The work of women artists is often stereotyped as being light, light-hearted, light-headed, lovely, warm, wistful, sometimes shallow, soft, silly, sweet, serene...the list of feminine adjectives is nearly endless. In 1867, there was born in the city of Konigsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) a girl who would grow into a woman whose art was none of these. Her name was Käthe Schmidt. She began to draw at the age of eleven, and even though she came from a large family, her father, a well-to-do mason, saw to it that she had training to match her budding talent. Trained first as an engraver, he also sent her to art school first in Munich, then to Berlin, to an all-girls school of art. It was there she was influenced by the work of Max Klinger and the writings of Emile Zola. Although she was also trained in painting and sculpture, Kathe's interests centred on etching and lithography. And though she's often mentioned with the German Expressionists of the era, her work never veered into formalistic paths, but instead centred on the great social themes of her time.
In 1891, Kathe Schmidt married Dr. Karl Kollwitz. They settled in one of the poorer parts of Berlin where he practised medicine. Her first success came in illustrating scenes from Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers. The series contained six prints (three etchings and three lithographs), involving images of the weaver's uprising of 1844. It was purchased by a local museum. Kathe Kollwitz was a committed socialist. Her husband's practice brought her into close, daily contact with the most severe victims of the German social neglect. Her work is dark, often violent, oppressive, tragic, and demoralising. It often seems obsessed with death. Only her deep empathy for the plight of the oppressed in any way marks her work as being that of a woman.
Kathe Kollwitz was the first woman ever elected to the Prussian Academy, also the Berlin Academy, both of which she was forced to resign from in 1933 as Hitler rose to power. For a time she taught at the Académie Julien in Paris. She also travelled throughout Italy before the war. The First World War was to bring the great tragedy that had earlier marked her work into her own home. Her son, Peter, was killed fighting in France. And after the war, the social and economic punishment inflicted upon Germany by the Allies made it seem not a "war to end all wars," but a war without end. Consequently, there is a strong, antiwar theme running through all of Kollwitz's work...a theme made all the more poignant by the loss of a grandson in the Second World War.
Unlike fellow German artists such as Max Beckman and George Grosz, who fled Germany during Hitler's war, Kollwitz, perhaps because of her age (she was well into her seventies when WW II began), remained in Germany. She was never forbidden to work or display, nor was she branded "degenerate" (though some of her work was removed from museums). But as the bombs fell and destruction spread everywhere, she was forced to flee for her life. Her home was bombed and destroyed in 1943. Having lost all worldly possessions, Kathe Kollwitz died in hiding, near Moritzberg, at a castle owned by Prince Heinrich, in April of 1945. The war ended for the rest of the world just four months later. Kollwitz's work was admired then and now for her tremendous tonal range, for her unceasing depiction of social injustice, and her devotion to various international antiwar and feminist movements; but most of all, for the fierce depth of feeling rising from the dark, hard, powerful, images of human suffering she rendered with such unerring sensitivity. All alone, she added a strident new element to the lexicon of female artistic qualities--social relevance.