Ted Grimsrud—Purpose vol. 45, no. 4 (April 2012), p. 28.
In the late 1800s, an emerging young graphic artist moved into inner city Berlin with her physician husband—he to serve Germany’s poorest people, she—it seemed—to forfeit her promising career in order to accompany the doctor as he followed his calling.
As it turned out, though, the artist, Käthe Kollwitz, became internationally renowned as one the greatest creators of peaceable art in the twentieth-century. Kollwiz discovered her focus in those hard years in the big city. Like few others, she captured the pain, struggles, and beauty of history’s forgotten people.
With black and white drawings, woodcuts, and sculpture—and with an amazing reservoir of respect and compassion—Kollwitz gave to the ages unforgettable images of dignity amidst poverty and despair, resolve in the face of crushing injustice, and the occasional joy of human celebrations and solidarity.
In spite of her social location, Kollwitz did gain renown as an extraordinary artist. Then came another turn in her choice of subject matter. Beginning in 1914, Germany entered into a terrible dark age. Total war followed by overwhelming famine. Kollwitz had for many years been a political radical—but with the war and its consequences, she became a pacifist and devoted her art to a profoundly moving series of works that capture the trauma, senselessness, and, ultimately, evils of war.
However, though it is protest art, resistance work that can touch and inspire, Kollwitz’s anti-war pieces share the deep, deep compassion and empathy of her earlier portraits of poverty and struggle.
Tragically, the passion Kollwitz poured into her efforts to create art that would foster peace stemmed in part from the loss of her own son, Peter, who died in 1914 as a German soldier. Out of this personal hurt comes art that inevitably moves the observer to tears of shared anger and pain. In poignant images, Kollwitz captures the senselessness of mothers offering their sons to the war machine and unspeakable grief at the consequences.
One of her most powerful works is a self-portrait sculpture of her and her husband crushed with grief at the loss of their son. A second piece, probably her most famous drawing, is call “Seed for the Planting Must not be Ground,” and shows a mother desperately striving to protect her young sons from the war machine.
The Wikipedia article on Kollwitz is a good place to start in learning about her life and work.