Käthe Kollwitz and the Inner Experience : A Self-Portrait
In Käthe Kollwitz’s Frontal Self-Portrait, an exciting new donation to the National Gallery of Canada’s Prints and Drawings collection, the artist confronts us with her haunted gaze, her face a mask-like web of searing lines and forceful strokes. An emblem of sorrow, this raw and weathered likeness perfectly encapsulates the depth of emotion that defines Kollwitz’s work.
Kollwitz (1867–1945) was a leading twentieth-century German printmaker and sculptor, her name synonymous with powerful depictions of the poor and downtrodden during the tumultuous years before, during and after the two world wars. While she was widely known and revered during her lifetime – the prominent art critic Elizabeth McCausland in 1937 called her “the greatest woman artist of modern times” – and has since her death been featured in countless exhibitions worldwide, her popularity has fluctuated over the years. She is often overlooked in favour of more avant-garde artists, with critics focusing on the so-called unfashionable social content and propagandistic and “boringly political” nature of her work. She was, nevertheless, a craftswoman of remarkable artistic skill who strove for complete technical mastery of the various print media.
Initially trained as a painter by Karl Stauffer-Bern, Kollwitz shifted her focus to the graphic arts after encountering the work and writings of fellow artist Max Klinger. Klinger’s 1891 treatise Malerei und Zeichnung impressed Kollwitz with its argument that printmaking was exempt from the requisites of representation and idealization predominant in contemporary painting and, as such, offered a greater freedom to convey ideas while challenging the current state of affairs. Moreover, Kollwitz embraced the democratic nature of the graphic arts. She believed that art must serve a social function and printmaking offered the possibility to reach out to a broad audience.
While the majority of Kollwitz’s œuvre examines the plight of proletarian women, exploring themes such as motherhood, oppression, death, war and sacrifice, there is an autobiographical element to her work that is unavoidable. Indeed, self-portraiture was at the centre of her art practice. From age 18, when she was an art student in Berlin, until she reached 76, two years preceding her death at the end of the Second World War, Kollwitz created more than 100 self-portraits. In his well-known monograph on the artist the art dealer and curator Carl Zigrosser points out that Kollwitz “made practically no other portraits, which is natural in one whose expression was so strongly colored by her own inner experience. In a sense one might say that her whole work was a self portrait.”
Kollwitz’s self-portraits go far beyond a mere mirror record of her appearance and count among the most compelling images of her career. Frontal Self-Portrait is no exception. Intended as a frontispiece for Ludwig Kaemmerer's 1923 monograph on the artist, it is a stark and haunting icon of a woman weathered by sorrow. Kollwitz warred with depression throughout her life, but it was the tragic death of her son at the onset of World War I that left an indelible mark on her psyche. Grief and a sense of irrevocable loss reverberate throughout her diary and letters, as fresh in her waning years as in 1914, and her intensely personal pain is seared into every line of her work. The frontal and close-up view of Frontal Self-Portrait forces us to confront this raw emotion, while also capturing Kollwitz’s valiant attempt to master her sadness. She in essence transforms her personal grief into a powerful indictment of war and its costs. The work also offers a penetrating, self-aware statement on aging, with its broad strokes and aggressive crosshatching accentuating the artist's lined face. Kollwitz’s mortality, her own inevitable march toward death, preoccupied her thoughts and is a reoccurring theme in her art and writings.
The woodcut medium contributes to the raw and somber nature of this work. Being largely self-taught in graphic art, Kollwitz experimented with a number of printing techniques, always struggling to find the most appropriate tool to bring her artistic vision to light. Her first foray into printmaking featured primarily etchings and lithographs, such as her masterful series The Weavers’ Revolt (1893–97). It was not until 1920 that she discovered woodcut as a new powerful artistic medium. In a diary entry from 25 June of that year she wrote: "Yesterday …. I saw something that knocked me over: Barlach’s woodcuts. Today I’ve looked at my lithographs again and seen that almost all of them are no good …. I can no longer etch; I’m through with that for good …. Ought I do as Barlach has done and make a fresh start with woodcuts? …. In woodcuts I would not want to go along with the present fashion of spotty effect. Expression is all that I want…"
In this work, Kollwitz embraces the expressionist effects made possible by the medium, following in the footsteps of German Expressionists such as Max Beckmann, Lyonel Feininger, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, among others. We see a marked simplification of form – large cuts evoke wisps of hair around her face and in many places volume is implied but not stated. Kollwitz reduces her likeness to the barest details, creating a mask-like impression with rough-hewn effects. The bold, flat network of white lines against the black background adds to the drama of the image, as does Kollwitz’s attempt at nuanced modeling, with the block being sanded out in some areas to accomplish shading (for example, on her right cheek). The result is a work of significant emotional and visual impact, an excellent example of the artist’s brief yet powerful engagement with the woodcut medium.
Frontal Self-Portrait joins two later self-portraits in the national collection, Self-portrait (1934, lithograph) and Self-portrait in Profile to the Right (1938, lithograph). Together the three self-portraits span two decades and two media, each conveying in its own psychologically real way the intensity of the artist’s introspection over the course of her career.
For work by Käthe Kollwitz at the National Gallery of Canada, see the Gallery's online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.