The Museum of Modern Art in New York will soon mount a retrospective for Käthe Kollwitz, the pathbreaking German printmaker whose work often pictured women and the working class and tackled themes life grief and war.
Organized by MoMA prints and drawings curator Starr Figura, with curatorial assistant Maggie Hire, the exhibition will run March 31 to July 20, 2024, and will mark the artist’s first retrospective at a New York City museum and the first major presentation of her work in the US in more than 30 years.
Figura first began thinking about organizing an exhibition devoted to Kollwitz around five years ago. Those plans were ultimately delayed by the pandemic, and she took the research back up for the show in earnest in 2021, especially after encountering Kollwitz’s works during her travels to other museums around the world, in particular pieces that aren’t in MoMA’s permanent collection that she was less familiar with.
“I was just floored by them,” Figura told ARTnews in an interview. “They just hit you with that kind of emotional force. I thought, People need to see this again. I think she’s an artist that we know her name, but at least in the US, and in New York, we haven’t had that many opportunities to see the work.”
Kollwitz, who was born in 1867 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), spent the majority of her career in Germany, where she died in 1945. She is still relatively underknown outside specialized circles, particularly in the US, which Figura said she hopes the forthcoming exhibition will change.
“She holds an interesting position in art history,” Figura said. “If you are somebody who’s very interested in the graphic arts, you know her work, if you’re interested in feminist issues, you know her work because she’s very much a touchstone for feminist artists. and women artists, if you are interested in social political art, you know her work. But in terms of the overall history of modernism, she is kind of considered a marginal figure.”
She added, “It’s interesting now as we look at a more diverse canon of art history to think about how she fits into the bigger picture.”
Figura attributes that position to several factors, including her gender, the fact that she worked primarily in the graphic arts, and that her work focused specifically on social justice issues, like highlighting the plight of the working class in the era after industrialization and World War I. Her two main series focused on these topics, “Peasants’ War” (1902–08) and “War” (1921–22, published 1923), respectively, will feature in the exhibition.
“What’s interesting is her career trajectory as an artist goes from say, the 1890s to the early 1940s, which is more or less when we think about in art history as the rise of abstraction,” Figura said. “But during that period, she remains committed to figurative art and an art’s social purpose and representing the underrepresented.”
While the checklist is still being finalized, Figura said the show will include around 120 to 130 works, a mix of works from MoMA’s permanent collection (the museum owns around 35 works by Kollwitz) and loans from institutions and collections in the US and Europe. Figura said that a highlight of the exhibition will be seeing the artist’s “incredibly intensive” creative process, particularly in prints that she added to extensively by hand. Among these will be studies and other proofs for her well-known etching Woman with Dead Child (1903).
Figura added, “Kollwitz was constantly revising and reworking and doing everything in her power to find the most expressive means to bring emotional truth into her subjects. By bringing together some of these rare works, where you see her like step by step, working toward a final version of print. It’s absolutely astonishing to see her creative process and her incredible technical abilities.”
Kollwitz also worked as a sculptor, and among her most famous pieces is Mother with Her Dead Son (1937–38), which is permanently installed in the Neue Wache in Berlin. (A 2015 video by performance artist Isaac Chong Wai that reflects on the sculpture was exhibited by Hong Kong’s Blindspot Gallery at Liste in Basel last month.) The sculpture reflects on Kollwitz’s personal history: one of her sons was killed during the first months of World War I when he was only 18.
“She deals with that grief for the rest of her life,” Figura said. “Grief had always been a major subject in her work even before her son died, but then it becomes even more so after that.”
Though Kollwitz died more than 75 years ago, Figura said she sees Kollwitz’s work as “evermore relevant” today, given the past few years from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine.
“I was interested in her universal message and her emotionalism,” she said. “She’s somebody who speaks to the social and political issues of today, almost as urgently as she did in her own time. Subjects like grief and war—those are all things that are at the forefront of how we’re all dealing with the world today.”