action in the First World War, aged 18; his death shattered her, and intensified her pacifist beliefs. The show’s final section includes Kollwitz’s political and humanitarian posters, a few beautifully intimate charcoal and crayon sketches of lovers that are drawn with the same sparse gestures as her images of grief, and her War print series (1918–22/23), begun just after the end of World War I. These works mark a transition from lithography and etching to woodcut printing.

The switch to woodcut served a practical purpose, allowing for editions of up to 400 to be published, and much faster and cheaper production than engraving, but it’s the aesthetic transformation that’s most notable. Kollwitz’s facility with gesture and emotional expression remains, but the grayscale of the other mediums is gone, replaced by stark black and white. She began the War series as crayon lithographs (some of which are included in the show), which have a sense of softness that the final works reject. The War woodcuts are unrelenting, a culmination of the rage and tragedy that carry through her oeuvre. In the nearly 80 years since Kollwitz’s death, images of violence have only become more ubiquitous. It’s a devastating testament to her artistry that these works are still so moving. 

Käthe Kollwitz continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 20. The exhibition was organized by Starr Figura, curator, with Maggie Hire, curatorial assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.

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