Kaethe Kollwitz is my sister, mother, neighbor, lover, best friend and confidant. Through this collection of one hundred and seventy something xeroxed pages of her letters and diary she has danced into my heart and imagination like a favorite old Beatles or Shirelles song, making her memories mine and breathing life into death, depression, wars, youth, aging, etchings, lithographs, wood cuttings, bistros, cafes, dreams, God, birthdays, motherhood, selfworth, angels, and meadows. She leads and I eagerly follow as she douses me with her Peter, Karl, Konrad, Lise, George, steamers, travel, sunshine, peace, sculpture, strength, and scaffolding. I am deliciously swept along on her adventures through Beethoven, Goethe, frailty, plaster, politics, transformation, Rome, Paris, Brussells, air-raid, students, women’s struggles, juries, Moscow, Belgium, Florence, and cemeteries. I am haunted by her pain.
Kaethe's writing of her childhood memories is so vibrantly alive and rife with colorful imagery that I can also “smell the damp plaster atmosphere of the building in which the man who made plaster casts worked”, I can see “...the pit filled with unslaked lime...if you fell in your eyes would burn out”, and I can feel my hands on the “...piles of clay we used to build forts out of...”’. I began to believe that I too had an intimate relationship with the view “above the tall trees of the garden across the way” where I know “hung the dense, hot motionless city air.”
Born on July 8, 1867 in Koenigsberg, the fifth child of Karl and Katharina Schmidt, Kaethe was a sensitive child prone to stomach upsets and moods. She had crying fits, though was never spanked. “Mother knew that my stomach upsets concealed small sorrows....she let me snuggle close to her.” I found myself deeply touched by nearly everything Kaethe wrote of herself. When her brother Benjamin was ill at home and passed away in his bed, Kaethe blamed herself because, “I sat on the floor, built a temple with my blocks, and was busy making a sacrifice to Venus.” Kaethe believed in the Greek Gods from Swab’s Legends of Greek Gods , not the Christian God, and thought Benjamin's death to be a punishment for her unbelief. All through her early years she then feared her parents would die and leave her, so she made a plan of whom to live with when it happened. She suffered for years from nightmares and unfounded fears. I identified with this childhood suffering and dared to wish I could reach through time to protect and save Kaethe Kollwitz from herself, or at least send her off to a good therapist and an ALANON meeting. One break from the stress was her adoration for her sister Lise, to whom she was so close they did not need to speak to communicate.
Because her parents allowed her to walk freely around the town streets observing life, Kaethe was drawn to the world of the mid and lower class workers, like the Russian and Lithuanian grain ship crews at the docks in their sheepskin coats and rag wrapped feet. Her father encouraged her artistic endeavors, wanted her trained as an artist, and sent her to the best teachers in Koenigsberg. Kaethe set out to make pictures of classic situations in the lives of workers, which she thought of as beautiful, though she tended to portray the darker side of life, saying that joy did not appeal to her. Early on Kaethe found that she worked best in etching, wood cutting, lithograph and sculpture. Her inspiration for her most well known etching, The Weavers, came after seeing Freie Buele’s premiere of Hauptmann’s The Weavers.
Kaethe became engaged at age 17 to Karl Kollwitz, married, had two sons, Peter and Hans, and stayed married to Karl all her life. She was introspective, philosophical, self analytical and politically inclined, constantly questioning herself and the status quo, and wrote of these things in letters to her friends and relatives and in her diary regularly. She often pondered her own genius or worth as an artist, her relationship to God, her husband and her children, the status of women, the work ethic of other artists, and the aging process, in which she sees herself as feeble and reactionary as compared to the youthful artists following behind her. She lost her son Peter to the war, which broke her heart and inspired later works. Yet, though she was often bored, depressed, restless and upset, she had the heart to notice the beauty in nature; “...the roses are blooming now....in such masses.”
When I think of the billions of diaries and letters hosting the words of current and former residents of the planet earth, I know that I would find most of them boring and vapid. Kaethe Kollwitz has the magical ability to strings words together in ways that capture and enchant me, a skill for which I have great respect. Two of my favorite passages are good examples of this ability. The first, from 1916, is an endearing tribute to her husband Karl for their silver anniversary.
The second is related to thoughts on her own death.
On November 23, 1943, Kaethe’s home in Berlin was destroyed. “...it was a hard blow to me at first...it was my home for more than fifty years. Five persons whom I have loved so dearly have gone away from those rooms forever....But there is some good in the total annihilation of the past. Only an idea remains, and that is fixed in the heart.”
Kaethe Kollwitz died in Moritzburg on April 22, 1945. After reading the great saga of her life as written by her in the diary and letters, Kaethe has now become an idea that remains fixed in my heart.