Don’t hide yourself – be the person you are, and find your essence.«
Käthe Kollwitz, Diaries, 18 February 1917
Kollwitz’ self-portraits are the mirror images of her soul. The »visual form of a soliloquy« as she called them, provide intimate insights into the phases of her life. They document the permanent and intense self-interrogation of the artist and at the same time testify to her masterly skills as a draughtswoman, graphic artist and sculptress.
In her early years these works reflect her endeavours to assert herself, but as she gained more life-experience, she increasingly focussed on carving out the essence of her personality and on using her studies of her own appearance to explore human nature. She did this by representing her physiognomy in a self-critical, unflattering and expressive manner.
Her work comprises more than 100 self-portraits in all the artistic techniques at her disposal. At the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne, there are more than 30 self-portraits, which form one of the focal points of the collection. These works include some of her earliest self-portraits that can be dated to the period in Munich where she studied at an art academy (1888-1890). Her last graphic self-portrait, dated 1938, and one of only three self-portraits in bronze still extant also form part of the Cologne collection.
All her life Käthe Kollwitz used this artistic genre for self-reflexion. Self-portraits also played a similarly important role in the work of some of her contemporaries such as Lovis Corinth, Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. What is striking, though, is that unlike her fellow artists, Kollwitz created hardly any full-length self-portraits. From her early period, there are some three-quarter portraits, in later years, she confined herself to the representation of her head, occasionally including one of her hands. This development is characteristic of her entire work which is almost completely devoid of backgrounds such as landscapes or interiors. She increasingly pushed the spatial dimension into the background, almost to the extent that it disappears entirely, in order to focus on the depiction of the human figure. In addition, she reduced these representations to their essentials and focussed on faces, hands and gestures, and on body language.
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1899, pen and black ink and brush and sepia on drawing cardboard, NT 12
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portait towards left, 1901, brush and pen lithograph in two colors with scratch technique in the drawing stone and in the tone stone, printed in brown, Kn 52 I
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait en face, 1904, crayon and brush lithograph with spray technique in four colors, Kn 85 II A
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait en face, c 1910, charcoal on grey-blue Ingres paper, NT 688
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1912, line etching, drypoint and soft ground with the imprint of laid paper and Ziegler’s transfer paper, Kn 126 VII a
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1915, crayon lithograph (transfer), Kn 134 c
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1924, crayon lithograph (transfer), Kn 209 b
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1924, woodcut, Kn 203 IV
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1934, charcoal on laid paper, NT (1240a)
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1926-1936, bronze, Seeler 26 I.B.3
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait, 1934, crayon and brush lithograph (transfer), Kn 263 b
Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait in profile towards right, 1938?, crayon lithograph (transfer), Kn 273 III