Jul 4, 2024

Embracing Käthe Kollwitz

The German artist familiar to AGO audiences gets a star turn in a new MoMA retrospective 

woodcut print of woman dragging children forward

Käthe Kollwitz. Frau mit Kindern in den Tod gehend, 1923. woodcut on Japan paper, Sheet: 55.4 × 42.3 cm (21 13/16 × 16 5/8 in.). Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Dr. Brian McCrindle, 2015. 2015/107

A leading modernist, renowned for her compassionate portraits that transcend art and activism, AGO visitors are well acquainted with the works of Käthe Kollwitz - indeed, the AGO is home to one of the largest collections of Kollwitz’s work outside of her native Germany, thanks to the generosity of collector Dr. Brian McCrindle.  

The first woman artist elected to the Berlin Academy of Art, for more than five decades, Kollwitz captured the pathos of women and children’s daily lives and the suffering wrought by two world wars, through her emotional and socially conscious drawings, prints and sculptures.   A powerful voice in modernism, two of her bronze sculptures, Towers of Mothers (1937-38, cast after 1961) and Woman with Child in her Lap (cast after 1961) are currently on view on Level 1 in the Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium, nestled alongside works by Auguste Rodin and Haegue Yang. 

Bronze sculpture featuring female figures circled around small children

Käthe Kollwitz. Turm der Mütter, concieved 1937-1938; cast after August 1961. bronze, Overall: 27.9 × 27.4 × 28.8 cm (11 × 10 13/16 × 11 5/16 in.). Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Dr. Brian McCrindle, 2015. 2015/137


“Kollwitz never fails to make visitors stop and look. To see these sculptures as you ascend into Moments of Modernism, is, I think, a powerful reminder of the social realism that precedes and informs the visceral, abstract expressions of the 1960s and 70s, says Alexa Greist, Curator & R. Fraser Elliot Chair, Prints & Drawings at the AGO. “Despite Tower of Mothers 360-degree details, Kollwitz intends the audience to look at it from one angle, from the front. I see in this sculpture a very universal portrait of determination, of women actively confronting danger, leaning forward, to protect their children.”   
And now, for the first time ever, museumgoers in New York City are experiencing a fulsome retrospective of her work.  Currently on view at MoMA, Käthe Kollwitz brings together 110 rarely-seen examples of her drawings, prints, and sculptures, including one prized AGO woodcut from 1923, Woman and Children Going to Their Death (Frau mit Kindern in den Tod gehend). Generously donated to the AGO in 2011, it is a prime example, of how, says exhibition curator Starr Figura, “Kollwitz wanted to connect with the broadest possible public during the difficult post-war years.” 

installation view of Kollwitz exhibition

Installation view of Käthe Kollwitz, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from March 31, 2024 through July 20, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Figura notes, “Though the German Expressionists had been using woodcut as their signature technique for almost two decades, Kollwitz had eschewed it until the post-war period, when she found it suited her efforts to broadcast her political messages as starkly and clearly as possible. She left large portions of her woodblocks uncarved so her figures emerge from fields of black. ‘Sorrow,’ [Kollwitz] wrote in her diary, 'is all darkness’.” 

Käthe Kollwitz is on view at MoMA until July 20, 2024. For more information, visit moma.org

A copy of the accompanying exhibition catalogue is currently on display in the AGO’s Martin Gelber Prints & Drawings Centre. Visits are by appointment. Open Door Wednesday will resume in September. For more information, visit ago.ca/learn/marvin-gelber-print-and-drawing-study-centre

Read Foyer

Subscribe to our newsletter for art and culture stories delivered to your inbox.