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The Grieving Parents, Käthe Kollwitz | Arts & Activities
May 2015

The Grieving Parents, Käthe Kollwitz

The Grieving Parents, Käthe Kollwitz

DETAIL: Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945). Trauerndes Ehepaar (Grieving Parents). Memorial to Kollwitz’s son, Peter. Now located in the Vladslo German war cemetery near Vladslo, Diksmuide, West Flanders, Belgium. Copywrite: Artwork is in the public domain.

Feelings in Art

About the Artist

German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) once wrote, “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” In drawings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and sculptures, Kollwitz tackled issues of poverty, war, hunger, injustice and death in deceptively simple yet profoundly powerful imagery.

Kollwitz (née Schmidt) was born in Prussia in 1867. Encouraged by her father, she studied in an art school for women and eventually settled in Berlin, Germany, with her husband, Karl Kollwitz, a physician. In Berlin, Karl set up a medical office to treat the poor, while Käthe set up a studio on the same floor. She gave birth to their first son, Hans, in 1892, and then Peter, in 1896.

After the start of the First World War, both sons joined the German army. Peter was killed in battle in 1914, which sent the artist into a deep depression. She wrote, “When it comes back (the grief) I feel it stripping me physically of all the strength I need for work. Make a drawing: the mother letting her dead son slide into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him. As if I had to find him in the work … For work, one must be hard and thrust outside one-self what one has lived through. As soon as I begin to do that, I again feel myself a mother who will not give up her sorrow. Sometimes it all becomes so terribly difficult.” (Source: spartacus-educational.com/ARTkollwitzK.htm)

The image of mother protecting child, and lamentation, would become constant themes throughout her career. In 1919, Kollwitz became the first female member of the Prussian Academy of the Arts, but was forced to resign in 1933. Fiercely political, her socialist beliefs and modernist work were not acceptable to the Nazi party, and she was unofficially banned from exhibiting.

She died in 1945, five years after the death of her beloved husband. Käthe Kollwitz’s work is considered to be some of the most emotionally impactful art of the 20th century.

About the Artwork

Käthe Kollwitz was no stranger to grief. Her youngest son, Peter, died in battle during World War I. She lost a grandson, also named Peter, in the Second World War. Death, grief, and the maternal pain of losing a child, run like a black thread through Kollwitz’s remarkable body of work. This month’s Art Print, The Grieving Parents, is one representation of her remarkable ability to render the most painful of human emotions.

This work of art, her crowning sculptural achievement, comes from the very real grief and pain that the artist struggled with after the death of her 18-year-old son, Peter. “Kollwitz’s intensive artistic engagement with the war and the death of her son make clear that all of her work was shaped greatly by her personal life, by events and emotions that she had experienced directly.” (source: moma.org)

The Grieving Parents, a memorial to her fallen son, took Kollwitz 18 years to complete; from its first inception shortly after Peter’s death on a Belgian battlefield, to the placing of the monuments at his graveside in 1932.

On the left, a stoic Karl Kollwitz looks into the distance, arms folded, hands gripping those arms as if holding himself up against the weight of his grief. In contrast, the self-portrait of Käthe Kollwitz bends in pain, pulling into herself and clutching her cloak to her chin as if protecting herself from an icy wind. Like her husband’s portrait, her hands contain nearly as much emotion as her face.

Indeed, it is truly the faces and hands of the pair that convey the emotion; the bodies reduced to simple stone forms, backdrops to their grief. This was a common element in Kollwitz’s sculpture as well as her graphic art. “Hands and faces served her as vehicles of feelings, with bodies for the most part concealed beneath shapeless articles of clothing.” (Source: moma.org) Perhaps no other work of art has expressed a parent’s grief so elegantly and directly.
by Colleen Carroll

From The May 2015 Issue of Arts & Activities


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