No one better represents the moral conscience of Germany in the twentieth century than the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945).
“Käthe Kollwitz is regarded as one of the most important German artists of the twentieth century, and as a remarkable woman who created timeless art works against the backdrop of a life of great sorrow, hardship and heartache” (rogallery.com 2012). Kollwitz born in (East Prussia) Konigsberg in 1867, studied art in Berlin and in 1881 she married Dr Karl Kollwitz and settled in a working class area of Berlin producing etchings. In 1896, her second son was born called Peter. From the period of 1898 to 1903 Kollwitz taught at the Berlin School of Women Artists. By 1910 she had began to create sculptures.
Kollwitz son Peter was killed in 1914 in Flanders. The loss of her son contributed towards her socialist and pacifist political sympathies. In 1919, Kollwitz produced a commemorative woodcut that was dedicated to the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht whom was murdered in 1919. “Kollwitz believed that art should reflect the social conditions of the time and during the 1920s she produced a series of works reflecting her concern with the themes of war, poverty, working class life and the lives of ordinary women” (rogallery.com 2012).
In 1932, the war memorial to her son Peter called The Grieving Parents (Die trauernden Eltern) was dedicated at Vladslo military cemetery in Flanders. Kollwitz went on to become the first women to ever be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, but due to Hitler coming to power in 1933; she was expelled from the Academy. “In 1936 she was barred by the Nazis from exhibiting, her art was classified as ‘degenerate’ and her works were removed from galleries” (rogallery.com 2012).
The significance of Peter’s Vladslo memorial
A German war cemetery in a field near the small town of Vladslo, Belgium lays the graves of hundreds of men killed in the early days of WWI. Among all the graves is that of Peter Kollwitz, a nineteen-year-old student from Berlin who volunteered as soon as the war broke out. Two months into the war in October 1914, he was killed. Kathe Kollwitz was informed of her son’s death on 30 October. Upon hearing the news, she said, ”There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it” (rogallery.com 2012). In December 1914, Kollwitz decided that she was going to create a memorial for her son; she formed the idea of a body outstretched with the father at the head and mother at the feet thus, commemorating the sacrifice of all the young volunteers. As time passed she attempted other various deigns, but was dissatisfied by all of them. Kollwitz decided to put the project to one side temporarily in 1919, but remained committed to see it through when she felt it was right. She wrote in her diary on June 1919, “I will come back, I shall do this work for you, for you and the others” (rogallery.com 2012). She kept to her word and twelve years later in April 1931, she completes the sculpture. Her work was exhibited within the National Gallery of Berlin and then moved to Belgium to sit adjacent her son’s grave where it still rests today.
Kathe Kollwitz’s war memorial was an offering to her son or any son of whom had offered up his life for his country. The fact that she was only able to complete it eighteen years after his death tell us that WWI didn’t end on 11 November 1918 like textbooks tell us, but instead for millions of people they had to live with the human cost of the conflict of war for much, much longer. It is for this reason this artifact plays an important role in documenting the history of WWI grief and loss endured by millions of ordinary women and men.
War was Kollwitz inspiration due to her circumstances and in spring 1945, Kollwitz knew she was dying, she wrote in her very last letter, “War, Accompanies me to the end” (rogallery.com 2012). She died two weeks before the end of World War II on 22 April 1945.
By Rebecca Holland