The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz, Prenzlauer Berg

On Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg there is a statue of the woman for whom the leafy, prosperous square in the north of Berlin is named. It stands in the heart of the square, next to the playground, facing the spot where the artist Käthe Kollwitz used to live having moved to Berlin in 1891 at the age of twenty-four. She would go on to spend the next fifty years living on the square, almost the entire rest of her life, as her husband worked as a doctor in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and she worked on some of the greatest artwork produced in Germany in the 20th century.

The experience of living in Germany through the rapid growth of industrial Berlin and the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, certainly had an impact on her work. But more specifically, it was perhaps working class Prenzlauer Berg that influenced her the most, both on the streets that she walked daily as well as the stories of the patients who passed through her husband’s surgery. This was a Berlin of extreme poverty, of overcrowded apartments, of illness and child labour, and Kollwitz did not shy away from depicting these realities in her work. The writer Max Egremont describes her art as having ‘a preoccupation with suffering, a horror at what people could inflict on others, at how painful so-called progress could be’. It is true. What I would add to the quote is that there is also a sense of responsibility, both in the work itself but also for those who look upon the suffering and horror; a responsibility to challenge a profoundly unjust society.

The Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, Charlottenburg

There is a version of Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz in the museum that tells her story in a grand villa on the opposite side of the city in Charlottenburg. The Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum on Fasanenstraße brings together her etchings and drawings, her woodcuts and sculptures, as well as numerous objects and artifacts relating to her life. Despite being a long-time admirer of Kollwitz, I only recently visited the museum for the first time, and discovered a wonderful tribute to a remarkable artist; someone who devoted her life and work to counter inequality and the devastating impact of war, not least through her epic War cycle of 1921-23, a series of woodcuts that reflected her pacifism and which remain, with Picasso’s Guernica, one of the most powerful expressions of anti-war sentiment that I have ever seen.

Käthe Kollwitz was born in Königsburg (today Kaliningrad) in 1867, although it is in Berlin that she spent most of her life and where most traces of this extraordinary woman and artist remain. Beyond Kollwitzplatz and her museum on Fasanenstraße, it is still possible to visit some of the key locations of her life in the city even if many – such as the building that contained her apartment – were destroyed by the devastation of the Second World War. Her grave can be found at the Municipal Central Cemetery in Friedrichsfelde, long the preferred burial place for leading social democrats and labour movement leaders, in the east of Berlin. It is here that Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were buried, and following her death in Mortizburg near Dresden in 1945, Kollowitz was laid to rest in the family grave that had first been established in 1932.

Perhaps the best known and most visited Kollwitz-related place in the city is the Neue Wache, on Unter den Linden. There you can see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s Mother and Son; an incredibly powerful sculpture that was placed at the heart of the otherwise empty space in the aftermath of German reunification. It was the then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl who had the idea to create what was to be the central German memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship. If any single piece of German artwork could possibly carry this weight, it was Harald Haacke’s version of Kollwitz’s sculpture, although the decision would prove a controversial one. After all, as Neil MacGregor asks in his fantastic Germany: Memories of a Nation: ‘Can one mother holding her dead child stand for the suffering of a continent and a century?’.

For myself, and as powerful as the Neue Wache is, its is the smaller version of the sculpture that stands in the top floor of the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum on Fasanenstraße that has more impact. It looks as if you could hold it in your hands, and with it all that pain, suffering and loss. By the time I had reached the top floor, I had made my way through the exhibition, following the progression of Kollwitz’s work, starting with her early drawings and etchings which told the story of earlier conflicts such as the 19th century revolt of Silesian Weavers and the 16th century Peasant’s War; using history to help explain the present. From there it moved through to the harder lines of the inter-war woodcuts and the War cycle, and the sculptures she continued to work on until the end of her life.

The March of the Weavers, Käthe Kollwitz, 1897

If there is a moment where you can see Kollwitz’s work shift, it is following the death of her son Peter in the early months of the First World War, as the catastrophes of the past are now being well and truly visited on the present. But what is interesting about Kollwitz’s art both before and after this tragic event is that however dark and potentially depressing the work might be, there is always – to my mind at least – some sense of hope, if only in the fact that surely the power of this work will inspire people to meet the challenges Kollwitz sets us. And there is something else, something that is already there in the early work, when Kolltwitz was perhaps more an observer than someone for whom tragedy had struck, as she was after the death of her son.

To explore this, MacGregor quotes the German writer Daniel Kehlmann: ‘Before she had to react to actual catastrophes happening, she was already all about compassion and poor people being attacked and poor people suffering.’ Sometimes, whether in paintings or woodcuts, photographs or film, the viewer can get an uneasy sense of voyeurism when looking upon the suffering of others. But the compassion that is clear in Kollwitz’s work goes against that. She is not using these people, but she is trying to tell us their story. There was respect, always, at the heart of the work.

I left the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum onto the fancy streets that surround Ku-damm in the west end of Berlin feeling more affected by an artist’s work than I can remember for a long time. It was the compassion and anger, the sense of injustice and the dignity of Kollwitz’s subjects, despite their situations, that could be found in the work. We still need this from our artists today.

The Prisoners, Käthe Kollwitz, 1908

Words: Paul Scraton

Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, Fasanenstraße. 24, 10719 Berlin (website)
Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor is published by Penguin (London: 2016)
Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont is published by Picador (London: 2011)

2 thoughts on “The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

  1. Gary Costello

    What a fantastic read! I have passed this museum on a number of occasions and have, until now, never entered. This will change now!
    I have been an admirer of the work of Kollwitz for a while now and your post here has only made that admiration grow. Thanks.

  2. Tredynas Days

    Fascinating. I didn’t know about that museum, just the statue in the square, and what I read about KK online. Next time in Berlin I’ll make a point of going. Meantime I hope to make it to the exhibition in Birmingham this autumn.

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