‘Mothers’ Arms:’ Käthe Kollwitz’s SCMA Exhibition

Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art | Die Mütter (The Mothers), Plate IV from the Series Krieg (War) by Käthe Kollwitz. Woodcut print, 1922-1923.

Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art | Die Mütter (The Mothers), Plate IV from the Series Krieg (War) by Käthe Kollwitz. Woodcut print, 1922-1923.

Laura Green ’18
Staff Writer

German artist Käthe Kollwitz experienced two world wars in which she lost a son and a grandson. She saw the changing role of women in Germany, the dramatic rise of propaganda images and the appropriation of her art for various causes. Her work speaks to universal qualities of humanity and womanhood, which the Smith College Museum of Art draws upon for its newest exhibition.

“Mothers’ Arms: Käthe Kollwitz’s Women and War” attempts to put Kollwitz’s art in its historic and political context. The exhibit features propaganda posters ranging from the time of the Weimar Republic to the rise of Nazism, quotes from Kollwitz’s personal diary and video clips of marching German forces. Henriette Kets de Vries, the curator of the show, said she did not want people to be “distanced” from the work because she wants people to understand that “Kollwitz didn’t live in a vacuum.”

De Vries has a personal interest in the subject of Kollwitz’s work. Her grandmother lived in Germany during World War I, so she grew up hearing stories about the war. With this exhibit, she was also trying to understand the background of her own family. This is where the power of Kollwitz’s work comes from: its relatability. Through looking at her exploration of suffering, grief, revolution and love, we examine what it means to be human.

The death of Kollwitz’s son just weeks after leaving home to join the war effort, had a profound influence on her art. She felt guilty for letting her son go to war and was a pacifist for the rest of her life. The event also prompted her to create prints depicting mothers cradling their dead children, the inspiration for the name of the exhibit. As art history major Alice Matthews ’18 said, “These pieces are so powerful and heavy, like she is carrying the weight not only of her son, but of all of the children who were taken from their mothers by the War.” The exhibit is “just as beautiful as it is dark.”

The role of women also plays an important part in the theme of the exhibit, which will remain on view until May 29. A table in the middle of the gallery displays an array of propaganda materials aimed at women in Nazi Germany. Their role as citizens, having recently been granted suffrage, was to raise as many young soldiers as possible. The government even gave incentives, such as medals, for having more children. This propaganda is juxtaposed against Kollwitz’s images of grieving mothers, illuminating the fact that their sons gave their lives to the state.

De Vries also pointed out the relevance of Kollwitz’s work in today’s political climate. The struggles of war, loss and famine are daily realities for people around the world, particularly Syrian refugees, just as it was for Kollwitz and her contemporaries. De Vries described a visit to the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin, during which she heard several women sobbing as they gazed upon the artist’s work. The universality and honesty of her art brings up intense emotions.

Kollwitz’s work, whether it is sculpture or  print, serves as a warning for what happens when we use war as a solution. Kollwitz’s work is not simply indicative of a particular historical moment but also speaks to what it means to be a mother, a woman and a human at any moment in time.

Leave a Comment