Art as Expression: Kathe Kollwitz
Herzog, Melanie, School Arts
Art can be a powerful way to communicate ideas, beliefs and feelings. Many artists use art to make eloquent statements about their political and social convictions by responding to events taking place around them. These artists often work with symbols, images and forms of representation that can be readily understood. In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, these artists often choose to work in media that can be easily reproduced, such as drawing and printmaking.
Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist who, through her prints, drawings and sculpture, was committed to expressing her empathy for the poor, her identification with working-class women, her admiration of their strength in facing ongoing hardships, and her outrage at the horrors of war. She made more than one hundred self-portraits over the course of her career, portraits that reveal her honest self-scrutiny, and the accumulated effects of her hardships and sorrows.
Early in her career, Kollwitz chose to work in graphics because she saw prints and drawings as the most direct and accessible means to convey her feelings and convictions. She later worked in sculpture as well. Kollwitz depicted the human figure in closely cropped, tightly arranged compositions that render her subjects larger than life. Her prints, drawings and sculpture convey her empathy for, and her identification with her subjects through her choice of images, dramatic compositions and her bold and emphatic style. In her drawings, etchings, lithographs and later woodcuts, Kollwitz developed a style of rendering the human figure in which she increasingly used the stark black-and-white contrast of her graphic media for its expressive effects.
Kollwitz' Karl Liebknecht Memorial is a dramatic black-and-white woodcut depicting the mourners of the fallen leader of the post-World-War-I Spartacist movement. The image is inscribed "From the Living to the Dead," a paraphrase of a revolutionary poem "From the Dead to the Living." As a pacifist, Kollwitz could not support the Spartacist call for armed rebellion against the postwar Social Democratic government of Germany, and so, was not sure if it was morally right for her to make the memorial. Though she did not agree with Liebknecht politically, she was horrified at the German military's murders of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, another Spartacist leader. At the request of Liebknecht's family, Kollwitz created numerous drawings of Liebknecht and the workers taking leave of their hero. The shock and anguish of the mourners became her focus in this work.
To accentuate the emotional intensity of her subject, Kollwitz chose to make this memorial as a woodcut, a medium that was new to her at this time. She emphasized the stark contrast inherent to woodcuts with boldly hewn lines that depict only the essential elements of this scene. Her spare, angular portrayal of the figures that crowd the composition gives visual form to the immediacy of the subjects' feeling. Her use of strong rhythmic verticals in rendering the bent figures of the mourners, and their gestures of sorrow suggest the weight of their loss. This is reinforced by her emphasis on the expressive faces and overly large, rough hands of these working people. As is characteristic of Kollwitz' work, a woman and her child are central among the gathered mourners. The focus of the figures' grief is the body of Liebknecht, rendered as a simplified horizontal form.
Kathe Kollwitz did not consider herself an Expressionist - the concerns of the German Expressionists were quite different from her own. Kollwitz' work emerged from her personal response to the social conditions and events of her time. It was consistently grounded in her awareness of her particular historical circumstances and her need to communicate her impressions of these circumstances. While German Expressionists also used their art to express feelings about general concerns, their images are often based on individual responses to personal experiences. …