Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), one of the foremost graphic artists of the 20th century, is celebrated for her affecting portrayals of poverty, injustice, and loss in a society troubled by turbulent societal change and devastated by two world wars. Presenting rare works on paper spanning all five decades of her career, Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics, casts light on the extraordinary technical virtuosity of these powerful images.
The exhibition, on view at the Getty Research Institute from December 3, 2019 through March 29, 2020, is drawn from the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection of Prints and Drawings, which was a partial gift to the Getty Research Institute in 2016.
“Uniting a passion for social justice with a commitment to artistic excellence, Kollwitz’s prodigious oeuvre has a remarkable capacity to engage and inspire audiences in the 21st century,” said Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. “For its significant depth and scope, the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection at the Getty Research Institute is an unparalleled resource for the study and appreciation of this influential artist. This exhibition offers compelling, fresh insights into Kollwitz’s accomplishments as a printmaker and activist, presenting works that have seldom been on public display.”
Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics features etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs from every phase of the artist’s career, alongside related preparatory drawings, proofs, and rejected versions of prints. These rich sequences of images vividly document the evolution of her ideas, both artistic and political.
According to exhibition co-curator Louis Marchesano, “Kollwitz is known for her powerful social commentary but what people often don’t fully appreciate is that the immediacy and expressive clarity of her images belie the efforts behind the works, which are products of a deliberate and measured artistic process.”
Born Käthe Schmidt in a conservative region of the German Empire, Kollwitz grew up in a politically active Socialist household. She studied painting at schools for women artists in Berlin and Munich in the 1880s, but did not receive formal instruction in printmaking. Learning from artists, printers, manuals, and her own restless experimentation, she produced a remarkable 275 etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts.
Kollwitz’s reputation flourished during a printmaking renaissance in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany. The artist embraced the medium’s capacity to disseminate her designs to a wide audience. In her search for a visual language that would appeal to discerning collectors and engage an ever-broadening public, she remained largely independent of avant-garde movements such as expressionism.
“The Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection at the Getty Research Institute affords a privileged, intimate view into Kollwitz’s working methods. In its preparatory sheets, we witness initial concepts coalescing into masterful compositions. We observe the artist probing formal possibilities, innovating technical solutions, and, at times, abandoning one idea to persevere admirably with another,” said Naoko Takahatake, the Getty Research Institute’s Curator of Prints and Drawings. “Works like these, revealing artistic process and charting the evolution of creative thought, represent a rich vein of our prints and drawings collection.”
The exhibition includes one of her most ambitious print cycles, Peasants’ War, completed in 1908. Its seven prints evoke the effects of social injustice and revolution through an historical lens that focuses on a tragic episode in German history. Drawings, trials in lithography and etching, and working proofs produced over the course of six years testify to Kollwitz’s meticulous planning and execution. The finished work is a tour de force that affirmed her standing as one of Europe’s most important artists.
The important connection between technique and subject in Kollwitz’s practice is exemplified by her 1920 tribute to Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Communist Party of Germany, who was arrested and killed by right-wing paramilitary forces following the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Although she was not a member of the Communist Party, Kollwitz was moved to create a memorial print for Liebknecht. The artist labored to find the technique that would best express her sentiment, writing: “The immense impression made by the hundred thousand mourners at his grave inspired me to a work. It was begun and discarded as an etching, I made an attempt to do it anew, and rejected it, as a lithograph. And now finally as a woodcut it has found its end.”
In 1919, Kollwitz became the first woman elected to the Berlin Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) but was forced to resign in 1933, following the Nazi Party’s seizure of power. During World War II, in the late fall of 1943, her Berlin home was bombed, and numerous works, studio materials, and documents were lost. In April 1945, at the age of 77, she died in Moritzburg, near Dresden.
Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics is accompanied by a book of the same title, published by Getty Publications.
The exhibition is curated by Louis Marchesano, the Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Christina Aube, Exhibitions Coordinator at the Getty Research Institute, and Naoko Takahatake, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Getty Research Institute, with contributions from Lauren Graber and Alina Samsonija. A related exhibition, Käthe Kollwitz and the Art of Resistance, will be presented at The Art Institute of Chicago from May 30 to September 13, 2020.
More information about the exhibition, including a schedule of related programming, is online at https://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/kollwitz/.