Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was the daughter of a well to do mason, and was born in East Prussia. Her father encouraged her to draw and when she was 14 years old she began art lessons. She attended The Berlin School of Art in 1884 and later went to study in Munich. After her marriage to Dr. Karl Kollwitz in 1891, the couple settled in Berlin living in one of the poorest sections of the city. It was here that Kollwitz developed her strong social conscious, which is so fiercely reflected in her work.
Unlike Modersohn-Becker’s robust and monumental depictions of motherhood, Käthe Kollwitz’s imagery is marked by poverty-stricken, sickly women who are barely able to care for or nourish their children. Kollwitz’s art resounds with compassion as she makes appeals on behalf of the working poor, the suffering and the sick. Her work serves as an indictment of the social conditions in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Her art features dark, oppressive subject matter depicting the revolts and uprisings of contemporary relevance. Images of death, war and injustice dominate her work. Kollwitz was influenced by Max Klinger and the realist writings of Zola and she worked with a variety of media including sculpture, and lithography.
It may be argued that her work was an expression of her tumultuous life. She came into contact with some of the cities most needy people and was exposed to great suffering due to the nature of her husband’s work. Her personal life was marred by hardship and heartache. She lost her son to World War I and her grandson to World War II and these losses contributed to her political sympathies.
Käthe Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy but because of her beliefs, and her art, she was expelled from the academy in 1933. Harassed by the Nazi regime, Kollwitz’s home was bombed in 1943. She was forbidden to exhibit, and her art was classified as “degenerate”. Despite these events, Kollwitz remained in Berlin unlike artists such as Max Beckman and George Grosz who fled the country.
Many of her works were destroyed in a Berlin air raid in 1943. Later that year, Kollwitz was evacuated to Dresden, where she died at age 78. Today she is regarded as one of the most influential German expressionists of the twentieth century.