Käthe Kollwitz: Life, Death, War at the NGI

Leaving the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition at the National Galley of Ireland I spotted that there was an exhibition of works by Käthe Kollwitz in the Print Gallery.


Käthe Schmidt was born in Königsberg, 150 years ago on on 8th July 1867  in what was then in East Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia). However she lived most of her life in Berlin where she studied and later married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor living for the half century in Prenzlauer Berg, a working class suburb of North Berlin and one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Her husband worked for a workers’ health insurance fund and often treated the working poor free of charge. Initially trained as a painter, Kollwitz began to focus on the graphic arts – drawing, etching, woodcuts – and sculpture. Influenced by the writings of Emile Zola, her subjects were ordinary people, the downtrodden and the repressed with a particular emphasis on the suffering of women. Her work is dominated by images of death, war and social injustice.


Self portrait

The couple had two sons, Hans and Peter. After the outbreak of WWI, Peter, who was only eighteen, volunteered for the German Army. He died on the Western front in 1914, soon after he’d arrived and this left an indelible impression on Käthe who had persuaded her husband to allow the 18 year old to enlist.

The exhibition features 38 prints and drawings from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany along with two lithographs from the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. It includes two of her print cycles, Peasant War and War, and a number of what are described as “honest” self-portraits.


The Plough from the Peasant War  series

Kollwitz’s dark images were a stark contract to the paintings I’d just viewed of domestic scenes from well off middle class life during the Dutch Golden Age. They portrayed the reality of life for people living in poverty, in harsh conditions and suffering the impact of war.  And although she worked during the first half of last century they remain relevant today. Her images of the impact of war could have been created in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and poverty still exists even in Europe and America.


The Prisoners from the Peasant War Series

As it’s the 150th anniversary of her birth there’s been a number of articles about her life and work. A number I’ve read question her political commitment and see her as an outsider, even something of a voyeur – observing the life of workers and their families but with no real commitment to social justice. Personally, I find that difficult to believe. Her work shows a passion that must be based on sympathy and a desire for change.

The Widow 1

The Widow I from the War series of woodcuts


An indictment of the social conditions in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th century, it’s impossible for anyone with a social conscience and a feeling for social injustice not to be moved by her stark black and white images.


Bunhill Fields


A few weeks ago we visited the revamped Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. The main exhibition featured works by Cornelia Parker. One of the exhibits was ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’, a bronze cast made of the cracks in the pavements of the cemetery, where William Blake, one of my heroes, is buried. It’s an interesting work.

So, last Saturday when I had a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon, as it was a reasonably fine day, I decided to go and have a look at the cemetery, pay homage to Blake and see if I could locate the pavement Cornelia Smith had cast (yes, quite sad, I know!). The cemetery is a green oasis in amongst a heavily built up area just outside the boundaries of the City of London, and if’s close to Moorgate station which was on a direct tube line from Edgware Road, which was across the road from where I was staying. It looked particularly attractive with the spring flowers blooming and fresh green leaves appearing on the many trees.






There is a memorial headstone to William Blake and his wife, Catherine Sophia.


However, it’s not actually located over his grave, which was several yards away. It was relocated when a section of the cemetery was turned into a lawn. The site of the grave was rediscovered following work by the Blake Society. The location of Catherine’s grave isn’t known.

The cemetery was principally used for the burial of dissenters (William Blake being a prime example). Other well known “residents” include John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)


Daniel Defoe, who has a memorial obelisk, next to which Blake’s memorial was relocated


and the Reverend Thomas Bayes, whose claim to fame, Bayesian statistics, has become very much the “in thing” for analysing data in my profession. Indeed, there was a tutorial on the topic taking place prior to the conference at the very time I was visiting his grave.


I spent a pleasant hour mooching around. As for Cornelia Parker’s cracks in the pavement, despite walking around the cemetery staring at the ground (other visitors must have doubted my sanity) I never did manage to locate the exact section.