How Käthe Kollwitz Invented a New Art of Protest

Two exhibitions, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Art Institute of Chicago, revisit the radical printmaker’s legacy in the social media age

In the days following the death of Qasem Soleimani, protestors scrambled to organize demonstrations against possible war between Iran and the United States. Posters, texts and graphics disseminated across social media. One image, attributed to the Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, depicted scores of angry agitators in concise black-and-white lines. ‘NO WAR IN IRAN!’ it read. Shortly thereafter, a friend shared a much older image on his Instagram upon which Satrapi’s drawing could have been based: a 1924 lithograph by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, first published in an issue of the magazine Socialist Worker Youth. In the print, a boy raises his hands, his mouth agape, as German words in tactile cursive slide over a stark, neutral background: ‘Nie wieder Krieg’ – ‘Never War Again.’ 

Marjane Satrapi, No War With Iran, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and fair use 

Born to a Socialist Prussian household in 1891 and immersed in the then-working-class culture of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, Kollwitz came to fame in her early career for her depictions of labour struggles, war and the costs borne by women and the family unit in particular. She’s a canonical figure in Germany: in Berlin alone, one can find a neighbourhood in her name (Kollwitzkiez), her work in a national war monument (the 1937-38 sculpture Mother with Dead Son at the Neue Wache), and a popular monographic museum (the Käthe Kollwitz Museum). Kollwitz was, among other things, the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Yet in Anglophone art historical circles, Kollwitz has enjoyed little sustained critical study. Two exhibitions, ‘Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics’ at the Getty Center until 29 March and ‘Käthe Kollwitz and the Art of Resistance,’ at the Art Institute of Chicago from 30 May to 15 September, stand as potential correctives. 

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child, 1903, etching on paper. Courtesy: © Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

This institutional revival befits the recent museum attention on women modernists, in addition to the contemporary vogue for figurative art. Yet there is something in Kollwitz’s art that feels especially poignant today. Her practice agitated for progressive social change, but it did so through a vernacular mode of address that exploited the emotional impact of figuration. Although Kollwitz worked notably in drawing and sculpture, prints were her signature medium; she exploited its inherent capacity for reproduction and distribution, especially through posters, magazines and newspaper illustrations. For example, an early major portfolio, Peasants’ War (ca. 1908), narrates the titular sixteenth-century uprising by German peasants and farmers against exploitative nobles. Charge (1902-03), the fifth print in the grouping, practically tilts on its side from the force of the peasants’ leftwards rush. In Kollwitz’s visceral intaglio, they become early modern Furies, a proto-proletariat rushing into history. 

Käthe Kollwitz, The Call of Death, 1934-35. Courtesy: © The Art Institute Chicago and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Yet if other Expressionists in Germany luxuriated in the inherent force of mark-making, Kollwitz knew that form needed to operate in concert with narration. By the final prints of Peasants’ War, the uprising has been quelled, its agents imprisoned. The series bears sober witness to failed revolution, while also outlining some steps for insurrection. In Kollwitz’s pre-war works, a certain didacticism always remains at play.

After World War I, Kollwitz largely transitioned away from lithography and etching for an expressive, almost surreal application of the woodcut. Early Expressionists associated with the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups had revived the woodcut as an emotionally charged, primitivist medium, and Kollwitz updated it for the historical crises of the Weimar Republic. In Unemployed, from the portfolio Proletariat (1924-25), a family stares out in stunned, almost catatonic desperation. The lines in the mother’s face signify grief or defeat, but they also abstract her, rendering the miseries of capitalism with almost existential condemnation. Yet in the same image, Kollwitz depicts the family’s young daughter with full-on sentiment. The girl clutches dishware made meaningless without food, and her eyes bulge out, while her other facial details are nearly effaced by an inky residue. Rather than indulge in caricature here, like her contemporaries Otto Dix or George Grosz, Kollwitz leaves a whole quarter of the image sheer black, inked but not incised – a remarkably simultaneous play of explicitness and restraint. 

Käthe Kollwitz, Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children!, 1920, crayon transfer lithograph on paper. Courtesy: © Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Kollwitz’s gift for sentiment is at its strongest and most nuanced in her depictions of death and mourning. In Child Mortality from Proletariat, rigid woodcut lines gouge the mother’s face with grief. Death can be brutal and unsparing: in Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children! (1920), his whip lands harshly on starving women and children. In The Volunteers (1923), Death leads a procession of German soldiers to their end; their emotions range from resignation to rapture. With these wartime images, Kollwitz was no documentarian, but rather a memoirist: her son Peter was killed in combat, and her grandson named after Peter would later die in World War II.  

Resurgent interest in Kollwitz may suggest a desire to correct the art historical canon, promote  politically engaged artistic practices and celebrate modernist figuration. Her work asks what a good faith embrace of direct, communicative emotion might look like in painting and printmaking today. 

Main image: Käthe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (detail), 1920, woodcut on Japanese paper. Courtesy: © Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Joseph Henry lives in Berlin, where he is writing a dissertation on German Expressionism.