Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz at the British Museum from 12 September 2019 to 12 January 2020

Exhibition Review – Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz at the British Museum from 12 September 2019 to 12 January 2020

The British Museum presents Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz, although Kollwitz (1867–1945) is not widely known in the UK, she is widely admired for her prints that depicting universal human experiences in a compelling way. Her work has rarely been seen together, this exhibition is the first to be devoted to Kollwitz alone in the UK since 1995 and will display 48 of her works.
This exhibition focuses on works, 47 prints and one drawing, almost entirely drawn from the British Museum’s Kollwitz collection, celebrating the enduring impact of Kollwitz’s images.
The Kollwitz works from the British Museum’s collection were largely acquired by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) and bequeathed to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson bought Kollwitz’s prints in Germany before the First World War, influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms, one of Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion.
The exhibition displays this work grouped as: Self-portraits, A Weavers’ Revolt, Death and the Mother, ‘The many silent and noisy tragedies of life in a big city’, Peasants War, and Woodcuts, War and Remembrance. The final section includes her memorial sheet to Karl Liebknecht, the left-wing political activist murdered with Rosa Luxemburg by Government forces on 15 January 1919, alongside the portfolio Krieg.
Käthe Kollwitz (née Schmidt) was born in Königsberg Germany between 1871 and 1945. After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 she moved permanently to Berlin when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor in a poor working class district. Kollwitz found her artistic expression with numerous self-portraits and developing an interest in the women amongst the working class. The exhibition explores themes related to the artist from self portraits, poverty-stricken women she encountered in Berlin, to powerful scenes of maternal grief, along with social and economic protest.
One of the highlights of the exhibition are three rare working states of her famous print Woman with Dead Child (1903). This composition was based on drawings of herself holding her son Peter when he was seven years old. A mother’s grief was a recurring theme especially during and after the First World War.
Another highlight is the entire suite of seven woodcuts from the portfolio Krieg (War), shown exclusively at the British Museum for this final part of the exhibition’s run. Published in 1923, Krieg depicts the emotional anguish over the consequences of war for those left behind.
Kollwitz’s work began to be recognized after the First World War, firstly in Germany and then in Russia, China and the United States. Kollwitz’s was seen as a champion of working class struggle in the communist countries and beyond. However in the late 20th century, an enlarged version of her ‘Pietà’, a sculpture of a mother with dead son (1937–39), was installed in the Neue Wache in Berlin in 1993 as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny.
Her ability to recognise the role women had to deal with, especially in war has seen her being identified as a feminist icon and interest in her work has grown considerably into the 21st century.
This fascinating free exhibition provides an opportunity to explore the works of Käthe Kollwitz. Although the artist provides some insights into the political and social turmoil in Germany in the early 20th century, it is often the universal themes of grief and compassion that provide the greater impact.
This exhibition has already been seen almost 90,000 people across four UK venues (Ikon Gallery (Birmingham), Young Gallery (Salisbury), Glynn Vivian Art Gallery (Swansea), Ferens Art Gallery (Hull)) between September 2017 and September 2018. The exhibition finishes its UK tour at the British Museum.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

For more information and tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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