Art as expression: Kathe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

Art can be a powerful way to communicate ideas, beliefs and feelings. Many artists use art to make eloquent statements about their political and social convictions by responding to events taking place around them. These artists often work with symbols, images and forms of representation that can be readily understood. In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, these artists often choose to work in media that can be easily reproduced, such as drawing and printmaking.

Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist who, through her prints, drawings and sculpture, was committed to expressing her empathy for the poor, her identification with working-class women, her admiration of their strength in facing ongoing hardships, and her outrage at the horrors of war. She made more than one hundred self-portraits over the course of her career, portraits that reveal her honest self-scrutiny, and the accumulated effects of her hardships and sorrows.

Early in her career, Kollwitz chose to work in graphics because she saw prints and drawings as the most direct and accessible means to convey her feelings and convictions. She later worked in sculpture as well. Kollwitz depicted the human figure in closely cropped, tightly arranged compositions that render her subjects larger than life. Her prints, drawings and sculpture convey her empathy for, and her identification with her subjects through her choice of images, dramatic compositions and her bold and emphatic style. In her drawings, etchings, lithographs and later woodcuts, Kollwitz developed a style of rendering the human figure in which she increasingly used the stark black-and-white contrast of her graphic media for its expressive effects.


Kollwitz’ Karl Liebknecht Memorial is a dramatic black-and-white woodcut depicting the mourners of the fallen leader of the post-World-War-I Spartacist movement. The image is inscribed “From the Living to the Dead,” a paraphrase of a revolutionary poem “From the Dead to the Living.” As a pacifist, Kollwitz could not support the Spartacist call for armed rebellion against the postwar Social Democratic government of Germany, and so, was not sure if it was morally right for her to make the memorial. Though she did not agree with Liebknecht politically, she was horrified at the German military’s murders of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, another Spartacist leader. At the request of Liebknecht’s family, Kollwitz created numerous drawings of Liebknecht and the workers taking leave of their hero. The shock and anguish of the mourners became her focus in this work.

To accentuate the emotional intensity of her subject, Kollwitz chose to make this memorial as a woodcut, a medium that was new to her at this time. She emphasized the stark contrast inherent to woodcuts with boldly hewn lines that depict only the essential elements of this scene. Her spare, angular portrayal of the figures that crowd the composition gives visual form to the immediacy of the subjects’ feeling. Her use of strong rhythmic verticals in rendering the bent figures of the mourners, and their gestures of sorrow suggest the weight of their loss. This is reinforced by her emphasis on the expressive faces and overly large, rough hands of these working people. As is characteristic of Kollwitz’ work, a woman and her child are central among the gathered mourners. The focus of the figures’ grief is the body of Liebknecht, rendered as a simplified horizontal form.

Kathe Kollwitz did not consider herself an Expressionist – the concerns of the German Expressionists were quite different from her own. Kollwitz’ work emerged from her personal response to the social conditions and events of her time. It was consistently grounded in her awareness of her particular historical circumstances and her need to communicate her impressions of these circumstances. While German Expressionists also used their art to express feelings about general concerns, their images are often based on individual responses to personal experiences. Nevertheless, the work of Kathe Kollwitz can be seen as expressionistic in the aspects of her style that she shared with these artists, particularly her bold drawing style, her emphasis on stark contrast, and the exaggeration of forms for emotional effect.

Key Concepts

* Many artists feel strongly about events taking place in the world around them, and use their art to express their feelings and beliefs.

* Artists whose work is based on a desire to communicate their views often use imagery and stylistic approaches that can be clearly understood by a wide audience. These artists often work in printmaking or other forms of popular media that are easily reproduced.

* The style of a work of art, and the way that the subject is portrayed can strengthen the communication of an artist’s meaning.

* Artists who work with images of the human figure often use simplification and exaggeration of features and proportions in order to express their feelings through the portrayal of their subject.


Kathe Schmidt Kollwitz’ life spanned Germany’s transition from the German Empire, to the Social Democratic Weimar Republic, to the Nazi dictatorship. She was born in 1867 to a middle-class family in Konigsberg, Prussia. Her grandfather was the leader of the Free Congregation, a religious community that emphasized ethical practices and a concern for justice. Kathe’s father took over as the group’s leader when she was nine years old. The beliefs of these free thinkers were in accord with the socialist tenets espoused by the Schmidt family. These values were fundamental in shaping Kathe’s lifelong concerns and commitments.

Kathe began to study art as a teenager at the Women’s Art Schools in Berlin and Munich as Germany’s art academies were not open to women. Impressed by the work of Max Klinger, she decided to develop her talents in drawing and printmaking. She later taught drawing and etching at the Women’s Art School in Berlin. Her family encouraged her study of art, and discouraged her from marriage, fearing that marriage would get in the way of her career.

In 1891, she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor who specialized in women’s health in a working-class clinic in Berlin. Kathe took as her subjects the women she came to know at her husband’s clinic, located in the same building where she and her husband lived and where she had her studio. From these women, many of whom became the models for her drawings and prints, Kathe learned of the difficulties faced by working-class women in Germany.

After Kollwitz’ sons were born during the 1980s, the theme of motherhood increasingly became a focus of her work. During these years, Kollwitz began to simplify her imagery, eliminating details and using dramatic compositions and bolder forms to convey the urgency of her convictions.

When World War I began in 1914, Kollwitz supported it, but when her son was killed during the first month, her shock and despair caused her to change her position. In response to what she came to understood as the horror of war, she became a pacifist. Many of her images from this time on express her anguish at the effects of war on women and children and the youth who are sacrificed.

Kollwitz began to sculpt before the war, but pursued this medium actively after 1919, when she was appointed a professor at the Prussian Art Academy, and given a studio that could accommodate large-scale work. Her first sculpture project was a memorial to her son which she had begun to conceptualize at the time of his death – a mourning mother and father carved in granite.

Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, they stripped Kollwitz of her privileges as an artist and forced her to resign from her teaching position. Her work was declared “degenerate” and removed from exhibitions. Although she was offered refuge from Nazi rule, she chose to stay in Berlin. She remained in her home until 1943, and continued to use her art to protest against war and fascism until her death in 1945.

Despite government disapproval of her work at the beginning and the end of her career, Kollwitz’ work was widely exhibited, and she received many commissions and awards for her work. She is now recognized as one of the foremost graphic artists of this century.

Suggested Activities


* Show students examples of work by Kollwitz and other graphic artists. Discuss ways that different printmaking media, such as lithography and woodcuts, are suited to different stylistic approaches, and how the visual characteristics of these materials and styles suggest different moods or feelings. Using drawing or print media appropriate to their abilities, have students use the graphic styles discussed in class to address subject that are meaningful to them. Discuss how students’ choices of materials and styles reinforce the meaning of their work.

* Show students a variety of approaches to self-portraiture by diverse artists and discuss ways that artists have chosen to portray themselves. Have students draw, print or paint self-portraits. Ask them to discuss how these images convey a sense of the person portrayed that goes beyond his or her appearance.


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