German printmaker, sculptor, teacher, and social activist Käthe Kollwitz was no stranger to change. Born in 1867, she witnessed seismic political, societal, and economic shifts under three regimes: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich. She experienced the trauma of two world wars, losing her youngest son in World War I, and her grandson and Berlin home in World War II. She died in April 1945, shortly before the war ended. As an artist, Kollwitz believed it was her duty to picture the loss, injustice, and poverty that these significant transformations brought upon the German working class. Activism played out through her works, as Kollwitz cast light on the plight and suffering of the disenfranchised.

Kollwitz the Printmaker

Change also came to define Kollwitz’s approach to printmaking. Both a perfectionist and problem solver, she never shied away from the challenge of drastically reworking a composition. She was open to switching from one printmaking medium to another, and even willing to reject a work completely—only to begin again. Kollwitz was largely self-taught and highly experimental in how she approached traditional techniques, especially in her complex layering of etching processes on a single plate.

The elaborate, demanding process of revising and refining her ideas reflects Kollwitz’s sustained scrutiny of the merit and meaning of her art. Despite her many successes and achievements—including her election as the first woman member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1919—she continuously grappled with doubts about the aesthetic and political integrity of her work. Diary entries and letters frequently divulge frustration and apprehension as she produced multiple states and versions of a subject. However, Kollwitz did not view her trials and abandoned projects as failures. Not only did she keep her working sheets, but often inscribed them with a small “x” in pencil in the lower-left corner, preserving them for her family.

Inside Getty’s Kollwitz Collection

In 2016, the Getty Research Institute acquired the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection, featuring prints and drawings by Kollwitz that provide a unique insight into her creative process and technical experiments in printmaking. These works allow us to trace the evolution of a design—from preparatory drawing to trial and corrected workings proofs, and finally to a finished state. They sometimes constitute a timeline of an artistic process that spanned several years. Dr. Simms, a Los Angeles art collector, acquired the core of the collection in 1978 from Kollwitz’s estate. Many of these 121 sheets were specially marked by the artist with a graphite “x.” Dr. Simms continued to seek rare prints and drawings by Kollwitz over the next four decades.

Must-See: In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht

Among the many rare and compelling works on view from the Simms collection in Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics is a sequence of preparatory sheets for In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht. The work memorialized the recently assassinated leader of the Spartacus League (precursor to the Communist Party of Germany), Karl Liebknecht, who was killed by paramilitary police on January 15, 1919. Kollwitz was shocked by the brutality of his death, and decided to create a print picturing Liebknecht surrounded by mourners. This project exemplifies Kollwitz’s openness to question and rethink her approach, as she moved from etching to lithography, before arriving at woodcut.

Kollwitz’s preparatory process typically began with multiple drawings. For this print, she started by drawing focused figure studies of Liebknecht’s body in the mortuary. Witnessing an outpouring of immense sorrow at his death, she turned her attention to the subject of loss. The artist developed the print’s composition in a charcoal and graphite preparatory study, which emphasizes the grief of five men who lean over Liebknecht’s corpse. Dissatisfied with how she had rendered the two mourners on the right, she cut those sections out of the page, patched the sheet, and drew the figures anew.

Sketch of five men with heads bowed over a prone sixth man.

In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, January 1919, Käthe Kollwitz. Charcoal and graphite on beige-blue laid paper, with a green-paper fill. The Getty Research Institute. Partial Gift of Dr. Richard A. Simms

Sketch of five men with heads bowed over a prone sixth man.

Rejected first version of In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, before October 1919, Käthe Kollwitz. Etching, aquatint, sandpaper, lift ground, and soft ground with the imprint of laid paper, printed in black ink on copperplate paper. State II of VII. The Getty Research Institute. Partial Gift of Dr. Richard A. Simms

In the etching that followed, she attempted to capture the drawing’s shadowed, volumetric forms by imprinting the textures of paper and sandpaper into the etching ground. After producing seven states of this print, she rejected it, and decided instead to turn to lithography.

Five men with heads bowed over a prone sixth man.

Rejected second version of In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, as of October 1919, Käthe Kollwitz. Transfer lithograph from a crayon drawing on laid paper, printed in black ink on vellum paper, and reworked with charcoal and graphite. Working proof, only state. The Getty Research Institute. Partial Gift of Dr. Richard A. Simms. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the subsequent transfer lithograph, Kollwitz concentrated on the outlines of the mourner’s bodies. Behind those nearest Liebknecht, she drew an additional row of faces into the scene, expanding the size of the crowd. Her inscription on this working proof compares this version to the etching she rejected:

Lower sections corner right etching better
man left etching better
man crying right etching good,
but torso
in front more bending over.

Woodcut print of five men with heads bowed over a prone sixth man. There are more people standing behind, inluding a woman with a baby.

In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, between early August and Christmas 1920, Käthe Kollwitz. Woodcut, printed in black ink on japan paper. State V of VI. The Getty Research Institute. Partial Gift of Dr. Richard A. Simms. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Sometime in late 1920 Kollwitz finally realized the print in woodcut. This powerful work depicts on an impressive scale, in stark black and white, the anguished mourners gathered around Liebknecht’s body. Now one of her most recognized and celebrated works, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht was the result of the artist’s willingness to question, to experiment, and to keep making changes until she was satisfied.

The poverty, inequity, and wartime loss she portrayed remain urgent and relevant issues of our day.  What is more, we can all relate to and admire the artist’s willingness to challenge herself, to embrace the risk of failure as a part of experimentation, and to change her mind.

See prints and drawings by Käthe Kollwitz from the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection in the exhibition Käthe Kollwitz: Prints, Process, Politics, on view at the Getty Research Institute from December 3, 2019 through March 29, 2020.