Käthe Kollwitz

The Volunteers

1921–2

Not on display

Artist
Käthe Kollwitz 1867–1945
Part of
War
Original title
Die Freiwilligen
Medium
Woodcut on paper
Dimensions
Image: 490 × 348 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Tate Patrons 2019
Reference
P82460

Summary

This is one of seven woodcuts from Käthe Kollwitz’s War portfolio of 1921–2 (Tate P82459P82465). Collectively they epitomise the powerfully emotive imagery for which Kollwitz – widely acknowledged as one of the great graphic artists and printmakers of German expressionism – is known. As the woodcut printmaking process is subtractive, with the line cut into the wooden block, in the resulting prints the white of the paper serves as line and highlight within the intense black inking of the rest of the block. Four of the woodcuts in the portfolio are characterised by a centrally weighted form (The Sacrifice 1922, The Parents 1921–2, The Widow I 1921–2, The Mothers 1921–2), while The Volunteers 1921 and The Widow II 1922 provide a wider view; only in The People 1922 does the print reveal the full extent of the block on all sides. In each print Kollwitz’s energetic carving of the wood is felt both in the rhythmic structure of the bodies and in areas (such as found in The Sacrifice and The Widow I) where the cuts around the figure provide a sense of spot-lighting.

With a long graphic career already behind her, primarily with etching and lithography, Kollwitz was encouraged to explore woodcuts for the War suite by her friend the sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870–1938). The reductive exposure of the technique allowed for powerful contrasts that she shared with other printmakers associated with German expressionism, such as Emil Nolde (1867–1956). The seven woodcuts were begun in 1921 and continued over several months, with the final block, The People, added in the summer of 1922. Kollwitz explored a number of possible treatments for each individual block, issuing a variety of editions of different states. In line with her sense of solidarity with the working classes of her neighbourhood in Berlin, and as a reflection of her wider left-wing political beliefs, in 1924 Kollwitz sanctioned the publisher Emil Richter to issue larger editions of 100 and 200, variously numbered and with the artist’s name printed to resemble a pencil signature. These have been carefully distinguished in the catalogue raisonné by August Klipstein and Alexandra von dem Knesebeck. The seven woodcuts in Tate’s group were all previously in the collection of Dr Franz Engelmann and originate from different states of these wide-reaching editions and are printed on different papers.

Kollwitz’s seven prints constitute a memorial to the sudden and catastrophic loss of life in the First World War. The portfolio was published in 1924, ten years after the outbreak of hostilities and six years into their tumultuous aftermath. In the political and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic in Germany, Kollwitz reflected on the legacy of the conflict. The first three blocks, The Sacrifice, The Volunteers and The Parents, mark the moment of decision to go to war: the reluctant separation and the headlong departure. The Volunteers prefigures the disaster that will befall the recruits, already ‘marching to the step of skull-faced death, the drummer, extreme left’ (Donald E. Gordon, Expressionism: Art and Idea, New Haven and London 1987, p.165). While sculpturally massive, the conjoined figures of The Parents form a condensation of loss. Despite its title, The Widow II reinvents the Christian Pietà, the imagery of the dead Christ resting on his mother; in Kollwitz’s image the woman herself appears as if dead. The women in The Widow I and The Mothers are overcome by mourning and it is only in the final print, The People, that a suggestion of communal strength is turned out to face the world. Yet, whatever resilience might be conveyed in this image seems under threat from its almost unrelieved blackness.

While Kollwitz raised the experience of the war to a universal level, the cycle was borne of very personal circumstances. In 1914, at the age of eighteen, her son Peter was killed at the Front. In a later diary entry, for 22 August 1916, she wrote of the numbing impact of this event:

Made a drawing: the mother letting her dead son slide into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him. As if I had to find him in the work. And yet everything I can do is so childishly feeble and inadequate, I feel obscurely that I could throw off this inadequacy, that Peter is somewhere in the work and I might find him. And at the same time I have the feeling that I can no longer do it. I am too shattered, too weakened, drained by tears. I am like the writer in Thomas Mann: he can only write, but he has not sufficient strength to live what is written. Only it is the other way round with me. I no longer have the strength to form what has been lived. A genius and a Mann could do it. I probably cannot.
(Quoted in Hans Kollwitz 1955, p.72.)

After a long gestation, Kollwitz eventually found the strength to give an enduring form to such intense mourning in the War portfolio.

Further reading
Hans Kollwitz (ed.), The Diaries and Letters of Käthe Kollwitz, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Chicago 1955.
Renate Hinz (ed.), Käthe Kollwitz: Graphics, Posters, Drawings, translated by Rita and Robert Kimber, New York 1981.
Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik, revision of August Klipstein’s catalogue raisonné (1955), Bern 2002.
Claire C. Whitner (ed.), Käthe Kollwitz and the Women of the War: Femininity, Identity and Art in Germany during World Wars I and II, Wellesley, Massachusetts 2015.

Mathew Gale
October 2018

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