A Weavers’ Uprising (1893–1897)
Käthe Kollwitz’s early work depicts common folk with a strikingly unsentimental candor that is, nonetheless, imbued with a profound sympathy for their plight. The child of an open-minded upper-middle class family with socialist inclinations, young Käthe was allowed to venture out freely into the streets and docks of Königsberg Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) where she experienced workers in their everyday life.
The inspiration for A Weaver’s Uprising came unexpectedly. In 1890, at twenty-three, Kollwitz had returned to Königsberg after finishing her art studies in Munich to start work on a different series inspired by Emile Zola’s famous book Germinal about a coalminers strike in northern France. To capture the grit of the miners’ toil she installed herself in the seedier dockside taverns frequented by sailors to sketch. However, she dropped this project after seeing Gerhart Hauptmann’s (1862–1946) play Die Weber (The Weavers) of 1892. The play recounted the dramatic failure of the Silesian Weavers strike of 1844, an historic event, and she began working on this new series inspired by their rebellion.
In the series of six prints she did not opt to illustrate the play literally, choosing rather to highlight its most dramatic moments. Influenced by German Symbolists such as Max Klinger, Kollwitz infused the harsh reality of the weavers’ story with symbolic meaning. She gained early recognition through her A Weaver’s Uprising series, which would have won her a gold medal in the official Great Berlin Art Exhibition at the Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin in 1898, had it not been for Emperor Wilhelm II’s judgment of it as “gutter art.” The success of the series, however, led to an appointment to teach at the Berlin School of Arts for Women.
Image: Königsberg fishmarket ca. 1880