MOTHER AND THE WAR: KÄTHE KOLLWITZ´S STATUE AT BERLIN´S NEUE WACHE
Mutter mit dem Toten Sohn at the Neue Wache (photo by Klaus Lehnartz).
Mutter mit dem Toten Sohn (Mother with a dead Son), an enlarged replica of a statue made by Käthe Kollwitz after WWI, standing in the Neue Wache at Unter den Linden boulevard in the centre of Berlin.
You will find the placed at the centre of the hall inside the New Guard House, under a round opening in the roof, the oculus. It stands there day and night, with rain and snow falling upon it, like it did on many victims of human folly and cruelty.
When unveiled on November 4, 1993, the image of a mother embracing her dead child as if absorbing it back into her body was often wrongly interpreted as one of the Holy Mother, Mary, cradling the body of dead Jesus; a motif known as “Pietà”. It even became a source of official protests from the Jewish community: it was to symbolise victims of all wars and persecution. However, using a Pietà would have been not only outright insensitive but also excluding.
The thing is, Kollwitz never meant her work to have any religious meaning. Religion might have played some role in her life but not in her art. Her art was about realism, showing real pain experienced by real people, about reflecting the world around her as it was. Her “Mother with a dead Son” is a powerful symbol of the true meaning of war: war kills your children and through this, it makes mothers dead, too. The artist knew what she was talking about: she never forgave herself for allowing her young son to join the German army in WWI. He died only weeks later.
Interestingly, Kollwitz´s statue bears a strong resemblance to a work of her close friend and colleague, Ernst Barlach. His “Mutter Erde” (Mother Earth) from 1920 could be the same woman, the same mother, before her dead son was returned to her. Before she could do nothing but offer him the safest, and from the perspective of someone who witnessed endless misery and death perhaps the only safe place: the space inside her.
Barlach´s Mutter Erde (1920)
In 1926, when commissioned to make a war memorial for the cathedral in Güstrow in the north of Germany, Ernst Barlach, chose to give his work the shape of an angel hovering above the heads of the church-goers as if floating asleep through the air. His “Der Schwebender“ (The Hovering One), destroyed by the Nazis but re-created thanks to the moulds preserved in Berlin, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz.
When asked why he chose those particular features for his protecting angel, symbol of a human ability to live through a horror as if it had been a dream, he answered, “Her face simply happened. Had I chosen to make it hers, I would have failed.”
Der Schwebende by Ernst Barlach in the Güstrow Cathedral, 1927 (photo though Deutsche Fototek).
Had Käthe Kollwitz chosen to make her work a religious one, she would have made her Mutter mit dem Toten Sohn just one of many Pietàs around the world. But by giving the mother an every-woman´s face, by putting her into a sturdy, tired body of someone crushed by hard work and despair, she turned her into someone whose pain is almost palpable, hard to bear even for a person just looking at the scene, but who still furiously comforts and protects the body of her dead child.
Truly, it is hard to imagine that any other work of art could be a better, more vivid and more powerful symbol of the evils of war. Especially today, it feels like this image should be projected all around the world to remind those who seem to have forgotten about respect, understanding and empathy as means of fending off wars. Of preventing more mothers from having to cradle their dead children, no matter where in this world.