From Grief to Activism: The art of Käthe Kollwitz

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The William Benton Museum of Art hosted “Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art,” a virtual exhibition of artist Käthe Kollwitz’s art on Friday night. What is the role of the artist? That is the driving question that inaugurated the exhibition, as Käthe Kollwitz strived to answer it throughout her multilayered artistic career. Images provided by the author. Das Opfer [The Sacrifice] (1922) from the series Krieg [War] (1918-1922/23). Woodcut, 14 9/16 x 15 3/4″. The Walter Laundauer Collection of Käthe Kollwitz, 1964.19

On Friday night, the William Benton Museum of Art hosted “Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art,” a virtual exhibition of artist Käthe Kollwitz’s art. 

“Like many museums, COVID-19 caused [the Benton] to shift our exhibition schedule by about one year,” Amanda Douberley, assistant curator and academic liaison of The Benton, said. She presented the virtual exhibition. “This provided the museum with an opening to exhibit Kollwitz’s work. The curatorial team felt her prints would resonate with the concerns of our contemporary moment, not just in terms of the emotional toll of the pandemic, but also social justice and the relationship between art and politics.” 

What is the role of the artist? That is the driving question that inaugurated the exhibition, as Käthe Kollwitz strived to answer it throughout her multilayered artistic career. Born in then-Prussia’s Kaliningrad, she lived through the volatile regimes of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, as well as the comeuppances of both world wars. By sublimating the political and economic anguish of her environment into the creation of her art, Kollwitz determined her specific role as an artist was that of activism. 

“She once wrote, ‘It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high. This is my task, but it is not an easy one,’” recounted Douberley. 

In the early stages of Kollwitz’s career, she enacted her duty by depicting imaginative images of proletarian anguish in her art. The piece “Death,” which portrayed an 1844 uprising by working class weavers, catapulted her to fame. However, the circuit’s subject matter was considered seditious to the point that Kollwitz was refused official recognition by the Prussian monarchy.  

While Kollwitz continued to depict the struggles of the masses with series such as “Peasants War” and “Unemployment,” following works were done in the lamentation style employing themes of grief and became more explicitly subversive. These elegiac pieces include “In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht” and the highly regarded “Woman with Dead Child.” Contemporaneous spectators suspected Kollwitz’s still living son, Peter Kollwitz, was the muse of the latter. Peter Kollwitz would later enlist in the war and become the obvious inspiration of Kollwitz’s first wartime piece, “Waiting,” of which he died two days after its publishing date. 

“The artist’s life-long friend … was shocked when she saw the print in an exhibition, and so she recalled her reaction: ‘A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-colored corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb,’” Douberley said about “Woman with Dead Child.” 

All of this built up to Kollwitz’s evocative third print cycle, titled “War,” which she began working on in 1918 — the year closing the first World War — and published in 1923. Her early career was marked by her use of lithography, a method of art creation composed on a stone plate, as well as metal etching and charcoal, but shifted to woodcut for her third series. With a totality of seven artistic pieces, the collection marked a shift in the focus of Kollwitz’s work from imaginative historicism to war’s realism — that is, it was based on her own experiences on the home front of World War I, with the echoes of her son’s death haunting her art. This is most evident in her piece “The Sacrifice,” which is comparative to “Woman with Dead Child” in its portrayal of child death, but with a prevailing anti-war exhortation. Additional works depicting traumatic grief in the series include “The Parents,” “Child Mortality” and “The Widow.” 

In inspiration of Kollwitz, The Benton is currently working on “The UConn Grief Project,” which invites students to submit artistic images or texts on the theme of grief. Amanda Douberley, an assistant curator and academic liaison with The Benton, presented the event. Images provided by the author.

With “War,” Kollwitz’s real influences also paved the way for her using her art for advocacy. The piece “Help Russia” was part of relief efforts for a drought-stricken Russia, and “Temperance Week” raised awareness for the alcoholic temperance movement.  

The importance of the artist in society is tendentious, yet Käthe Kollwitz demonstrates why art’s tangibility need not be contested. By depicting scenes of plebeian grief in the wake of class conflict and warfare and also intertwining these pieces with real fundraising efforts, Kollwitz proved her art to be instrumental to social politics and justice. 

“Reflecting on the relationship between art and politics that same month, [Kollwitz] wrote, ‘Let people say a thousand times that art without a purpose is not pure art … I want to be effective with my art for as long as I am able to work,’” Douberley said. 

In inspiration of Kollwitz, The Benton is currently working on “The UConn Grief Project,” which invites students to submit artistic images or texts on the theme of grief. You can find more information about The UConn Grief Project here.  

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