Arts and Entertainment

The Balance of Grief and Motherhood

A comprehensive review of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Maegan Diep

The shuffling of feet and hushed murmurs complement the exhibition’s navy blue walls and pale lighting, setting visitors back to a time of war, scarcity, and mortality. Recently opened at the Museum of Modern Art, Käthe Kollwitz features an extensive collection of German progressive artist Käthe Kollwitz’s works, which reflect themes of grief, love, and motherhood during the early half of the twentieth century. The exhibition brings viewers right to the potent scene of Germany during the First and Second World Wars through prints, lithographs, sculptures, and other mediums—encapsulating Kollwitz’s lens as a mother and a woman during a time of male dominance in politics and the art industry. 

Kollwitz was born in 1867 in Königsberg, Prussia to a progressive and supportive family. Kollwitz pursued art by attending women’s art schools in Berlin and Munich, and married physician Karl Kollwitz at age 24. Kollwitz had two sons with Karl: Hans and Peter. Though unconventional during her time, Kollwitz successfully balanced her responsibility as a mother with her career as an artist, incorporating motifs inspired by motherhood in her work. Kollwitz initially studied to be a painter, but resorted to mediums of printmaking and drawing, seeing it as a more effective way to convey her raw and immediate criticisms of social inequalities, such as class disparity. 

Amongst Kollwitz’s earlier pieces is her first print portfolio, A Weavers’ Revolt (1893-1897), which comprises six prints depicting the proletariat and their plights of grief and labor. The fourth plate, March of the Weavers (1897), illustrates a solemn parade of workers. They don simplistic clothing; some wear grim expressions, while others hang their mouths open in outrage and fury. Many carry weapons, such as scythes and axes. Their postures are stooped, and one woman in the foreground can be seen carrying her sleeping child. Though the people are stone-faced, they are all united in their march forward against exploitation. The prints were inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play, The Weavers (1892), which depicted the rebellion of Silesian workers in 1844. Though not an illustration of the play itself, Kollwitz’s piece aimed to reiterate the persistent yet underrepresented struggle of the working class brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Presented at a state-sponsored exhibition, A Weavers’ Revolt was nominated for the gold medal. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II rejected Kollwitz’s bid for the prize, disapproving of her success because of her gender. 

Within the next decade, Woman with Dead Child (1903) was produced. The work is an etching using black chalk and graphite with subtle lines of white and orange chalk to accentuate its subjects’ features. The etching depicts a naked mother desperately cradling her child’s corpse, whose limp head is tilted back. The depiction of the mother’s body is primitive: the lines that permeate her body are intense and rugged, and she sits on the floor naked with her legs roughly crossed, one lifted to support her child’s head. Her upper body crouches over the child, with one of her hands clasping onto his shoulder. While her body is in obvious despair and anguish, her embrace is still gentle and motherly, as the muscles in contact with her child are enclosing and protective. Her face resembles that of a skeleton; intense wrinkles surround her forehead, and the space around her eyes is dark. Her face is saturated with tumult etched-in streaks, making it difficult to identify the mother’s facial features, which wholly draws attention to the physically intimate embrace. Many of Kollwitz’s works lack specific characterization and distinction in subject matter, which allows these pieces to be universally understood and valued. At the time, most working-class children were not expected to live past the age of five due to malnutrition. Kollwitz’s intention in this painting was to portray the feelings of pain and grief that many German mothers suffered in private as a result of their children’s early deaths. Kollwitz utilized herself and Peter as models for this composition, later recalling her process of drawing this piece in front of a mirror. 

Women with a Dead Child embodies Kollwitz’s maternal gaze, ever-present throughout the exhibit. The print series War (1923) contains seven dark pieces, powerfully depicting the tragedies and emotions that occurred during World War I. Plate six of this series, entitled The Mothers (1921-1922), utilizes black ink to portray a group of mothers huddled together. The mothers hug each other tight in a circular orientation, with only parts of the faces distinguishable among the large black cluster. All of the faces are characterized by dark strokes and shading of distress on their foreheads. Two children’s faces are shown poking out of their mothers’ embrace. The women’s hands dominate the piece, wrapping and crossing on top of the others to keep everybody sealed within a mountain of support. 

After World War I, Kollwitz continued to pay homage to war losses and tragedies, having experienced in 1914 the death of her son, Peter, who was serving in the war. This interwar period introduced the democratic Weimar Republic to Germany, helping Kollwitz gain recognition. In 1919, she became the first woman professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Her growth in prominence allowed her to bring more exposure to her posters and pieces that depicted anti-war sentiments. Kollwitz warned people about the potential danger of the Nazi party, which eventually led to her forceful resignation from her position at the academy when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. Despite receiving threats from the Nazi secret police, Kollwitz continued making art that depicted resistance and solidarity among women against war. 

Kollwitz evacuated from Berlin in 1943; subsequently, her house was bombed, destroying many of her pieces. However, one of her pieces from the World War II period survived—The Lamentation (1941-1942). This small sculpture is made of plaster and painted silver, and is a self-portrait of Kollwitz, depicting her face and hands. Half of Kollwitz’s face is hidden behind her two hands, with one vertically covering her eye and the other horizontally covering her mouth, creating a frame around her face. Kollwitz’s face is in distress and mourning, with her only visible eye closed. It seems as if the subject is silencing herself, despite her despair. The piece was made in memory of her friend, Ernst Barlach, who died after facing Nazi persecution. Knowing Kollwitz’s inability to vocalize such issues under a fascist regime, this sculpture depicts her silenced pain under Nazi threats and censorship. 

Kollwitz died just 16 days before the end of World War II. By the end of her life, her works depicted her exhaustion and maintained her anti-war stance. Despite her challenging career, Kollwitz left an incredible lasting legacy, from extending the presence of women in the largely male-dominated art industry, to utilizing her platform to bring awareness to unspeakable social injustices. Her pieces of work are simultaneously specific to her experiences and evocative of universal feelings of pain and grief.