Along with her fellow socialist artists, Kollwitz produced posters and pamphlets addressing hunger, exploitation, and other social ills. Kollwitz’s work was well suited to giving voice to her favorite humanitarian causes, and she undertook a number of projects that addressed challenging women’s issues, including abortion rights, alcoholism and domestic abuse, labor rights for women, and even breastmilk sharing. These were illustrated with confrontational imagery that dared to portray the stark realities of the day. During the 1920s, Kollwitz contributed many works for public causes. In January 1920, she was asked to make a poster for a large relief effort for Vienna. However, her feelings regarding the project were overshadowed by the loss of her son Peter and the desire to work on his memorial sculpture.
When I was drawing I cried along with the fearful children, I felt the burden I was carrying. I felt that I could not withdraw from the task to be an advocate. I shall speak up about the suffering of people, which never ends, and which is mountainous. I have the task but it is not easy to fulfill. One says that one’s load is lightened by taking on this task, but does it offer relief when people still daily die of hunger in Vienna despite my posters? When I am aware of this? Did I feel relief when I was drawing the War series and knew that the war continues? Certainly not. Tranquility and relief have only come to me when I was working on one thing: Peter’s great work. There I had peace and was with him. —Kollwitz
World War I (1914–1918) dramatically changed the lives of women in Germany, who were forced to participate in the war effort by taking over what had been men’s jobs in factories, shops, or on farms or by directly serving in the army as nurses and aides. Women proved as capable as their male counterparts in the labor force and in the field, and many found new freedom through their work.
The end of the war, however, brought hunger and discontent leading to unrest and revolution. Germany, defeated and having suffered heavy losses, was saddled with reparations that ultimately bankrupted the country. Devaluation of the currency led to hyper-inflation, while poverty led to prostitution and crime, especially in large cities such as Berlin.
Kollwitz lived among Berlin’s downtrodden population in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the poorest parts of the city, where her husband treated the poor in his medical practice.
Images TOP to BOTTOM: Käthe Kollwitz. German, 1867–1945. Brot! (Bread!). 1924. Chalk lithograph (transfer) on paper. Purchased. ©2016 Artists Right Society (ARS), New York; Käthe Kollwitz. Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children! (Wien stirbt! Rettet seine Kinder!), 1920; 1919 Berlin. Elderly women searching through garbage to find fuel.