A Century Later, Käthe Kollwitz’s Phantoms of War Go Unheeded

A retrospective at MoMA, New York, highlights the modernity of the late artist’s political works

BY Grace Byron in Exhibition Reviews | 17 MAY 24

Despair should not be this beautiful. A new survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s dense career at MoMA charts the German artist’s work through the lenses of motherhood, grief, poverty and the rise of Nazism. Born in 1867, Kollwitz rarely used colour, finding such varied hues too unserious for the depth of feeling she wanted to evoke. Empathy and action were her primary shades. That might make her work sound dour, but in fact it’s mesmerizing. Her skills with basic techniques are unmatched – etching, lines, highlights and shadow all come alive in her grotesque woodblock scenes and drawings of poverty, violence and debauchery. The lucid detail with which she depicts ruin is astonishing. Anyone fearing a dull exhibition that merely reifies an old saint has nothing to worry about; MoMA’s curation establishes a thoughtful reintroduction to the lionized artist. 

MoMA gallery view
‘Käthe Kollwitz’, exhibition view. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Jonathan Dorado

Kollwitz’s work was considered too domestic, sentimental even, by the more existentialist German Expressionists: mothers and children, poverty and hunger. Social issues. These were not the topics that would have won an artist, especially a woman, any awards at the time. Even so, her husband and mentors encouraged her to keep producing, and she was able to compose multiple narrative print series that cemented her legacy. Many of these focus on historical events as allegories for contemporary nightmares. She would have liked for her art to dissuade the masses away from war and fend off the rise of fascism, hoping a united left would quash Hitler’s encroaching power – warnings you can see in works like Never Again War (1924), Death Seizes the Children (1934) and The Mothers (1923). Instead her art was deemed degenerate and removed from collections by the Nazis in 1936. 

The Mothers
Käthe Kollwitz Mütter (The Mothers), 1918, line etching, sandpaper, needle bundle and soft ground with the imprint of laid paper overworked with black ink, opaque white, charcoal and pencil, 25 × 32 cm. Courtesy: Collection Ute Kahl, Cologne: photography; Fuis Photographie 

The primal image of grief permeates her prints and sculptures. Masses of women huddle together like pulsating amoeba, forming a protective blanket against the nihilistic world that Kollwitz so often depicted as shadowy negative space. During her childhood, as meningitis took the last breaths of her one-year-old brother, Kollwitz erected an altar to Venus instead of God. It vexed her that perhaps if she would have prayed to a different deity things might have turned out differently. Personal losses dogged her entire life. The MoMA catalogue notes her work ‘entwines personal melancholy with public mourning.’ Kollwitz was able to transform these private phantoms into art that could facilitate public catharsis. 

Nie Wieder Krieg, Käthe Kollwitz
Käthe Kollwitz, Nie wieder Krieg! (Never Again War!), 1924, crayon and brush lithograph. 94 × 69 cm. Courtesy: Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin/Association of Friends of Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin

Those coming for a history lesson will certainly learn about the plight of the labouring classes, but the bigger surprise is how strikingly visceral her images remain to the contemporary viewer. The lesson of suffering continues as we see horrific images coming out of Gaza and corresponding police brutality and rising nationalism across the globe. The modernity of Kollwitz’s political concerns is frightening. Or perhaps, decades later, it is the extent to which these concerns remain unchanged: carnage, revolution and brutality still abound. ‘I want to have an effect in this time, when people are so confused and in need of help,’ she once remarked. Her works often appeared in political magazines and were used as posters, such as Never Again War (1924). The evocative and highly intricate ‘A Weaver’s Revolt’ (1893–97) series took inspiration from the 1844 worker’s uprising in Silesia, a region in modern-day Poland. The muscular silhouettes and contrasting textures exhibit her wide-ranging technical skill. 

The Parents
Käthe Kollwitz, Die Eltern (The Parents), from the ‘Krieg’ series, 1921–22, 47 × 65 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Robert Gerhardt 

Kollwitz followed up this series with an even more graphic depiction of violence, allowing her technique to further flourish. Raped (1907), part of the ‘Peasant’s War’ series (1902–08), is a florid, mutilated depiction of a woman torn asunder in a flowering field. One of her last series, ‘War’ (1918–23), was made through crisp black and white woodblock reliefs. These pieces have become the primary symbol associated with her work, though this comprehensive exhibition does a good job of laying out her process alongside the final product. After all, Kollwitz was a perfectionist. Sketches, ideas, proofs and studies litter the gallery walls. War was personal. The loss of Kollwitz’s eighteen-year-old son in World War I triggered an immense wave of creativity and the few sculptures she made portray women huddling around each other, broken by sorrow; MoMA mentions the twin statues, Grieving Parents (1927–34), which currently stand in the Vladslo German war cemetery in Belgium. Originally created as a tribute to her son, the works now represent a powerful symbol for the loss of parents everywhere. 

Käthe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait
Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis en face (Self-Portrait en Face), c.1904, lithograph, 44 × 34 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York and Neue Galerie New York; photograph: Robert Gerhardt 

Perhaps surprisingly, Kollwitz’s self-portraits are the most poignant works on display. The exhibition is book-ended by the artist’s face etched in shades of black and white. In the beginning her face seems pale, ghostly yet seductive, still ready for life. By the end her face is tired and weathered. Lamentation (1938–41) is a bronze sculpture depicting her aged face with a hand placed in front of her mouth and eyes as if to shield herself from the world. Finally, near the exit, two tiny self-portraits drawn with dull shading and weary eyes leave the viewer with a parting blow: resistance is a Herculean task, one that doesn’t go unpunished. Yet Kollwitz shows us the moral imperative of resisting anyway.

The Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, is on view until 20 July

Another major exhibition on the artist, ‘Kollwitz’ at Städel Musem, Frankfurt, is on view until 9 June 

Grace Byron is a writer from the Midwest based in Queens, New York.