One of the most influential and famous German printmakers of the 20th century, Kaethe Kollwitz starkly depicted the plight of the poor and denounced the atrocities of war. Working at a time when many artists used their art to explore formal issues, Kollwitz devoted herself to describing the human condition. She declined the use of color, letting her vigorously clear and articulate lines express urgency and social purpose. Her simplification of form and absence of decoration and ornamentation contribute to the power of her work.
Kaethe Schmidt Kollwitz was born in 1867 in East Prussia to a large family in which freedom, social activism, and spiritual dedication were prized. She began her training at age 14 under the engraver Rudolf Mauer, and at 17 she moved to Berlin and enrolled in the School for Women Artists. Her teacher encouraged her to seek out the work of Max Klinger. Captivated by Klinger’s work and deeply influenced by the writings of Emile Zola, Kollwitz turned to etching and lithography to depict social issues. Kollwitz turned to making sculptures for a brief period, as well.
Kollwitz greeted the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German revolution of 1918 with hope, but she eventually became disillusioned with Soviet communism. During the years of the Weimar Republic, she became the first woman to be elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, where she was head of the Master Studio for Graphic Arts. Despite these honors, she continued to devote herself to socially effective, easily understood art.
Kollwitz’s print Death, Woman, and Child, in the Handwerker Gallery permanent collection, is one of many the artist created after 1914, the year her youngest son died in battle. She expressed her grief in a cycle of prints that treat the subject of a mother protecting her children or a mother with a dead child. Distortion merging woman and child in one undistinguishable form emphasizes the dramatic feeling of loss and bereavement.