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Käthe Kollwitz: Don't Fear the Reaper

Whetting the Scythe from The Peasants' Revolt, 1905
Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)
Etching on paper; 21 1/2 x 18 in.
Gift of Mr. Howard Graham
 Käthe Kollwitz, 1919
Fascination with the moribund can come from any number of circumstances. For Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1942) it stemmed from a lifetime of tragedy, enshrouding her like a thick fog. Along with a whole generation of Germans who lived through the first world war and the precipitous inflation of its wake, however, she was defined by her ability to endure. For Kollwitz, this meant turning her bitter suffering into activism though art. The resulting body of work, which we survey alongside Whetting the Scythe, has been described as both a silent poem and a banner for the downtrodden and war-ravaged to rally behind. Her subjects, like her, are the damned. Death is a recurring character. Hope exists in a space outside her work, in the visceral reaction of the viewer: which is that we cannot let the tragedies Kollwitz suffered through happen again.
Into the Void
Woe existed at the onset of Kollwitz’ art. Born in Prussia in 1867, the proclivity perhaps came from the death of her infant brother Benjamin. Given liberal opportunities by her parents, Käthe Schmidt began her artistic career in the 1880s studying painting and later her preferred medium of printmaking with a number of Germany’s most famous artist. In 1891, she married Dr. Karl Kollwitz who worked hands-on treating the urban poor, often free of charge. It was in this setting that Käthe Kollwitz became personally acquainted with their suffering. Two of her most important cycles were created during this time and circuitously critique the squalid conditions in which her husband’s patients lived: The Weavers’ Revolt (1893-1897) and The Peasants’ Revolt (1902-1908). Both sets show the frustration and subjugation of the German working class resulting in historical uprisings. The second plate and breaking point of the latter of these series, Raped, is gut-wrenching. The casual viciousness of this second plate contextualizes the 3rd print of the series, Whetting the Scythe.
Raped from The Peasants' Revolt, 1907
Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)
Layering Darkness
The 3rd state of Whetting the Scythe, 1905
Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)
from the collection of the British Museum

Whetting the Scytheis dark, desperately so, and it is not a unique example of Kollwitz’ works. A lot about her process can be learned by comparing this print, which is in its 8thand final state, to an earlier version of the same print in its 3rdstate. In addition to some important differences like the positioning of the woman’s right arm, we immediately notice how much lighter the earlier print is. This is partly because there are only three different layers of tone. With each state the plate darkens, and the distinct three layers of the 3rd state have blended together by the 8th into the lifelike portraits which only Kollwitz’ most exhaustingly accomplished plates achieved. The final result is that we can we can just barely make out the figure of a weary-eyed woman sharpening a scythe against candlelight or some other violently contrasting light source. Contrary to the tendency to depict revolts as frenzied, we see here sadness and reluctance in this woman as she prepares for the charge. From her stance, she appears to rest heavily on her implement of revolution. Despite her tonal obscurity, Kollwitz was often hailed for her visual clarity. At a time when many of Germany’s artists were finding solace in expressionism and abstraction, Kollwitz instead often used naturalistic representations. As we can see in Whetting the Scythe, her works did not need to be affected by stylization to convey their meaning. Her subjects already spoke volumes.
The Pity
Kollwitz’ adult life held two personal tragedies so parallel in structure that it is difficult imagining them not being the result of some governance organized against her. In 1914 her second son Peter enlisted to fight in Belgium and died shortly after. Almost three decades later her eldest grandson Peter died fighting in Russia. Kollwitz had always been an advocate for the oppressed, by the end of the Great War she was an active pacifist, combatting pro-war propaganda with depictions of the aftermath. Mothers holding dead children in their arms in the style of Michelangelo’s La Pietà became a theme for both her prints and sculpture. Her best-known work is a sculpture by this same name. Enlarged in 1993 for Berlin’s Neue Wache, a memorial for victims of war, a nameless woman clutches her lifeless son. Located directly under the memorial’s oculus, the bronze is subjected to all the same elements the war-displaced Germans suffered. Evoking thoughts about the cost of war was the weapon Kollwitz used to battle tragedy. The terror of seeing the same mistakes unfold once more with World War II ended up being too great for her. In 1945 she wrote, “War accompanies me to the end,” and passed away two weeks before Germany’s surrender.
La Pietà, 1993
Harald Haacke (German, 1924-2004) after the original by Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945)
Photograph by Christopher Lancaster, CC BY-SA 2.0
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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