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The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Kathe Kollwitz

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Kathe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945)

1. Biography

“But some day a new ideal will arise and there will be an end to all wars…People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it” –Käthe Kollwitz

Born Käthe Ida Schmidt in 1867 in Konigsberg, Prussia(pre- German Empire), Käthe was born to parents who supported and encouraged her training in art. Käthe originally pursued training in painting, but while studying art in Munich at the Women’s School of Art from 1888-1889, and influenced by the German artist Max Klinger, she discovered printmaking and drawing as her true medium and passion.  An independent woman, intensely devoted to her art, she postponed marriage until 1891, when she married Karl Kollwitz to whom she had been engaged to for seven years.

Printmaking allowed Kollwitz to work in an expressive style, using a bold contrast of black and white to create works of social and political commentary which were cheap to produce in multiples, allowing Kollwitz’s work to reach more people.  The 1897 etching, Weberzug (The Weavers) was one of six prints created by Kollwitz after seeing the performance of the play, Die Weber (The Weavers), by Gerhart Hauptmann. The play told the story of peasant weavers from the Russian town of Silesia who revolted in 1844 because of their low wages and horrible living conditions. Hauptmann’s play was a direct visual and narrative source for the people, conditions and events depicted in her series of prints.

Kollwitz’s work often responds to social and political conditions in a personal way. The woodcut print  Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers),  one of six prints in the series The War (1923), was a response to the death of Kollwitz and Karl’s son, who died in WW I. Swept up in the German nationalist patriotism of 1914, their youngest son, Peter volunteered to join the German army. The only print in the series that shows soldiers is The Volunteers, where the figure of death leads a troop of young volunteer soldiers, the leading boy being Kollwitz’s son, Peter. This image displays the extremely personal loss and devastation of war that was experienced by Kollwitz the artist and Kollwitz the mother.

In 1919, Kollwitz was the first woman elected to The Prussian Academy of the Arts. In 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and after repeated threats by the Nazi Gestapo, Kollwitz was forced to resign from the Academy that same year. She would never exhibit her work again.  WWII would bring more tragedy and hardship to Kollwitz when and her grandson Peter was killed in battle in 1943. That same year Kollwitz would escape the bombing of Berlin just six months before her apartment was reduced to rubble by ally bombs, destroying a good portion of her work. Käthe Kollwitz passed away on April 22, 1945, dying just weeks before the end of WW II.

Bibliography

Käthe Kollwitz. The Volunteers (Die Freiwilligen) (plate 2) from War (Krieg). (1921-22, published 1923). (n.d.). MoMA.org. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from https://www.moma.org/s/ge/collection_ge/object/object_objid-69683.html 

Kearns, M. (1976). Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and artist.New York: The Feminist Press.

2. History

Despite a floundering economy and a psychologically devastated population after WW I, the Weimar Republic in Germany was a time of great innovation and experimentation in art, architecture, cinema and the sciences. Germany was an artistic breeding ground for the avant-garde art movements like Dadaism, Expressionism, Die Brücke, and the Bauhaus. “Avant-garde” was a military term used to describe the body of troops who advanced first, a fitting description for the artists who took risks and stretched the concepts of art in the early 20th century Europe and especially Germany.

The art world that Kollwitz worked in was impacted by two major expressionist movements. The German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) formed Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905 as an art movement meant to return art to imaginary to its origins. Bold contrasting colors and abstracted, simple forms dominate in the works of Kirchner and other Die Brücke artists. Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian painter who moved to Munich to study art because of research that was being done there on the effects of color and form on the human brain. In 1911, he formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Rider Rider), a group devoted to the power of color.

The Bauhaus was an art and design school formed by the Walter Gropius in 1919, where prominent artists like Paul Klee, Josef Albers, and Vasily Kandinsky were instructors. The Bauhaus received strong political opposition under the Weimer Republic, but was allowed to stay open until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Nazi party mounted a hostile campaign against modern art. Hitler despised the avant-garde and forced the closing of the Bauhaus in 1933 and soon after,  many of its instructors immigrated to the United States. In 1937, Nazi leadership mounted an exhibit of banned works called “The Degenerate Art” where works by modern artists, like Kirchner were hung with contemptuous labels, such as “an insult to German womanhood”. Hitler intended to erase all traces of modern art from Germany by inflaming public opinions against modern art.

Timeline: Germany and Modern Art in Europe

1887- Käthe Kollwitz creates series of prints based on the political play, Die Weber (The Weavers).

1889- Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch) paints famous Impressionist work The Starry Night.

1890 – Growing workers’ movement culminates in founding of Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

1907- Pablo Picasso (Spanish) paints Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a major example of Cubism.

1911- Vasily Kandinsky organizes Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).

1914-1918 – World War I

1918 -Germany defeated, signs armistice.

1919 – Treaty of Versailles: Germany loses colonies and land to neighbors, pays large-scale reparations.

Beginning of the Weimar Republic, based on a new constitution. Its early years are marked by high unemployment and rampant inflation.

Walter Gropius establishes the Bauhaus art and design school.

Käthe Kollwitz elected as first female instructor to The Prussian Academy of the Arts.

1923 – Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party, leads an abortive coup in a Munich beer hall.

Hyperinflation leads to economic collapse.

Käthe Kollwitz creates the print Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers), part of her series called The War as a response to WW I and the death of her son, Peter.

1924 – Hitler writes Mein Kampf – “My Struggle” – in prison.

1929 – Global depression, mass unemployment.

1933 – Hitler becomes chancellor. Weimar Republic gives way to a one-party state. Systematic persecution of Germany’s Jews escalates. Hitler proclaims the Third Reich in 1934.

The Bauhaus school is forced to close by Nazi party. Käthe Kollwitz is forced to leave position at The Prussian Academy of the Arts.

1935 -Germany begins to re-arm. Nuremberg Laws deprive German Jews of citizenship.

1936 -Berlin Olympics.

1937– Nazi party mounts exhibit “The Degenerate Art” in Munich, displaying 650 works; viewed by 2 million people in four months.

1938Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) sees orchestrated attacks on Jews and their property as well as synagogues.

Ernst Kirchner commits suicide, partially as a result of Nazi harassment.

1939-1945 – Invasion of Poland triggers World War II.

Millions of people of all ages, mostly Jews but also large numbers of Gypsies, Slavs and other races, the disabled and homosexuals, die in the Holocaust as the Nazis implement an extermination policy in the death camps of eastern Europe.

1943- Käthe Kollwitz flees Berlin during height of bombing campaign. Her home is destroyed by bombs.

1945 – Käthe Kollwitz dies April, 22.

German army defeated. Allies divide Germany into occupation zones.

Bibliography

Stokstad, M. (1995). Art History, Volume II. New York: Prentice Hall Inc.

Timeline: Germany. (2012, March 19). BBC. Retrieved from
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1053880.stm


3. Writing Exercises

Inquiry

Discuss while viewing The Volunteers (1923):

  • What do you notice first?
  • How is the work balanced (or not balanced)?
  • How does Kollwitz create a sense of movement?
  • Who are these figures? How do you know this?
  • Where are the figures marching to?
  • Kollwitz said that she made this work to come to terms with the years 1914-1918 in Germany. These are the dates of WWI. What does this work say about Germany during WWI? What in the work makes you say that?

Persuasive- Editorial

Imagine you are a citizen living in Berlin before the start of WWII. Write a letter to a newspaper, arguing against the war using Kollwitz’s image of The Volunteers as inspiration and evidence for the consequences of war. Persuade your readers so that they feel these consequences.

Narrative- What Makes a Story?

Discuss while viewing Weavers on the March (1897):

  • What is the mood? What do you see in the artwork that makes you say that?
  • What is the setting? Describe it.
  • Who are the characters? Describe their posture, clothing, social class, facial expression, gender, age, and race. How do multiple characters interact with one another?
  • What emotions do the characters display? What in the artwork makes you say this?
  • What is happening? What do you see that makes you say this?

Combine your analysis of the mood, setting, characters, and event to write a short story based on the work of art. Include dialogue between the characters from the work. Your story may extend beyond the frame (what you see) and included other characters as well. Use the Narrative Story Board worksheet to help plan your story.