The Benton analyzes ‘The Sacrifice’ by Käthe Kollwitz and takes a look into the depiction of war in artwork

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Käthe Kollwitz’s exhibition at The William Benton Museum of Art on March 26. Photo provided by author.

After two weeks off, The William Benton Museum of Art is back with their Critical LOOKing: A Virtual Dialogue series. This time, we’re analyzing “The Sacrifice” by Käthe Kollwitz.  

These virtual dialogues are based on direct observation, all led by the Assistant Curator and Academic Liaison Amanda Douberley. Through analysis and discussion, we pick apart the pieces of artwork to figure out their deeper meaning and purpose.  

It’s quite unclear what exactly “The Sacrifice” is, and can definitely be open to interpretation. However, in general terms it depicts some sort of mother figure lifting her child into the air. The original name of the artwork is “Das Opfer” which in German can mean either sacrifice or victim. Several audience members found this interesting, especially because of the nurturing aura to the artwork. One felt that the sacrifice component applied to the mother, for she was giving up her baby, however the victim component fell on the baby who was the one being given away.  

This specific piece was a product of wood etching.  

“This etching is very realistic in a sense, but in another it is also much less clear about who was in the picture and what they were doing,” said one viewer.  

“The Sacrifice” by Käthe Kollwitz. Photo provided by author.

In 1919, Kollwitz witnessed an exhibition done by Ernst Barlach and immediately was inspired by woodcut.  

“Kollwitz notices that Barlach has done something very special here and realizes it may work for her too,” said Douberley.  

When looking closely at the details within the woodcut, the audience is able to notice the drastically different expressions on the mother’s face from that of the child’s. The figure being held up looks as though they are at peace and serene. On the contrary, the mother’s white eyes, wrinkles and frown depict her as angry or upset. While we don’t know exactly what is taking place, this juxtaposition gives a better understanding.  

“The Sacrifice” was part of Kollwitz’s Krieg (War) series, which depicted the hardships of World War I and everything that came after. Both her son and nephew were killed in war, so it’s safe to assume that those dreary years had a large impact on her life. Many of the pieces in the portfolio depict images that war has left behind: mothers, children, love, families and more.  

The next Critical LOOKing dialogue will take place on April 6 at 6 p.m. and will host guest speaker Martina Rosenberg from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Rosenberg will co-host with Douberley and discuss a print titled “Hunger,” which is from Kollwitz’s second woodcut cycle.  

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