Title: Frau an der Wiege
Artist: Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945)
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Jack Brown, 1993.47
Käthe Kollwitz’s Frau an der Wiege (Woman at the Crib) is a powerful portrayal of the precarious living conditions of the working class in 19th-century Germany. The etching shows a woman positioned on a small stool, leaning over her baby’s crib. Her right hand gently touches the baby’s face, almost as if to check whether the child is still alive. Her left-hand grips her head in a gesture of desperation. The baby’s tiny head (drawn not true to scale) seems vulnerable and fragile under the heavy blanket. It remains unclear whether it is just asleep or passed away. The image features stark contrasts between the light and darkly etched parts of the image—the walls in the background, the crib and the mother’s skirt almost blur into each other in darkness, whereas the white blanket in the background, the baby’s face and the mother’s upper body are white. The dark lines connect the child with the mother in a triangular form, binding them together in loving attachment, as well as in suffering. Frau an der Wiege further reveals atmospheric extremes—the baby’s stillness on the one hand, and the mother’s torment, expressed by her tense, rocking posture, on the other. The thick blanket in the crib not only suggests a cold room, but also a symbolic weight on the baby’s fragile body. The dark walls and the minimalistic design of the room further emphasize the tight, bare dwellings of the working-class milieu.
Kollwitz rose to fame as an illustrator and caricaturist for leftist magazines and social protest exhibitions in Berlin around the time that she made Frau an der Wiege. As one of only few well-known female artists at the time, her social-critical art was often either reduced to “Frauenkunst” (women’s art), a supposedly niche category for sentimental “female” art, or contrarily degraded to being unfittingly “masculine” in its forceful lining and its depiction of pinched, unconventionally beautiful faces. Kollwitz placed her art in the service of social critique, stating that she wanted to have an “impact during a time of so much need and helplessness.” In 1897, Kollwitz also finished her cycle “Ein Weberaufstand” (“Revolt of the weavers”), based on a drama by Gerhart Hauptmann. In contrast to the play, which refers to a real event in 1844, Kollwitz’s illustration is a loose adaptation that does not situate the desperate subjects in a clearly defined time, but conveys a universal class struggle. One image from that cycle (Fig. 2), shows a very similar subject as Frau an der Wiege: a mother leans over her dying child, desperately clutching her head, her tired face disappearing behind her sunken cheeks. In the background, another hungry child is sucking on his or her finger. As in Frau an der Wiege, the room is claustrophobic and dark, set in stark contrast to the dying child’s pale glow.
In our version here, her silhouette appears more clearly, with her nose pointing towards the child. Kollwitz’s decision to use her art to call attention to the often devastating conditions in which large portions of Germany’s population lived at the time was not just based on her leftist, political convictions. She also found working-class people to be the most interesting subjects. The suffering of mothers especially became her subject—the desperation of pregnant women getting illegal abortions or committing suicide because they did not know how to feed another mouth, and the grief of mothers whose infants had passed away. In her attempts to make the unspeakable visible, Kollwitz sometimes left the subject matter purposefully vague. The mother’s desperation is striking in Frau an der Wiege, but whether it is due to the loss of her child’s life, to the threat of death, or to her own poverty and exhaustion remains unclear. 1897 was also the year in which Kollwitz gave birth to her second son, Peter, whose death as an eighteen-year old soldier in World War I would be the most devastating disaster of her own life and would inspire her later depictions of grieving parents. Kollwitz’s expressive representation of the loss of children to hunger, disease and war, however is equally apparent in these earlier works. Kollwitz often modeled the children in her works after her two sons and the grieving mothers after herself, so it is possible that one of her children might have been a model for Frau an der Wiege.
Kollwitz emphasizes the imprints of physical and emotional exhaustion in her subjects’ faces to an extent that they lose some of their recognizability and individuality, and yet none of their expressivity and dignity. The figures’ hands often reveal more detail and individual characteristics than their faces do. The Kollwitz archives hold many meticulous, detailed studies for hands and fingers alone. Scarred and marked by years of physical labor, the hands are a poignant call for the visibility of poverty. In Frau an der Wiege, the mother’s hands are among the most expressive elements as well. With one hand she carefully, almost timidly, touches her child. She desperately presses the fingers of her other hand into her scalp, quite literally tearing her hair out—a silent, evocative scream, like Kollwitz’s oeuvre altogether.
—Contributed by Evelyn Kreutzer, Block Museum Graduate Fellow 2018–2019
Prelinger, Elizabeth, Käthe Kollwitz. Exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1992).
Käthe Kollwitz und ihre Freunde. Exh. cat. (Berlin: Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin, 2017).
Sharp, Ingrid, “Kollwitz’s Witness to War: Gender, Authority, and Reception.” Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 27 (2011). 87–107.
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