Art Expressing Grief and Loss: Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz
In yesterday’s post I quoted German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945); today I want to introduce you to her work. In the 1890’s Kollwitz made a series of lithographs exploring social subjects: children, poverty, death, and protest against injustice. In 1903, Kollwitz captured the primal feelings of grief and loss in her powerful image, Woman with Dead Child. By “stripping away any vestige of ‘civilized’ or rational mourning”(1), this image may be the strongest Kollwitz ever made. Kollwitz’s friend of sixty years, Beate Bonus-Jeep, wrote about her reaction to this image:
A mother, animal-like, the light-colored corpse of her dead child
. . . seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged to her womb.(2)
What inspired Kollwitz and other 18th and 19th Century artists and photographers to make so many images of mothers with their deceased children? In the late 19th century, every second child in Germany died before its fifth birthday. Every fifth child born in 1960 died in childhood. Today, child mortality in industrialized countries is below 5 per 1,000 live births.(3)
Contemporary society and childbirth education avoids talking openly about perinatal death and grief; birth artists produce "pretty" pictures. Not only does this denial further isolate women and families whose child dies, but it keeps all of us from feeling our vulnerability and humanity.
1, 2 Prelinger, Elizabeth (1992). Käthe Kollwitz. New Haven and London: National Gallery of Art, Washington Yale University Press. p. 43.
3 Max Roser “Child Motality” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality/ [Online Resource]