Considered one of the foremost artists of social commentary of the 20th century, Kathe Kollwitz (formerly Kathe Schmidt) grew up in an open minded German middle-class family that encouraged her to pursue a career in art. Studying painting in Berlin and Munich, she eventually found her calling in graphic art, focusing on etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and drawing.
After marrying Karl Kollwitz, a doctor, in 1891, it was in his working-class patients in Berlin that Kathe discovered new subject matter. With empathy and insight, she began to depict in her work the day-to-day struggles of poor and working-class families. She directed her attention to portraying, in particular, the oppression of women and children, and discovered printmaking as a worthwhile medium for creating and distributing what would be regarded as controversial artwork.
Kollwitz was additionally influenced by such writers as Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Gerhart Hauptmann, whose play “The Weavers” had inspired her first series of prints. The series portrays the story of a group of Silesian weavers who staged an uprising during the 1840s to revolt against extremely low wages and poor working conditions.
In 1920 Kollwitz was elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, the first woman to be so honored. Membership entailed a regular income, a large studio, and a full professorship. When Hitler came to power in 1933, however, Kollwitz was forced to resign from her academy post. Her art was classified as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, who barred her from exhibiting her work. She was humiliated and marginalized by the dictatorial regime until her death, which came just two weeks before the end of World War II.
Ultimately living through both World War I and World War II and losing a son and later a grandson in each of these, Kollwitz’s art reflects the upheaval and turbulence of the first half of the 20th century. Devastated by the death of her son in 1914 in the first world war (that lead to a prolonged depression), Kollwitz worked for several years to create a memorial in his honor entitled The Grieving Parents. Her art was both personal and political.