Käthe Kollwitz: Women with Dead child

Käthe Kollwitz

“Käthe Kollwitz’ life and work may be viewed in terms of a continual interaction of oppositions. She was at once conventional and unconventional, conservative and progressive, reflecting an unresolved duel that was played out in her life and her art. These contradictory elements account for the richness of her work as well as for some of the confusions surrounding her accomplishments” (Prelinger 1992:14). It is these types of divides and clash of ideas that represent and define the divided nature of the space of Berlin, of which all links back to the two-sided nature of King Frederick the Great militism and idealism. Berlin history is very complex with many political twists and turns with history books, research and bullet covered building only telling the physical side of the story. However, due to her living through the Weimar republic, the growth of the Nazi party and the majority of WWII Käthe Kollwitz artistic works help to aid the uncovering of the human physiological effect of the politically divided nation. Her works were consistently tender, painful, expressive and emotional. Käthe Kollwitz Women with Dead child (Pietà) displayed at the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum in Berlin, captures the true reality of the notion of grief and loss. It has been argued that it is the strongest image Kollwitz has ever made (Prelinger 1992).

Woman with dead child

When Kollwitz life long friend Beate Bonus-Jeep first saw the woe-stricken images, she was shocked. Kollwitz reordered Beate of whom she called ‘Jeep’ reaction.

“A mother, animal like, naked, the light-coloured corpse of the her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb. When I saw the sheet, by chance we had not heard from each other for a long while. In the exhibition I suddenly found myself in front of the etching and turned quickly out of the room in order to compose myself: “Can something have happened with little Peter, that she could make something so dreadful?” No! It was pure passion itself, the force, sleeping contained in the mother animal, that yielding itself to the eye, is fixed here by Käthe Kollwitz, someone to whom it is given to reach beneath the ultimate veils” (Prelinger 1992:42).

Beate Bonus-Jeep captures the primal nature of Women with dead child. “Her characterisation of the figure as ‘mother animal’ strips away in words, as Kollwitz stripped away in the image, any vestige of ‘civilised’ or reational mourning” (Prelinger 1992:42). Therefore, Kollwitz is laying bare the savage forces of human’s deepest emotions.

Kollwitz used her son Peter as the model, poignantly foreshadowing his death in WWI at age twenty-one (she went on to produce the Grieving parents as a tribute to her son). The composition of the piece abandoned the finely formed style of her early draftsmanship and instead intensified her strokes. “Instead, befitting her concept, Kollwitz transformed the delicacy of the preparatory sketch of Peter into a deliberately coarse, passionate handling, defining the strong contours and rough features with vigorous lines” (Prelinger 1992:43), thus creating an overwhelming emotional connection to the political struggles endured during the period.


By Rebecca Holland


Prelinger, E. 1992 Käthe Kollwitz

Washington: Board of Trustees, National gallery of Art

Posted in Art

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