Käthe Kollwitz’s Peasants’ War Series (ca. 1901–1908)

The German Peasants’ War of the sixteenth century might seem an unlikely topic for a young artist. The War was fought three centuries before the artist in question, Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), was born, and it was not a triumph, but a series of skirmishes that ended badly: the landowners had horses and artillery, the peasants did not.

Kollwitz, however, was no ordinary artist. It was the failure of the rebellion that attracted her, the underdog farmers, outmatched by every measure, who yet valiantly defended their rights. Across a vast and masterful oeuvre, this was Kollwitz’s constant interest: the innate dignity, courage, and strength of the poor.

At the time Kollwitz made the seven etchings that comprise her Peasants’ War series, she had completed her studies in art, and was living in pre-Weimar Berlin, active in radical leftist circles. Born to a Socialist family, she had recently married a doctor who worked in a clinic for the poor. The newlyweds chose to live in the same neighborhood as the clinic; Kollwitz liked to sit in the waiting room, and observe.

The first etching Kollwitz completed in the series, the etching from which the others stemmed, was “Charge” in 1902. “Charge” depicts a woman raising her arms as if at a starting line, while a morass of bodies plunge forward, their mouths stretched with screams. The image is smudgy and raw — Kollwitz pressed in various fabrics for texture. Seen from behind, the woman is balanced on the ball of her left foot, her knobby fingers rising high above the chargers’ knives and bayonets, like a conductor signaling the violins. Kollwitz called this commander-in-chief Black Anna, and said she was based on a real person, though the artist was known for taking imaginative license with her source material.

Together, the etchings form a disjointed narrative, each depicting a different moment of the War. Black Anna appears just once more, in “Battlefield”. Now she’s looking for her son’s corpse, with a lantern in her hand, and seems to have finally found it. She stoops down with a leg on either side of his body, more bodies all around, and reaches to touch a finger to her son’s chin. Whereas in “Charge” Black Anna’s sleeves are pushed up above her elbow, workmanlike, in “Battlefield”, the sleeves have unraveled, and hang in finely-etched limp threads.

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