There aren’t many artists whose work can spark vehement political debate half a century after their death; Käthe Kollwitz, one of Germany’s most important artists of the early 20th century, has earned this unusual honor.
Back in 1993, Germany’s then-chancellor Helmut Kohl (who passed away last month) ordered a large-scale bronze copy of her Pietà sculpture Mother With Her Dead Son to be installed in the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s New Guardhouse, located on Berlin’s main avenue, Unter den Linden. It was only a couple of years after German reunification, and the Guardhouse—which in the 1930s served as a memorial to victims of the Great War, and was turned into a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism by the East-German government in 1960—was again renamed as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. The memorial immediately became the subject of heated debates, not in the least due to the choice of artwork.
Astonishingly enough, by opting for a sculpture by Kollwitz, Kohl successfully challenged the left for one of its identificatory figures. For decades in West Germany, placards with Kollwitz’s famous “No More War!” poster from the 1920s were a common sight at peace demonstrations. In East Germany, the artist (who died in April 1945, a few days before the end of WWII) was venerated as a national hero and thus used for political ends—undeterred by regular references in the West to her diaries, in which she argues for the political independence of art. read more