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01/06/2016

By | From the Collections

On the Global Day of Parents, Julia Nurse highlights the moving drawings of Käthe Kollwitz.

It is every parent’s nightmare to witness a sick child but it was a frighteningly common scenario before the discovery of penicillin in 1928.  Arguably, no one encapsulates the notion of maternal worry more than Käthe Kollwitz in her expressionist prints of grieving or anxious mothers from the early 1920s.

The Wellcome Library is fortunate to own a handful of Kollwitz’s 265 prints from this period. Most of these works feature the mother and child as a subject, a theme that dominated her oeuvre, though she was also concerned with social injustice, in particular the poverty stricken and often sick proletariat of post war Berlin who visited her doctor husband.

L0026695 Mothers holding their sick children waiting to consult a phy Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Mothers holding their sick children waiting to consult a physician. Lithograph by K. Kollwitz, 1920. 1920 By: Käthe Schmidt KollwitzPublished: 1920 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Mothers holding their sick children waiting to consult a physician. Lithograph by K. Kollwitz, 1920. Wellcome Library reference: 38566i.

Her prints were used in posters drawing attention to the poverty of families in post-war Germany:

L0026700 A mother protecting her baby, representing an appeal for sta Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A mother protecting her baby, representing an appeal for starving children. Photolithograph after K. Kollwitz. 1925-1928 By: Käthe Schmidt Kollwitzafter: Berta Lask and Erwin von KreibigPublished: [1925/1928?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A mother protecting her baby, representing an appeal for starving children. Photolithograph after K. Kollwitz. 1925-1928. Wellcome Library reference: 38646i.

Though saddened by what she witnessed, Kollwitz saw in her subjects a beauty that her expressionist style underlined. To add to Kollwitz’s anxieties, both her sons fell ill in the winter of 1902 to 1903. Peter, the youngest aged seven was susceptible to a lung condition and possibly the subject of this lithograph from 1920:

L0026696 A physician examining the chest of a thin, perhaps tuberculo Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A physician examining the chest of a thin, perhaps tuberculous boy, in the presence of the latter's mother. Lithograph by K. Kollwitz, 1920. 1920 By: Käthe Schmidt KollwitzPublished: 1920 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A physician examining the chest of a thin, perhaps tuberculous boy, in the presence of the latter’s mother. Lithograph by K. Kollwitz, 1920. Wellcome Library reference: 38567i.

Yet it was her eldest son, Hans who narrowly escaped death from diptheria following treatment by her husband, which she later described in a letter to a friend:

“Finally, in the early morning, at three AM, my husband said, ‘I think we’ve won him back’. … During this night an unforgettable cold chill caught and held me: it was the terrible realisation that any second this young child’s life may be cut off, and the child gone for ever. … It was the worst fear I have ever known.” (‘That’s How the Light Gets In’ website)

When her son Peter later died while serving in World War I, it is no surprise that Kollwitz fell into a prolonged period of depression. Her work, both before and after this moment, effectively encapsulated the terrifyingly worrying emotions that all parents encounter at some point throughout their child’s life.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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