TODAY IN BERLIN: KÄTHE KOLLWITZ – THE ARTIST AND HER DEAD CHILDREN
Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin artist whose works like those of no other reflect the horrors and the suffering of the working-class families, especially mothers and children, in the so called “Golden Twenties” in Berlin, was born on this day in 1867 in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) in East Prussia.
Kollwitz, nee Schmidt, was married to a Prenzlauer Berg physician, Karl Kollwitz, and the couple lived in Weißenburger Straße (today Kollwitzstraße) in what used to be known as Wörther Platz but was later renamed Kollwitzplatz. Karl Kollwitz was famous as Armen-Doktor, the doctor of the poor, treating thousands of patients with hardly any or no financial means to pay for the treatment. Both he and his wife witnessed the daily struggle and the daily suffering of too many of their neighbours.
Those encounters and the tragic events she was part of – indirectly as the “doctor´s wife” and neighbour as well as directly as a mother herself – had an immense influence on Kollwitz´s work as an artist. Her younger son, Peter, an 18-year-old whom she in 1914 together with her husband gave her permission to join the army, died in one of the very first big battles of the First World War. Later, the Second World War would take her grandson, too. The artist never forgave herself for allowing her child to enter the ranks of the Prussian army and, as a result, turned towards Socialism and Pacifism as political directions to follow.
As political as her works were, however, they were – and still are – first and foremost some of the most shocking and most deeply sad images of Berlin life between the wars. The unimaginable suffering of the families left behind by the men who died on the fronts of WWI, the terrifying plight of parents, especially mothers, and children during the darkest days of the economic crisis in the 1920s´ Germany are reflected with so much sensitivity, truth and honest anger that it is virtually impossible to look at them without experiencing an almost physical pain. Kollwitz´s drawings, lithographies but especially her sculptures show a world of exhausted, despaired, too early aged mothers, of children suffering hunger and deprivation; and of fathers who, unable to provide for their families, often took the final way out or died of exhaustion trying.
Put against the glitzy, mad, egocentric image of the Golden Twenties ´ Berlin, with its cabarets, cocaine and its eternal whiff of sexual mischief, the works of Kathe Kollwitz are like a balled fist that shutters the tower of champagne flutes. That same hand sweeps the shards of the table and in their place puts there “The Tower of Mothers”, one of Kollwitz´s most powerful sculptures (the other being her “Mother with The Dead Son” placed at the central spot in Berlin´s Neue Wache in boulevard Unter den Linden).
The five women it portrays, each in their own way trying to protect the children hidden between their bodies as if holding them inside a tent or a cave, are the essence of Kollwitz´s message: when men fight their wars, whatever happens, it is the mothers who will try to protect the weakest. Not because they can but because they cannot not try. Today, looking at countries like Syria, Berlin artist´s message lost nothing of its tragic truth.
Der Turm der Mütter, Käthe Kollwitz, 1938.
Käthe Kollwitz died only days before the end of the Second World War, on April 22, 1945 in Moritzburg where she spent the last year of her life. Next to numerous moving self-portraits, her face was immortalised in 1927 by another excellent German artist of the pre-war era, Ernst Barlach, in his famous sculpture Der Schwebende Engel (“The Floating Angel”) made for the Gothic cathedral in Güstrow, in the state of Mecklemburg-Vorpommern. The heavy bronze angel “floating” under the ceiling while hanging down held by heavy bronze chains was Barlach´s anti-war memorial about which he said: “For me time stood still during the war. You could not make it hold onto anything earthly. It was floating. […] The angel´s face became that of Käthe Kollwitz without my planning for that to happen. Had I wanted it to become this way, I would have most probably failed.”
To find out more about Käthe Kollwitz, please visit the Stadtmuseum Berlin exhibition “Stadt der Frauen” (City of Women) at Ephraim-Palais in Berlin-Mitte. The exhibition holds an enlarged replica of Kollwitz´s “Turm der Mütter”. Details here.
Self-Portrait, 1910 (image through Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne)
Mutter mit Toten Sohn, an enlarged replica of Kollwitz´s work made by Harald Haacke.
Death and A Woman, 1910.
Die Mütter by Käthe Kollwitz, 1921 (today at Boston´s Museum of Modern Art)