Käthe Kollwitz, THE GRIEVING PARENTS
Two giant granite figures on granite blocks. Enormous Viking chess pieces: a man and a woman kneeling side by side, a little distance from each other, with folded arms, their backs to a beech hedge.
If you come in summer, this is green. In winter they loom against the amber of dead leaves. If you stand beside them as the light fails, you see what they are facing. Bare trees throwing shadows across a field of stones set in grass like a pack of cards, face down.
The man’s head is bare. He kneels upright, fingers pressed under his arms. He is stiff, he is cold, holding himself in. The woman, covered, leans forward: head and shoulders bent, swags of her robe dropping like tears. She could be praying; she could be in pain: one hand up by her chin, the other bundled up, level with your eyes. You have to bend, to look up into her face.
There are different ways of folding your arms. And different ways, different stages, of mourning.
These figures are “The Grieving Parents”. Monumental images of grief, but also guilt and self-reproach, for a generation which encouraged its sons to go to war.
They and their field are tended by the “People's Community for the Care of German War Graves”, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge founded in 1926. This cemetery, near Vladso in Belgium, held 3,233 burials when marked out after the First World War. In 1956, graves from other German cemeteries were moved here and now it holds the bones of 25,644 German soldiers.
Each flat stone carries twenty names. The male figure gazes at the ninth stone, the name of his son: Peter Kollwitz. His face is that of the artist’s husband.
The woman’s face is a self-portrait of Peter’s mother, the artist, Käthe Kollwitz. When Peter died in October 1914, she was one of Germany’s best-known artists.
Käthe was born in 1867 and shaped by two experiences. One, the religious, socialist thinking of her father, a radical Social democrat who became a builder, and her mother’s father, a Lutheran pastor expelled from the Evangelical State Church who founded his own congregation. The other, the death of several siblings, especially her younger brother Benjamin. Her mother seems to have been so traumatized by these deaths that she died emotionally to the little girl. A mother mourning her dead son was to become one of Käthe’s most iconic images. But there was play in Käthe’s childhood; and creativity. With her brother Konrad, she played “barricade fighters in a revolution.” From age twelve, she had drawing lessons: her father encouraged her gift. At sixteen, she began drawing sailors and peasants she saw in his offices. At art school she recognized that her strength lay not in paint or colour, but draughtsmanship and line.
Whether 3D in sculpture, or 2D in etchings, woodcut, lithograph, it is Käthe’s simple, painful, eloquent lines that have meant so much, to so many. That’s why over 40 German schools are named after her. Why two museums, in Berlin and Cologne, are dedicated to her work. “Her silent lines penetrate the marrow like a cry of pain,” wrote Nobel-prize winning German dramatist, Gerhart Hauptmann. “Such a cry was never heard among the Greeks and Romans.”
At 24, Käthe married a doctor, Karl Kollwitz, who practised in a poor area of Berlin. She drew working people who came to his practice. Her social and aesthetic concerns worked together and both came down to one principle: simplicity. Whether writing about her subject - working people’s hard lives - or her designs, the word she used over and over was “simple”. “Working people offered me,” she said, “in a simple, forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful.”
In 1892 her first son Hans was born and she saw Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers, about a failed revolt, fifty years before, by Silesian workers. This gave her her first big theme, revolution: recalling her game with her brother about manning the barricades.
She made three lithographs, Poverty, Death, Conspiracy, and three etchings: March of the Weavers, Riot, The End, and had a second son Peter. The Weavers was widely acclaimed and she was nominated for a gold medal (though the Kaiser wouldn’t give it to a woman). She had found a form, and theme, that worked brilliantly together.
When Peter was six, in 1903, she used him as a model for an etching called Mother with Dead Child and began another series on a revolution: when peasants rose against feudal lords in 1525. These Peasant War etchings, finished in 1908, are larger than The Weavers, and technically more sophisticated, with more dramatic light and shadow. She began with Plowing, went on to Raped, then reaction: Sharpening the Scythe, Arming in the Vault, Outbreak. Again the rising ended in tragedy. In the painfully premonitory etching After the Battle, a mother searches through corpses for her son.
Meanwhile she was taking sculpting classes and determined to - that word again - simplify her means of expression.
By August 1914, Peter was a student but volunteered as soon as war was declared. Käthe wept when he left but she believed in the fatherland and felt he’d volunteered with “a heart filled with patriotism and love for an idea.” A few weeks later he was dead. She heard on 30th October. “There is in our lives a wound, which will never heal,” she said. “Nor should it.”
She began to think about a memorial.
“After great pain,” says the poet Emily Dickinson, “a formal feeling comes.” But for a poet, or an artist, form is a big decision. For many years, I’ve been working on the question of what drives us to create, and how conflict triggers creativity. In trauma, many people turn to making poems, paintings, songs.
I think “making” is one way we cope. It is reparation: our defence against the dark. Bruegel portrayed the horrible violence he saw when Spain crushed revolt in the Netherlands, in painting The Massacre of the Innocents and The Triumph of Death. Goya made his series Disasters of War while living through the Peninsular War between France and Spain. In 1937, after the ancient centre of his Basque Country had been bombed, Picasso painted Guernica.
This is not aestheticizing destruction, but integrating it. You explore and make sense of your feelings about it by revealing the appalling thing that happened. Acknowledging it, you help us see it from a new and healing perspective: you trans-form it.
But you have to choose the form. In doing so you abandon, even destroy, the possibilities of other forms. How could Käthe Kollwitz commemorate her son? Re-present him? Or evoke his absence through his parents, grieving? Mourning, too, is a process of abandonment. You may not be able, at first, to part with its object.
On 31st December, as the last year she would ever share with Peter ended, Käthe wrote in her diary, “My Peter, I intend to try to be faithful. What does that mean? To love my country in my way in the way you loved it, in your way. I want to honour God in my work, which means to be honest and sincere. Dear Peter, I ask you to be around me, to help me. I know you are there, but I see you only vaguely, as if you were shrouded in mist. Stay with me.”
The work of mourning, Freud said, is to acknowledge loss and separation. But she was not yet ready to. Her first drawings showed Peter’s body outstretched, “Father at the head, mother at the feet.” Then she tried him above his parents. Then the parents kneeling, “carrying their dead son, his body wrapped in a blanket.” Then a sculptural relief of the parents.
Her formal indecision reflected confusion about representing Peter, but also growing ambivalence about what he died for. As war continued, she wondered if his idealism had been wasted; even misplaced. But Peter had died believing in it. How could she not honour what he believed? In October 1916 she wrote, “Is it a break of faith with you, Peter, that I can now only see madness in the war?”
A year later, Lenin and workers' Soviets overthrew the government in Russia. Her first theme was revolution and she sympathized deeply with the Communists, but she was now against all violence. And she was thinking again of sculpture in the round: two parents, her head on his shoulder, kneeling before Peter’s grave. As a Berlin gallery put on a retrospective for her fiftieth birthday, a national appeal went out for old men and children to join the fighting. But she now felt Peter and his generation had been betrayed. That’s why she and Karl must be on their knees, to beg forgiveness.
"Enough of dying!” she said in a public statement. “Let not another man fall!"
She spent a lot of time in Peter’s room. She needed, she said, “to kneel down and let him pour through me, feel myself one with him.” She now saw the monument as two parents: “Block-like figures, Egyptian in size, between which the visitor would pass.”
In 1919, after the war had ended, she destroyed the work she’d done and put the project aside. “I shall come back, I shall do this work for you and the others,” she wrote in her diary. The struggle to create was also the struggle to mourn: but the work of mourning was not done.
Instead, seeing the economic hardship and disastrous social conditions of Germany but refusing to join the communists, she became an early supporter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and joined International Workers Aid.
In 1920, she was elected first woman member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, which meant regular income, a studio, a professorship. She made more print cycles - a War sequence - and posters for relief-work and anti-war organizations. In 1924, four posters: The Survivors, Germany’s Children Are Starving! Bread! and Never Again War!
Hans, her surviving son, had four children, one called Peter, and in 1926, when the War Graves Commission was founded, she felt able to re-start work on the first Peter’s monument.
Karl went with her to visit his grave, then in the Roggevelde cemetery.
“The entrance,” she wrote, “is an opening in the hedge around the field, blocked by barbed wire. What an impression... On most graves were low wooden crosses. A small metal plaque gives name and number. We found our grave. We cut three tiny roses from a flowering wild briar and placed them on the ground beside the cross.”
Where should they put the figures?
“What we both thought best was across from the entrance: kneeling figures, with the whole cemetery before them. Fortunately, no decorative figures have been placed there. The effect is of simple planes and solitude.”
She started work. In 1927, she visited the Soviet Union for the Revolution’s tenth anniversary. In 1928, she became Head of the Prussian Academy’s graphic arts department. By 1931, she had finished the plaster figures. They were put on show to great acclaim and rendered in granite. In July 1932, Käthe, Karl, and Hans went to Belgium to oversee the installation.
“Everything was alive,” she wrote, “and wholly felt. I stood before the woman, looked at her - my own face. I wept and touched her cheeks. Karl stood close behind me, I didn’t even realize. I heard him whisper, Yes. Yes.” It had taken her as many years to make it as Peter had lived.
That was 1932. After the Second World War Peter's grave was moved from Roggevelde to Vadslo and the statues moved with it. But all through Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and the next terrible fifteen years, that was where they stayed. Hitler branded Käthe’s work degenerate. She had to resign from the Prussian Academy and her works were removed from public view, though the Nazis used one of her "mother and child" pieces for propaganda.
In the mid-30s she made her last major cycle - Death, in eight lithographs. In July 1936, the Gestapo threatened her and Karl with arrest but she had international stature and they left her alone.
In 1937, for her seventieth birthday, she received 150 telegrams from the international art world and the suffering she now saw made her realize that her mourning was not finished. On the anniversary of Peter's death, she wrote, “I am working on a small sculpture. Something like a Pietà. The mother is seated and has her dead son lying between in her lap. There is no longer pain, only reflection."
War and death, her subjects, returned. First war – and then, in 1940, Karl died. Then her grandson, the second Peter, died on the Russian front.
In 1943 she was evacuated from Berlin.
She died in April 1945, two weeks before the end of the war. She said in her last letter, “War accompanies me to the end”.
Today, in Germany, her name is synonymous with the painful, truthful, portrayal of grief. With facing it - and facing up to the hurt of the human condition with images of poverty, war and death but above all with a mother’s grief for her dead child.
An artist re-creates what she sees in the depth of her inner world. At the heart of Käthe’s world was what she saw very young: a mother mourning a dead child. The First World War made this vision horribly true in her own later life. The way inside and outside interacted for her, and he way she confronted both, generated images which have been healing for people mourning both world wars. She had compared her second sculpture for Peter, Mother with Dead Son, to a Pieta but did not think of it as religious. The son is not displayed to the observer; he huddles on the ground between his mother’s legs as if seeking protection.
Almost eighty years after Peter died, and fifty years after she died, in 1993, Chancellor Helmut Kohl chose this image as a memorial to “Victims of War and Dictatorship” in a rededicated gallery in Berlin, capital of the re-united Germany.
His choice was controversial. “A woman mourning her son,” critics said, “does not do justice to the victims of the Holocaust, the mass deaths of the Second World War: only those of the First.”
But Kohl persisted and there it stands, an enlarged bronze version of Käthe’s 1937 sculpture, harking back to her 1903 lithograph Woman with Dead Child, for which six-year-old Peter was the model.
From the first, suffering and simple lines, light versus dark, formed her medium and her vision. This sculpture, a softer, more fluid, intimate complement to the granite Grieving Parents, stands under a hole in the roof, exposed to rain and snow. Surrounded by empty walls on which sunlight from the oculus throws shadow-arches, evoking dark against light, round against square, living and dead, it sums up the suffering of everyone – civilians, soldiers, mothers, children, in all wars.