When The Guerrilla Girls first began to practice their entertaining and enlightening brand of feminist art protest, they decided to protect their identities behind gorilla masks and to assume the names of the great female artists of the past. The two leading Guerrilla Girls assumed the names of their favorite inspirations—Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz. Born July 8, 1867, Kollwitz lacks the Hollywood treatment and colorful life history of Kahlo, but deserves equal recognition based on her lifetime of artistry and relentless humanism. Kollwitz’s Self-Portrait with Hand on Forehead (above, from 1910) belongs to a set of self-portraits that lack the overt psychodrama of Kahlo’s self-portraits but quietly add up to the same single document of a woman dealing with the forces opposing her, both as an artist and as a woman. Kollwitz dealt with the added horror of seeing her native Germany plunge the world into two world wars, which took her son and her grandson from her. Whereas most of the German Expressionists were men dealing with the wages of war, Kollwitz as an Expressionist woman gave a whole new perspective as a mother.
Kollwitz married her husband, Karl, a doctor in 1891. Karl specialized in treating the poor people of Berlin. Kathe watched these poor people seek her husband’s help and took those observations to help them in her own way. Works such as Hunger (above, from 1925) depict in stark black and white woodcuts the harsh reality of poverty and starvation. The bulging eyes of the little girl and the reduction of her parents to a few simple lines as they disappear into the black void conveys the reality of hunger like few other images ever have. Kollwitz identified with these people and championed their causes in series of works based on peasant revolutions and workers’ strikes. She wore accusations of socialism and communism as badges of honor, which soon became dangerous bull’s eyes as the Nazis assumed power.
First, the Nazis stripped Kollwitz of her teaching position. Later, they denied her outlets to sell her work. The Gestapo even threatened Kollwitz and her husband with internment in a concentration camp, but her international fame saved her. Sadly, allied bombing of Germany destroyed many of her works. Kollwitz died in 1943, never seeing her country freed from Nazi tyranny. In many ways, Kollwitz became the mother of her country, giving shape to the maternal instinct of German mothers faced with the destruction of their families in works such as Mother and Daughter (above, from 1919). Rather than present the bond between a woman and her children in flowery terms of “soft” femininity, Kollwitz shows the strength of the bond with her stark black and white imagery. Kollwitz loved with a tough love that even death could not tear asunder. Such universal emotions allow Kollwitz’s art and its message to cross both national borders and historical eras as long as mothers continue to lose sons and daughters in senseless conflict. All Kollwitz is saying is such works is give peace a chance.