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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Smith Arts January 28, 2016

Mothers’ Arms: SCMA’s New Exhibition of Works by Käthe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz etching Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment)
Kathe Kollwitz. German, 1867-1945. “Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment).,” 1909. Line etching, drypoint, aquatint, emery and soft-ground etching with an impression from Ziegler transfer paper. Purchased with the Winthrop HIllyer Fund.

An exhibition of works by German artist and anti-war activist Käthe Kollwitz opens Friday, January 29, and runs through May 29 at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA).

In addition to posters, prints and sculptures from the museum’s collection of works on paper, MOTHERS’ ARMS: Käthe Kollwitz’s Women and War includes diary excerpts and other items that highlight Kollwitz’s experiences during two World Wars. Known for their universal images of women, war and suffering, Kollwitz’s artworks offer powerful testimony about the ravages of war on her own life, as well as the socio-political realities of Weimar and Nazi Germany.

The museum is hosting a diverse array of exhibition-related programs, including monthly gallery talks; free “Second Friday” programs and film screenings in February and March; and public lectures and workshops for teachers.

The first gallery talk, to be held Friday, Feb. 5, at noon at the museum, is by Barry Moser, Irwin and Pauline Alper Glass Professor of Art at Smith. The museum’s Second Friday program on February 12 will include a book-signing for the exhibition catalogue.

Henriette Kets de Vries, manager of the SCMA’s Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, said she was inspired to organize the Kollwitz show after noticing a growing fascination among Smith and Five College students with the artist’s works in the collection.

Kets de Vries’ family background—which is Dutch, German and Jewish—also “compelled me to want to delve deeply into Kollwitz’s work and personal story,” Kets de Vries said.

Overview of the Exhibition

Drawn from SCMA’s permanent collection with loans of historic posters, prints, and sculptures from private and public collections, MOTHERS’ ARMS includes more than 50 objects that place Kollwitz’s work in political, historical and cultural context. Public lenders include the Baltimore Museum of Art, the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut and the Library of Congress.

Kollwitz focused on women and mothers in her work, portraying them as activists, breadwinners and protective guardians of children. In her later work, women are also shown as victims or mourners of the dead.

Many of the artist’s diary entries are excerpted in the exhibition as well. These fragments offer insights into Kollwitz’s internal struggles, not only as a German artist and activist during two World Wars, but also as the mother of two sons—one of whom was killed on the battlefield. The personal circumstances of Kollwitz’s life and work offer a perspective on the hardship and contradictions of wartime experience.

MOTHERS’ ARMS is a companion to a fall 2015 exhibition, The Krieg Cycle: Käthe Kollwitz and World War I, at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum. Claire Whitner, associate curator at the Davis Museum, organized The Krieg Cycle and edited the collaborative catalogue for both the Davis and SCMA shows. Kets de Vries and Smith professors Darcy Buerkle and Joseph McVeigh contributed essays to the exhibition catalogue.

About Käthe Kollwitz 

Kollwitz (née Käthe Schmidt) was born in 1867 in Königsberg, East Prussia into a liberal, upper-middle-class family. Encouraged by her father, she studied painting in Berlin and Munich.

In her early career, Kollwitz was influenced by the German symbolist artist and writer Max Klinger, and later by the sculptor and printmaker Ernst Barlach. She focused mainly on the graphic arts, creating etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and sculpture.

Following her marriage to Karl Kollwitz, a physician, she moved in 1891 to Prenzlauer Berg, one of Berlin’s working-class districts. Already drawn to the plight of the working classes, Kollwitz was motivated by her daily interactions with people from this depressed neighborhood to give them a voice through her art.

After the popular success of her print series, A Weavers’ Uprising (1894–98) and Peasant War (1902–08), Kollwitz embraced Germany’s role in WWI with some hope for change. But by the war’s end, she was left disillusioned and grief stricken at the death of her youngest son, Peter, on the battlefield in Belgium. Kollwitz became an avowed pacifist, dedicating her art—which included posters and pamphlets— to humanitarian, socialist and women’s issues.

In 1919 Kollwitz became the first woman elected and appointed professor to the Prussian Arts Academy. She co-founded the Women’s Art Association, a group dedicated to exhibiting women’s art, but with the rise of the Nazi Party was forced to resign her post at the academy. After moving to Moritzburg, near Dresden, to escape the bombing in Berlin, Kollwitz died in 1945, only a few weeks before the end of World War II.

MOTHERS’ ARMS: Käthe Kollwitz’s Women and War is funded in part by the Louise Walker Blaney, class of 1939, Fund for Exhibitions; the Maxine Weil Kunstadter, class of 1924, Fund; the Publications and Research Fund of SCMA; the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency; and by the Carlyn Steiner ’67 and George Steiner Endowed Fund in Honor of Joan Smith Koch.