Kathe Kollwitz was the most accomplished printmaker of German expressionism (and it was a crowded field), pioneering mixed printmaking techniques, learning to print colour lithographs at a time when they were often handpainted onto the black original. I have loved her work since I was put onto it by an artist cousin (thank you, Susan) and then saw her work first in a magnificent War Art exhibition in Manchester and more recently, the largest UK German Expressionist collection at New Walk, Leicester. The British Museum has been bequeathed many of her prints and they are on display in Room 90, the BM’s home of print, in an exhibition lasting until 20 January. I shall probably go again as the half an hour we could spend there last night was not enough. There are the famous group of war woodcuts, which many will recognise even if they do not know the artist, and then the series of self-portraits, piercingly honest and deliberately unflattering, and also the “Peasant’s War” series of prints, with proofs and alternate editions shown as well. The prints are brilliantly described and the story of Kollwitz as an artist in Konigsberg and Berlin makes for a very complete experience.
I find her inspiring as a relief printer but even more so as a lithographer. What is amazing (I have experienced this in reading books about her work too) is to return to the woodcuts after you have spent a while amongst the intaglio prints, whether etchings, drypoint or lithographs. It is like returning to a raw pain after somebody has tried to describe the nuances of life. The very medium forces you back to a different perspective on life – literally – black and white.
Most of her lithographs were printed for her, but in a couple of letters and comments you can see the joy she gets when acquiring her own press and being able to control the whole process. Her pictures paint her as an austere woman, but this is constantly belied by a childlikeness in her writings. A convinced pacifist of the left (her famous print commemorating Karl Liebknecht’s assassination is here), Kollwitz was never going to flourish under the Nazis and there are pieces of her work that have only been printed from the plates well after her death in 1945. The RAF destroyed quite a lot of her work in bombing Berlin in 1943.
Just go and see it. It’s free, because the BM owns most of the stuff. Beautifully curated, you get to spend time in another world, but one whose concerns and conflicts and threats are not unlike our own. And having done that, you find yourself in a frame of mind to hold reality and tragedy together in one artistic perspective.