When artist Käthe Kollwitz moved to Berlin in 1891 with her husband, a medical doctor, the city was a roaring metropolis. As the capital of the expanding German empire, the city was home to an economic boom and a thriving new bourgeois culture. Prosperity didn’t reach everyone in Berlin, however. The working classes suffered from wage exploitation, precarious housing, hunger, and poverty, which led to high rates of illness and infant mortality, as well as violence and alcoholism.

Living in the working-class neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg where her husband had his practice, Kollwitz witnessed the harsh reality faced by proletarian families—and women in particular. In August 1909, she wrote in her diary:

At Beckers’. The man goes away, the woman complains. Always the old ballad. Illness, unemployment, boozing—that always goes around in a circle. She has had 11 children, 5 are alive; the big ones die and small ones always follow.

Moved by these circumstances and committed to social advocacy, Kollwitz made the proletarian woman a focus of her art.

Describing her approach to depicting working-class women, Kollwitz noted that “pity and sympathy” were minor elements in her choice. Instead, she wrote, “I simply found them beautiful. As Zola or someone once said: ‘The beautiful is the ugly.’”

In 1908 Kollwitz was invited to contribute to the popular periodical Simplicissimus. Founded in 1896 in Munich, the journal was an important satirical weekly in the German-speaking world, with a distribution of 100,000 copies. Leo Tolstoi referred to it as “the most important and precious source (…) to know the state of contemporary society.”

While Kollwitz refused commissions from the competing journals Arena and Berliner Illustrierte, criticizing their lack of artistic quality, she was excited to work for Simplicissimus.

In her own print publications, Kollwitz explored the plight of the worker through a historic lens. For example, her Peasant’s War cycle is a modern interpretation of the 16th-century uprising of German laborers against aristocratic landowners. But in the images she contributed to Simplicissimus, which reached a broader audience, she turned to the tragedies of contemporary city life.

Between 1908 and 1911, the journal published fourteen of her images. These were reproductions of original drawings which she produced specifically for the journal. Images of Misery I-VI (Bilder vom Elend I-VI), published between November 1909 and January 1910, explore the struggle of motherhood experienced by proletarian women. Each image occupies a full page of the journal, and is published with a title that was supplied by Kollwitz.

A person sleeps with their head on a table while a child sleeps beneath them

Käthe Kollwitz, Portraits of Misery I (Homeworker), in Simplicissimus, No. 31 (1909): 515. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-S1389)

The first image, Homeworker (Heimarbeit), considers the exploitation of workers in the textile industry, which was also the subject of her 1897 print series A Weavers’ Revolt. A woman has fallen asleep at her dimly lit table in the midst of her work, scissors and a piece of fabric by her hand. Her physical exhaustion contrasts with her child’s peaceful slumber.

Labor regulations did not apply to women who worked from home for additional income; this led to 16-hour days for women, who hardly earned a living wage.

A pregnant woman knocks on a door

Käthe Kollwitz, Portraits of Misery III (At the Doctor), in Simplicissimus, No. 35 (1909): 587. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-S1389)

At the Doctor (Beim Arzt) depicts a pregnant woman knocking on a door. Disheartened, she looks down at her round belly, the weight of which she supports with her right hand. Through the woman’s resigned posture, Kollwitz expresses no joy in this pregnancy; rather, the artist alludes to a burden that repeats itself year after year.

A person walks down stone stairs carrying a child and a baby, covering the baby's mouth with a hand

Käthe Kollwitz, Portraits of Misery IV (Into the Water), in Simplicissimus, No. 38 (1909): 659. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-S1389)

Into the Water (Ins Wasser) represents the dire consequences of such unwanted pregnancies. A pregnant woman carrying her two young children walks down narrow steps to a canal. In her right arm, the mother clutches her child, who, in turn, pulls the mother’s face close. With her left arm, she holds her baby, her hand covering its mouth. The mother’s large right foot approaches the water.

“Into the water” was a well-known phrase signifying suicide by drowning, an increasingly common occurrence of the day. Overwhelmed by child care, badly paid labor, and a lack of birth control, some mothers saw ending their lives and those of their children as the only possible solution.

A pregnant woman faces left, her hand on her belly and her back to the two children behind her

Käthe Kollwitz, Portraits of Misery VI (Christmas), in Simplicissimus, No. 43 (1910): 747. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-S1389)

The last image of the cycle depicts another pregnant woman. Bent forward in labor pain, she turns away from her children, who look to her expectantly. While the image was published with the title Christmas (Weihnacht), in her diary Kollwitz referred to the depicted woman as “die Kreisende,” or the woman in labor.

Here, as in all images in the cycle, Kollwitz sets her figures against a neutral ground, pushing them toward the viewer. By compressing the figures into a shallow pictorial space, Kollwitz heightens the sense of oppression.

In the first years of the 1900s, when these images were published, birth control was the subject of heated public debates in Germany. Kollwitz’s images were thus widely understood as commentaries not only on the miseries of proletarian life but also on women’s reproductive rights.

In 1872, the infamous Paragraph 218 of Germany’s Imperial Criminal Code had come into effect. Commonly referred to as the abortion paragraph, it made abortion an offense punishable with up to five years in prison. In the Weimar Republic, the deletion of Paragraph 218 – or the legalization of abortion in the first three months of pregnancy – was demanded by socialist and communist parties. Notably, this challenge did not arise as a defense of women’s rights, but rather grew out of the fight for the struggling working classes.

A tired looking woman holds a baby in one arm while holding the hand of a young child with the other

Käthe Kollwitz, Down with the Abortion Paragraphs!, before August 1923, crayon lithograph, state II of II. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne

Kollwitz participated in the abortion debate with her poster Down with the Abortion Paragraphs! (Nieder mit den Abtreibungs-Paragraphen!). Commissioned by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1923, it shows a pregnant woman, holding a baby in one arm above her swollen belly, and shielding a second child with her other arm. Malnourished, with protruding cheekbones and dark, sunken eyes, it is clear she has no means to support a third child. The text suggests that abortion rights are a viable remedy to the plight of working women with too many mouths to feed.

Kollwitz depicted human suffering with an immediacy that made her images broadly relatable. But this also led to her art being appropriated by others, without her involvement. One such example is People in Need! (Volk in Not!), a booklet on abortion rights written by the doctor Carl Credé in 1926 from his prison cell. A member of the Association of Socialist Doctors, he was imprisoned for practicing abortions.

Carl Reisser, a Dresden publisher, issued Credé’s pamphlet in 1927 with sixteen illustrations of works by Kollwitz, including her Images of Misery and her drawing for the KPD poster. Kollwitz’s name appears on the booklet’s cover, suggesting her active participation in the publication; however, there is no evidence to support this.

Art historian Gisela Schirmer suggests that the images were used without the artist’s knowledge. The publisher had collaborated with Kollwitz two years earlier on a catalogue of her work, and thus would have had access to these reproductions of her drawings.

In Images of Misery as well as in the poster for the KPD, Kollwitz stripped motherhood of any idealization, depicting the real living conditions of working women. Through her carefully observed, powerful images, Kollwitz threw a sharp light on the fate of working-class women—while also signaling their agency. It is thus no surprise that Kollwitz’s works were deployed in as weapons in the fight for women’s reproductive rights.

Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics is on view at the Getty Center from December 3, 2019 – March 3, 2020.