May 20, 2011

Käthe Kollwitz, Superprintmaker

        Speaking of making the world a better place, Käthe Kollwitz was an artist who tried to do just that…  And unfortunately, her world was in need of an awful lot of bettering.  Born in Germany in 1867, one of Kollwitz's sons was killed in World War I and a grandson was killed in World War II.  Her husband was a doctor who worked with the poor, providing her with a constant view of the suffering caused by social injustice, as well as a respect for the beauty and bravery of these hard-working people.  In 1920 she became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, but she
was forced to resign by the Nazis when they came to power.  She died in 1945 just before the end of World War II.


        Kollwitz's radical father encouraged his daughter's drawing talent and arranged for her to have art lessons.  When she went to an art school for women in Berlin she decided that painting was not her strength, and began doing etchings and other printmaking techniques.  A little later, looking for more strength and power in her images, she also took up woodcuts.  Her prints were widely acclaimed, and her international fame and popularity were such that although the Nazis threatened her, they did not arrest her.
        Although so much of her work focusses on tragic themes, Kollwitz's art is not unrelieved doom and gloom.  Here is a lovely one showing Elizabeth and Mary from the gospel of Luke, two pregnant woman greeting each other and sharing their profound awe and joy.  (Of course, both these mothers lost their sons, a theme Kollwitz knew all too well.)
        Kollwitz also made self-portraits throughout her life, so that we can see her in different moods and as she ages.  Sometimes she looks beautiful, sometimes bleak.  I particularly like this one, done in 1924 when she was around 57.

        Although Kollwitz suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had so much cause for despair in the world she saw around her, she never stopped trying to use her art to wake people up to the tragedies of injustice and cruelty.



[Pictures: Woman in the Lap of Death, woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, 1921;
Hunger, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1925;
Mary and Elisabeth, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1928;
Self-Portrait, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1924.]

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