Art Annotations


Kollwitz, Käthe
Woman with Dead Child


MediumArt
Art FormEtching
KeywordsBody Self-Image, Catastrophe, Childbirth, Death and Dying, Empathy, Grief, Human Worth, Love, Mother-Son Relationship, Mourning, Parenthood, Suffering
Summary

A seated, cross-legged, naked woman envelops the body of a child. The limp child, head tipped far back, is clutched to the figure we assume is the mother. Her features are mostly hidden by the child's body--except we see one closed eye and her nose nestled into his skin. Also visible are her expressive eyebrows, which silently communicate her explosive feelings. With her strong arms--especially a strong, thick hand--she draws the child toward her even more tightly.

Her embrace is all-consuming. The mother's muscular leg forms the base of the monolithic shape that confronts the viewer. Most of the lines the artist uses to shape and shade the forms are aggressive, taut, and meaningful, contributing energy to the surface. As a bit of relief from the overall grief, Kollwitz drew the lines of the woman's hair tenderly, and delicately rendered the boy's features.

Beate Bonus-Jeep, Kollwitz's close friend, described this etching memorably: "A mother, animal-like, naked, the light-colored corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb." (Prelinger, p. 42)

Commentary

This etching is one of a series of drawings, charcoals, and etchings titled "Woman with Dead Child," all produced in 1903. Kollwitz began the series with works she called "Pieta"--Mary mourning her dead son. These first studies quickly evolved into a group of etchings without any theological references, simply of a woman with dead child, and called by Elizabeth Prelinger "perhaps the strongest image Kollwitz ever made." (pp. 40-42)

Bonus-Jeep, who had not seen Kollwitz for some time, was confounded when she saw this etching at an exhibition. Concerned that something had happened to Kollwitz's young son Peter, she speculated, "Can something have happened with little Peter that she could make something so dreadful?" Reflecting later, she concluded that Kollwitz was "someone to whom it is given to reach beneath the ultimate veils." (Prelinger, p. 42)

The subject Kollwitz focused on, the mother mourning for the dead child, is not based on any direct life experience: "Great piercing sorrows have not struck me yet" she wrote in her diary (The Diary and Letters of Käthe Kollwitz, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1988), but she was not to escape "great piercing sorrows" much longer. Her son Peter, who at age seven posed for the dead child in this etching, was killed in World War I at the age of twenty-one and a grandson Peter was killed in World War II.

Note: The quoted words of Bonus-Jeep are footnoted in Prelinger: "cited from Catherine Krahmer, Kathe Kollwitz (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1981), p. 56.

Location of OriginalPrivate Collection
Alternate SourceElizabeth Prelinger, Kãthe Kollwitz, (New Haven, Yale University Press) 1992ãã
MiscellaneousExecuted 1903
Annotated by Bertman, Sandra L.
Date of Entry 01/19/04