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“Unemployment” (1909), etching and engraving; by Käthe Kollwitz, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The early works that made her name — the two series of etchings based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers and The Peasants’ War — are well represented in this show. She later abandoned the complexity of their naturalism in favour of a hard-hitting expressionist simplicity. Kollwitz never fully recovered from the loss of a son in the First World War; many of her later works are devoted to mourning.

Despite the darkness and depression, however, Kollwitz emerges as an indomitable survivor. She took up left-wing politics during the 1920s and early 1930s, but her art never lapsed into propaganda. Like Michelangelo, whose Pietà was a constant source of inspiration, she rejected religion yet drew on a reservoir of Judaeo-Christian spirituality.

“Die Carmagnole” (1901), etching and drypoint; by Käthe Kollwitz, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Under the Nazis Kollwitz, like Barlach, retreated into “inner emigration”. The Gestapo grilled her but let her go. Widowed and bombed out, she saw her surviving son for the last time on Good Friday, 1945. Three weeks later, days before the war ended, she died. Her reputation has survived the postwar communist attempt to assimilate her to a socialist realism. In Berlin Käthe Kollwitz has her own museum and a square named after her. But her more lasting memorial is the affection in which she is held. Her lament for the inhumanity of man stands as a warning to her countrymen — and the world.
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