- Käthe Kollwitz and the Women of War: Femininity, Identity, and Art in Germany during World Wars I and IIOur PickBy Claire C. Whitner
- Käthe Kollwitz: Die Plastik. WerkverzeichnisBy Annette Seeler
- Käthe Kollwitz in DresdenBy Petra Kulhmann-Hodick, et al
- Prints and Drawings of Käthe KollwitzBy Carl Zigrosser
- The Diary and Letters of Käthe KollwitzBy Hans Kollwitz
- Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and ArtistBy Martha Kearns
- The Passion of a German Artist: Käthe KollwitzBy Klemens von Klemperer
Important Art by Käthe Kollwitz
Kollwitz's aesthetic response to Gerhart Hauptmann's play about the 1844 German weavers' rebellion resulted in the series The Weavers' Rebellion, an intimate reflection of the artist's valuation of and affection for the working classes. Biographer Martha Kearns notes that the series is unique for its depiction of working class people "initiat[ing], execut[ing], and suffer[ing] the fate of their own uprising" and for its presentation of women as active participants in a violent confrontation. Critically, departing from Hauptmann's play, Kollwitz began her series with Misery, a scene showing the death of a child from the deprivations of poverty, which situated her illustration of the weavers' rebellion as a direct reaction to a life cut short by low wages and inhumane living conditions.
Hopelessness and grief drive Misery's narrative. The print's focal point is the deceased child's bedside, with his mother, beset with sorrow, kneeling beside him, her head in her hands with despair. The child is small, almost skeletal, and bathed in an angelic, bright white light which lightens the dark, wretched room and illuminates the mother's arms. With this choice, Kollwitz illustrates the child's status as an innocent victim, a casualty in the oppressive workers' conditions which prevented survival. The unnaturally grim darkness of the interior, where the bright sunlight stops at the window and only the glow from the child creates any brightness, reveals a large loom and the child's father holding a sibling. The father's eyes are downcast, but the sibling looks directly at the loom, signifying the cause of the family's misery.
Upon starting the series, Kollwitz realized her lack of extensive etching training, and she noted that she "had so little technique that my first attempts [at the series] were failures." She then reverted to lithographic technique to make the first three prints and finished the remainder as etchings, which she perfected with a combination of drypoint, acquatint, tusche wash, and soft ground processes. This series represented a melding of mediums unconventional for a print series at the time. When it was first shown at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1898, it would have earned the gold medal prize, had it not been for Emperor Wilhelm II's declaration of the series as "gutter art." She would, however, win the gold medal for this series the following year.
Kollwitz was taken with the notion of female revolutionaries and was fascinated with the story of "Black Anna," the instigator of a 16th-century, widespread peasant rebellion. In preparatory drawings for The Peasants' War (Bauernkrieg) series, which illustrated the historic revolt, the artist even used her own likeness as a model for Anna. Outbreak, one of the original prints Kollwitz and the 5th plate conceived for the series, depicts Black Anna as a lone woman, inciting the peasants to defend themselves and their families.
It is, in many ways, a progressive reimagining of female agency in revolutionary times. Viewers are reminded of Eugène Delacroix's 1830 Liberty Leading the People in which the personification of liberty is a woman who leads men and boys of various social classes onwards towards freedom, stepping over the bodies of those who sacrificed themselves to the cause. Yet, Delacroix's woman is an idealized type who leads with her sexuality and maternity; her breasts are inexplicably bared and centralized in the composition, and her profile is of a classicized prettiness. In Outbreak, Kollwitz, in contrast, maintains the female peasant's agency. Black Anna's back is to the viewer, as the woman's focus is on the peasants making the charge, rather than on the need to display herself. She is dressed identifiably as a peasant, and she projects strength, solidity, and righteous anger through her frame and her raised, bent arms and clenched fists. Her body tilts, guiding the rebels onwards. Naturalism here is subverted to the emotional cadence of print, with frenetic lines and low, elongated, diagonally oriented bodies underscoring the rush, energy, and collective drive of the peasants in their uprising.
This work, upon submission to the Association for Historical Art, led to the Association commissioning Kollwitz to create an extended print series based on the Peasant War, and she subsequently added six additional etchings to create a total of seven prints on the subject.
Kollwitz dedicated herself to documenting and therefore bringing awareness to all manner of social ills and particularly to their consequences within the domestic sphere. In Unemployment, the artist depicts a distraught man in the lower left foreground, his body shadowed and his features sharply delineated with close, black lines and cross-hatching. We see his eyes widened and his brow furrowed in worry as he sits by the bedside of his wife and three sleeping children, contemplating his inability to provide for them. For this family, the distance between sleep and death in impoverishment is visibly slight. Kollwitz rendered the woman and her children bathed in an angelic light, their forms ill-defined but seemingly physically interconnected. The mother, between sleep and wakefulness, indicates her knowledge of their dire situation, as her face, in contrast to her body and those of her children, is darkly shadowed and her eyes hooded.
The artist also calls attention to the mother's hands cradling her child's head to illustrate the promise of eternal maternal protection that circumstances may not allow her to give. In here and in other images, Kollwitz's emphasis on the beauty of her subjects' hands can be traced to fond memories of her beloved maternal grandfather, the radical preacher Julius Rupp, who the artist recalled had "very beautiful" hands, and her own mother's similarly beautiful hands.