As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted on a certain place where there were the images of nine women and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream of woman’s greatness … *
Käthe Kollwitz made the etching above in 1899. It’s called Aufruhr (Uprising) and it’s characteristic of her work in its power and subject matter.
What caught my eye is the source of this power: the enormous tenderness she generates. Below, the crowd, sickle in hand, darkness all around, struggles mightily; above, the woman, symbol of renewal and creation, of the crowd’s hopes and dreams, flies free, one hand to her breast in comradeship.
Look how she does it. It’s all in the hands.
An unimpeachable commitment
Käthe Kollwitz is the second of my Ballarat women.
She was born in 1867 in Prussia and became one of the world’s most admired printmakers and sculptors. When she was 12, her father organised drawing lessons for her, and at 16, she began making drawings of the sailors and peasants she saw in his office. Soon after, with no colleges open to women in her local area, she moved to Berlin to enrol in an art school for women.
Käthe had a special feeling for war, revolution and the struggles of the poor. She rose to fame virtually as soon as she took up the subject in the series called The Weavers about a failed weavers’ revolt in German history. The series was exhibited to wide acclaim and nominated for a gold medal, but Kaiser Wilhelm II withheld his approval. Nevertheless, in a pattern that repeated throughout her career, the power of her work and the depth of her commitment could not be gainsaid, even by a king, and The Weavers went on to be regarded as a masterpiece.
The Nazis couldn’t touch the power of her work either.
When they forced her to resign from the faculty of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933 and banned her from exhibiting, they held back one of her sculptures to use for their own propaganda. And when the Gestapo came to call on her and her husband in 1936 and threatened them with arrest and deportation to the camps, the respect she commanded kept them safe. As Wikipedia says,
She received over one hundred and fifty telegrams from leading personalities in the art world, as well as offers to house her in the US, which she declined for fear of provoking reprisals against her family.
She lost her youngest son, Peter, on the battlefield in World War I in October 1914. Her husband died of illness in 1940, and two years later, her grandson, Peter, was killed in World War II.
She was evacuated from Berlin in 1943. Later that year, her house was bombed and many drawings, prints and documents were lost. She died shortly before the end of the war in April 1945, aged 77.
Sculpting the woman
Käthe was a committed pacifist and socialist, and it’s clear she inherited her commitment from her father, a radical Social democrat and her grandfather, a Lutheran pastor who established an independent congregation. It’s also clear she shaped herself and there are two great tidbits in Wikipedia.
When she was a young girl, she and her brother, Konrad, used to pretend they were fighting on the barricades in a revolution, after being inspired by the story of the German Peasants’ War beginning in 1525. Käthe used to imagine herself as Black Anna, a woman who was a protagonist in the uprising. It doesn’t say how old she was, but if she was playing with her brother I’m going to assume she was less than 10 years old. Notice that at this age, the die is cast; that which would preoccupy her for the rest of her life is already in place.
What is beautiful
The second anecdote comes from the early years of her marriage. She married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor, in 1891. Karl tended to the poor from their apartment in Berlin and Käthe got to see the workers’ lives up close. She says this wonderful thing about the experience:
The motifs I was able to select from [the workers' lives] offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful … People from the bourgeois sphere were altogether without appeal or interest. All middle-class life seemed pedantic to me. On the other hand, I felt the proletariat had guts. It was not until much later … when I got to know the women who would come to my husband for help, and incidentally also to me, that I was powerfully moved by the fate of the proletariat and everything connected with its way of life … But what I would like to emphasise once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful.
I love the woman she was to say this. There’s so much rigour here, so much that’s alive to the dignity and grace of possibility and the absence of complacency.
More of my Ballarat Women to come …
* In gratitude to John Bunyan for one of world literature’s finest opening lines.
Image: Aufruhr (Uprising), 1899, etching by Käthe Kollwitz from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.