Written by Goodrich Intern Kristen Pignuolo
Käthe Kollwitz’s Tod, Frau und Kind (Death, Woman and Child) (1910) is an arresting and disturbing image of a mother cradling her child with death, represented by the partial image of a human skull, lurking in the upper left-hand corner. Kollwitz is primarily known for her portrayals of the German working class and the realities of war in the early 20th century. Her work would later be labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi government and included in the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibit in Munich. Kollwitz was initially trained as a painter but later focused on other mediums such as sculpture and printmaking. She found that the artistic processes of etching and lithography enabled her to simplify her visual style by focusing on the use of graphic lines to better express the emotional impact of her somber subjects to the viewer, a trait that would become integral to her work.
In Tod, Frau und Kind, Kollwitz employs various printmaking techniques (drypoint, emery stone, and soft-ground etching) in order to produce a visceral and troubling image. Kollwitz used drypoint to create the harsh lines of the mother’s and child’s faces and the child’s body. This type of etching was also used to produce the almost violent cross-hatching between their faces, creating the unsettling illusion of the two merging into one. Kollwitz roughened the surface of the copper plate used in the etching process with an emery stone, a type of abrasive rock, in order to produce different tonal effects such as the shading of the boy’s face and chest or the dark background. The child’s face is gaunt and almost skeletal, the effect of the hatching and shading around the child’s eye. Soft-ground etching produced the softer, more ‘sketch-like’ parts of the image such as the knuckles of the mother’s hands. These hands are perhaps the most expressive part of the etching, conveying her tension and despair to the viewer as she attempts to save her child from his ultimate fate.
The effects produced by these different etching techniques can best be appreciated by viewing the work in person in the Bohorfoush Gallery as part of Ways of Seeing: Portraits, the third installment of the BMA’s Ways of Seeing series.