In Flanders, the name Käthe Kollwitz is nearly always associated with The Grieving Parents, the famous pair of sculptures at the German military cemetery in Vladslo. In Berlin, people are more inclined to think of the Pietà (Mother with Dead Son) in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden.
In Flanders, the name Käthe Kollwitz is nearly always associated with The Grieving Parents, the famous pair of sculptures at the German military cemetery in Vladslo. In Berlin, people are more inclined to think of the Pietà (Mother with Dead Son) in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden.On 12 September 1990, the treaty was signed unifying East and West Germany. This was made visible in the most spectacular way by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The Brandenburg Gate was opened and Unter den Linden once again became the main street of Berlin. Three years later, in 1993, the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden became the East German memorial for the victims of war and the tyranny of the Federal German Republic. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had an enlarged bronze replica of Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà sculpture placed there.
This decision became the subject of much political controversy. The building was emotionally loaded as it had been the symbol of the kingdom of Prussia. The socialist Weimar Republic turned it into a memorial for the victims of World War I, and in World War II the Nazis transformed it into a place of honour for the fallen of that war.
Later in the twentieth century, Käthe Kollwitz was not much loved in the West German art world. She was considered a highly conservative artist and her popularity was attributed as a response to the artist as a person. Her pathos and empathy with proletarian poverty was no longer compatible with the ironic and hedonistic sense of self of the modern German artist.
In East Germany, however, Kollwitz was used as a national heroine and figurehead of social realism. In the West, her iconic poster Nie wieder Krieg was often used during leftist demonstrations. That this figurehead of leftism should be recuperated as a symbol of German reunification and, logically, also of the fall of communist Germany, was hard to digest.
Nevertheless, Kollwitz, who died before the end of the war, was in no way affiliated with communism. In her diaries she often wrote about the political independence of art, and although she was a great humanitarian and pacifist her nature was conservative, in life as in art.
Her tireless social commitment as the wife of a doctor in a poor working-class environment and the power of her empathic art meant that she was a hero of the people in pre-Nazi Germany.
It is hard to envisage a finer emblem for the reunification of Germany.
RODIN, MEUNIER, MINNE… AND KOLLWITZ?
Coincidence does not exist. A year before the Kollwitz exhibition in MDR, the Rodin-Meunier-Minne exhibition was held at Museum M in Leuven. These three artists were important sources of inspiration for Kollwitz. The show focused on returning to the Middle Ages, something typical of Rodin, Meunier and Minne, and also of many forms of symbolism, among which the English (the Pre-Raphaelites) and German.
Symbolist motifs (and that of early Kollwitz) were certainly religiously inspired: the Pietà (Mary with dead son) and related Lamentatio (standing angel with lying Christ).
Rodin, who learnt to sculpt at the Parisian Académie Julian, was without a doubt Kollwitz’s great guiding light, but he was not interested in religious or social subject matters. The same is not true of Meunier, whose monumental labouring figures certainly influenced Kollwitz. Later in his evolution he was also influenced by the fin-de-siècle symbolism.
The Lost Son has affinity with Kollwitz’s Mother and Son. Another similarity is the aestheticizing portrayal of the labourer as a heroic figure in the form of a classical academic nude. Early on, Kollwitz also did not see the working class life as tragic but “(…) I just thought it was beautiful”. Lastly, Minne, a Flemish contemporary of Kollwitz, made Mother Mourning Dead Child when he was in his twenties and later his Pietà is reminiscent of Kollwitz’s work.
With Kollwitz’s early work she should be viewed as a symbolist. In spite of her grandfather’s religious background she was probably not religious. She gave the themes from her youth and from the romantic and symbolic traditions a secular interpretation.
The Mary figure of the Pietà became a universal symbol of a mother mourning her dead child. This was a personal theme: her mother lost several daughters and the young Käthe admired the strength with which her mother carried this loss. The labelling of the Pietà as Kollwitz mourning her fallen son, Peter, is therefore incorrect. After all, most of her pietà’s were made before the First World War. Hence it is unsettling to discover that her son posed as the dead child on a number of occasions; a premonition of his fate.
The other Christian theme is the Lamentatio, most strikingly found in Aus viele Wunden blutest du, O Volk. The lying figure symbolises the public, next to him two chained women, above him the avenger kneeling with a sword. In this etching from 1896 we see Kollwitz for the first time not only describing, but also calling to revolt.