The art of protest

Last Updated 14 October 2017, 16:43 IST

This year marks the 150th anniversary of birth of Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), whose life and work have inspired generations of artists. Several historians feel that she was perhaps the foremost artist of social protest in the 20th century. They explain how she relentlessly followed a universal humanist visual language, and how her images offered an eloquent and often searing account of the times she lived in.

“A sense of belonging to what-has-been and to the yet-to-come is what distinguishes man from other animals,” wrote eminent art critic John Berger. “To face History is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away. To decide to engage oneself in History requires, even when the decision is a desperate one, hope. Just as History was indifferent, Kollwitiz was caring. Yet her horizon was no narrower.”

Christian Weikop, Fellow in the History of Art Department, College of Art, University of Edinburgh, explains in one of his essays: “More than any other artist Kollwitz became committed to artistically representing the oppression of workers, both the rural and urban poor, and their rebellions against such oppression… She did not represent the German peasant in some idealised rural idyll for she was always critical of the kind of conservative bourgeois values that sentimentalised the German people… She saw the peasant as a heroic revolutionary, an agent of social change, although one equally subject to violent subjugation.”

Kollwitz’s art persistently embraced themes such as poverty, suffering, hunger, loss, death and bereavement. It manifested in a variety of mediums including drawings, sculptures and expressionistic woodcuts, lithographs and etchings. “In my view, Käthe Kollwitz is a fantastic observer,” Cologne-based contemporary artist Claus Richter is quoted as saying. “Her works are so hard while possessing an incredible tenderness. And although this doesn’t seem to be a valid criterion for ‘good’ art today, I’m always deeply moved by her drawings and sculptures.”


Born on July 8, 1867 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) to an open-minded upper-middle class family with socialist inclinations, Kollwitz showed early talent for drawing; she later on went to study art in Berlin and Munich.

Her first major engraving series, A Weavers’ Uprising, 1893-1897, was inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The Weavers). In a series of six prints, Kollwitz portrayed the harsh realities of the weavers’ story lacing it with symbolic gestures and meaning; it gained her early recognition and popular success. She would have even won a gold medal in the official Great Berlin Art Exhibition 1898, but for the cruel decree by Emperor Wilhelm II (1859 - 1941) who branded it as ‘gutter art.’ In 1908 Kollwitz made another successful series of prints, The Peasant War ; this series was prompted by her reading of the early 16th century uprising of peasant groups against the oppression of nobles and landlords. In this striking body of work, she featured female figures prominently, even as she revealed her commitment to political activism.

In 1914, a tragic incident devastated Kollwitz and left a deep impression on her future art. Her younger son, Peter, aged 19, was killed in action at the start of the First World War.  Kollwitz was overwhelmed by grief and nursed a guilt that she could have persuaded her son not to go to war. Upon hearing the news of his death, she reportedly moaned, “there is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.” The loss of her son seemed to only heighten her commitment to socialist causes. Embracing pacifism, her work took on emotional themes such as conflict, sacrifice, mourning, and working class life even more deeply.

Kollwitz went on to become the first women to ever be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts - a post she was forced to resign from, when Hitler came to power in 1933. Her art was classified as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, who barred her from exhibiting her work. She was humiliated and marginalised by the dictatorial regime until her death, which came just two weeks before the end of World War II.


Kollwitz was a prolific artist whose long career spanned the politically and artistically turbulent decades of the first half of the twentieth century. Her work responded fervently to some of the major upheavals of her times because she believed that as an artist, “I have the right to extract from everything its content of feeling, to let it take effect on me and to express it outwardly.”

In many of her moving works, she depicted scores of hollow-eyed men, abandoned women, sick children and common people abused by a cruel political and social system. Expressive lines and smudgy shadows became part of her signature style, and many of her images found place in political banners, posters and other material.

Death was a constantly explored subject in Kollwitz’s work. Her famous 1903 etching titled "Mother With Dead Child" shows the heart-wrenching picture of a crouching mother holding her child in her lap. “The mother is a hulking creature, caught in what is every parent’s worst nightmare,” explains art critic Skye Sherwin. “Shadows of sorrow spread across her naked limbs. Her mouth is fixed on her child’s chest. She seems to want to suck her offspring back inside her.”

Kollwitz was also an avid self-portraitist. Some historians believe that apart from Rembrandt, few artists have perused their own visage as probingly as Kollwitz. Many of her self-portraits are considered to be extraordinarily moving and heroic, particularly those executed after her dismissal by the Nazis from her teaching post. “The period of ageing is, to be sure, more difficult than old age itself, but it is also more productive,” wrote Kollwitz in her diary. “At the very point when death becomes visible behind everything, it disrupts the imaginative process. The menace is more stimulating when you are not confronting it from close up. When it is upon you, you do not see its full extent; in fact, you no longer have such respect for it.”


(Published 14 October 2017, 16:42 IST)

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