Inspiration – Kathe Kollwitz

I have been thinking about the importance of having access to meaningful imagery in ordinary life. There is something immeasurable about the affect of a beautiful painting or drawing and it need not be an original work. This brings me to Kathe Kollwitz, a German artist about whom I thought I would write here. I have a number of reproductions of her work in my home that continue to inspire and make an impression on me when I look at them. I am also fortunate enough to have visited the museum made in her honour in Berlin, the memory of which still lingers.

Kathe Kollwitz was a German painter, printmaker and sculptor who lived through two World Wars. She was born in 1867 and died at the end of the second world war in 1945. Her work was grounded in naturalism, that is to say that she drew her inspiration from real life around her. It developed a strong expressionistic style later as she sought to convey the plight of her people, especially through her prints and political posters about ordinary human struggle in wartime. This drawing below is called ‘The Child’s head on his Mother’s arms‘ – 1900.


Drawing: the Child's head on it's Mother's Arms, by Kathe Kollwitz
Image taken from else-where at


Kollwitz began her training as a painter but moved in to printmaking – etchings, lithographs and wood cuts and finally sculpture. She made drawings throughout her life. Her early drawings have a painterly feel about them and later they become bulky and voluminous, as if sculpted. Kollwitz lost a son in the first world war and a grandson in the second and she suffered serious bouts of depression throughout her life. In spite of this, she never lost the ability to transend her own suffering and portray the simple beauty in ordinary human moments. This next drawing demonstrates this well and it is called ‘Mother and Sleeping Child‘ – c.1913.


Drawing: Mother and Sleeping Child, by Kathe Kollwitz
Image taken from David Owsley Museum of Art, Ball State University


I marvel at how she has managed to evoke such tenderness and expression with these broad sweeping marks. The next piece below is a lithograph made in 1903. It is called ‘Working Woman in Profile‘.


Painting: Working Woman in Profile, by Kathe Kollwitz
Image taken from University of Virginia Art Museum


The head and the hands are the only parts of the body she has portrayed, as with much of her work. The rest of the form, in shadow here, is completed by the imagination as is the fire that casts it’s glow on the woman’s cheeks. I think the next piece below has a great physical presence to it. It is a crayon lithograph from 1920 called ‘Pensive Woman‘.


Drawing: Pensive woman, by Kathe Kollwitz
Image taken from


Finally, here is an image of perhaps the best known sculpture by Kollwitz called ‘Mother with her dead Son‘. This piece is in fact a copy of Kollwitz’s original and it was placed is located in the New Guard house in Berlin as a memorial to all victims of war and violence. The power of the piece is intensified by the starkness of the interior of the room and its single circular roof light (not shown).


Sculpture: Mother with her Dead Son, by Kathe Kollwitz
Photo taken by D. Holmes Chamberlin Jr. architect


This piece is deeply moving and an apt memorial. As with her drawings and prints, the expression comes from the head and limbs – hands, legs and feet – that emerge from the bulk and folds of carved fabric. I cannot fail to be impressed by the versatility of this great artist and her ability to convey her art with equal force and eloquence through such a variety of media. However, it is the great beauty and humanity present in all of her work that continues to inspire and affect me most.