Drawing Basics: David Jon Kassan on "Self-Portrait" by Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz Self-Portrait, drawing

David Jon Kassan discusses Käthe Kollwitz's Self-Portrait.

Kathe Kollwitz Self-Portrait, drawing
By Käthe Kollwitz, 1924, lithograph drawing.

by David Jon Kassan

This drawing exemplifies the term that less is more. This is a straightforward, austere pencil sketch of the artist's most intimate theme, herself. Käthe Kollwitz offers us an excellent example of how a barebones representation of oneself can overflow with expression and meaning.

Kollwitz's self-portraits are some of the most powerful drawings of the 20th century. She offers the viewer an unvarnished portrayal of what she is thinking and feeling, as well as the burden that these thoughts and feelings have on her outer manifestation. The minor drooping of an eyelid tips off the viewer ever so slightly to the artist's many sleepless nights and worry. Kollwitz's stark self depiction confronts the viewer, with her direct gaze inviting us to understand her and the often-turbulent context in which her art was created.

Kollwitz was a realist and her skill as a draftsman is exceptional. This drawing is aggressive, with its application of large sweeping strokes and its precise application of simplified, heavily applied darks. Her tonal structure is built upon her use of line weight, which she creates through the variety of pressure she uses and through the way she takes advantage of the many different marks that can be achieved with litho crayon—mark-making that ranges from hard dark lines made by the pointed edges of the crayon to large tonal areas created by the long sides of the stick. Note how she utilizes the richness of the medium to effectively sculpt out her facial forms from under her brow ridge. She employs hard, sweeping lines to pull the form of her wrinkled, aged forehead around her brow ridge and down through the strong darkness. Her weary eyes give the drawing its strongest area of contrast, which draws the viewer into her beleaguered expression.

This lithograph by Kollwitz is one of many self-portraits the artist created during her lifetime. She depicted herself more than 100 times from the age of 18 up until a couple of years before her death in 1945. This drawing was done in 1924 and serves as a record of the artist's expression and outlook at this particular time in her life.

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2 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: David Jon Kassan on "Self-Portrait" by Kathe Kollwitz

  1. Her son has been buried in Belgium as he was killed in the war. She has made two sculpures herself and her husband kneeled in deep sorrow. The sculptures can be seen at the cimetary close to Ieper in Belgium. It is wonderful to see. So I can recommend it to anyone visiting Belgium.

  2. My mother was a patient of Dr. Karl Kollwitz, the husband of Kaethe. We are Jewish. When Dr. Kollwitz determined that my mom was pregnant in early 1934, shortly after Hitler came into power, he suggested that she terminate the pregnancy. My mom was very upset and weeping when she encountered Kaethe in the stairwell of building in which Dr. Kollwitz had his practice. My mom and Kaethe sat on the stairs and Kaethe persuaded my mom not to abort. Subsequently she presented my mom with a signed copy of Mother With Child on Her Arm (American Artist, Spring 2008 p. 58). Dr. Kollwitz brought me into this world in September 1934. My mom named me Peter in honor of Kaethe’s son. We have the sketch in our living room.

    Peter E. Engler
    Berkeley Hts. NJ 07922