Käthe Kollwitz: an art of profound compassion

In December 2017, I first visited the British Museum/Ikon Exhibition of an excellent selection of the works of the German Expressionist artist, Käthe Kollwitz, at the Young Gallery in Salisbury. I was deeply moved and have returned, frequently.

Portraits of women, for me, take pride-of-place. “Self-portrait: en face” (1904) shows a proud woman with handsome, broad features; her eyes, lips and chin are even and level, suggesting a person of high integrity. The face is serious and calm; yet a smile is easily imagined. The woman, Käthe Kollwitz, is here, completely. This is an image which will always stay with me.

There are several other self-portraits. “Self-portrait”, 1924, in left-profile, is equally alluring. Here is an older woman. The gaze of those familiar, shrewd eyes is turned, unwavering, towards the viewer. The artist has grown in beauty and in profundity.

The other portraits are important. They are all of women, ordinary women. These are not idealised faces, but the faces of mature women who know about life. They bear the same strong features as the artist herself: the “Working Woman with Earring” (1910) is proud, determined; the “Working Woman with Blue Shawl” (1903) is portrayed in a moment of quiet thought. Their humanity is paramount.

Another older woman appears in “Half-figure of a Woman with Crossed Arms” (1905). She is, maybe, in her fifties or sixties, younger even if life has been hard for her. We are used today to a cult of youth and sexuality. This woman is simply beautiful. Her left shoulder is draped. The other is bare. She also appears to be deep in thought.

The smiling “Mother with Child on her Arm” (1910) is unforgettable. This is no madonna-with-child. This woman’s sanctity is that of an entirely human mother. (Is it possible that the blue shawl of the earlier female portrait may be a pointed secular reference to the madonna’s traditional blue robe?)

In this life-enhancing exhibition, please make the acquaintance of the “Woman with Crossed Hands” (1898) in her small portrait. She appears anxious. She is a “mouse”! But she takes a worthy place with her sisters. The soft-toned “Working Woman in Profile Facing Left” (1903) is haunting; and the anatomical study of every muscle and bone on the back of the “Female Nude on Green Cloth” (1903) inspires deep respect. The choice by Käthe Kollwitz of the back of her model as her subject is maybe worth pondering ,as something deeply appropriate.

Käthe Kollwitz’ art appears, judging by this wonderful exhibition, to belong to women. She married, lost a son and mourned his  loss, which deeply influenced her art. But women are at the forefront of most of these pictures. It is “Red Anna” who, arms raised, urges the wild-eyed men into battle in “Attack” (1902: the “Peasants’ War” cycle); in “Need” (1893-7) and “Young Couple” (1904 )  the husbands are shadowy, background figures: the wife in the foreground of each scene carries the shared despair.

This is an art of profound compassion which strongly suggests the conviction that humanity persists in the face of unspeakable war. The “Peasants’ War” and Weavers’ Revolt” cycles adumbrate the cataclysm of the Great War which Käthe Kollwitz was to live through; and Hitler’s war when her works were proscribed.

We are not often shown war in the way of this artist. There are taboos which generally conceal the most extreme horrors. Our own iconic exceptions prove the rule: a terrified little girl in Vietnam flees naked and screaming along a high road in a war zone; a Syrian child lies drowned on a beach. Our media have allowed us these few photographic images.

Käthe Kollwitz shows us a mother searching by night for the body of her son (“Battlefield”1907) ; prisoners stand, herded, awaiting execution (The Prisoners” 1908) – we remember the massacres of Bosnia – .

The three versions of “Woman with Dead Child” (1903) are numbing and difficult to bear. The child,a young man, a son, is stark and cold and dead .The mother who holds him in inexpressible grief has, in her own body, taken on the very tone and texture  of her son’s death. She sits cross-legged as she cradles his body: we see her bare arms and legs and feet. They are magnified by the foreshortened perspective. Her bones are huge beneath her pallid flesh. The artist has actualised death.

There is another terrifying image. “Vergewaltigt” (1907-8) is the German title, which seems to do better justice to the subject than the curt English “Raped”. When, ever, have we been presented with such an image? A woman, covered apart from her legs and feet (foreshortened in  prominent perspective towards us as in the previous picture) lies in a garden of burgeoning herbs and flowers. Her head is unnaturally twisted to one side. A child peeps over the garden fence. Label this Expressionism, or Naturalism– Käthe Kollwitz has again brought us face-to-face with an unpalatable reality of war–.

This artist faces war and death directly, and with a purpose. She reminds us of our common humanity and at the same time of the struggle for social justice. Including revolution: a woman rests her arm for a moment on her weapon, a scythe (“Woman with Scythe” 1904) ; a seated figure (a woman?) receives encouragement from another who stands behind her, one hand on her shoulder and the other also gripping a scythe ( “Inspiration 1904-5); the rebels of “Arming in a Vault” (1902-7) swarm up, and out… .

Käthe Kollwitz gives us life and death, the two great questions. In a world where war and violence are so often driven by men, she puts before us the women and the mothers who possess the love which can lead us towards a compassionate world.

I leave you with the small, stark woodcut image of “Das Volk” (“The People” 1922). Food for thought.


Nick Sherwood (January 2018).