Jan. 21, 2022

Käthe Kollwitz's Frieze of Anger

The print "March of the Weavers" comes from probably the most famous series by Käthe Kollwitz titled "A Weavers' Rebellion". The weavers are emaciated, cadaverous, angry, but powerless at the same time. They try to resort to physical violence in response to economic exploitation, which they had experienced for numerous years. The hopeless rebellion aims to improve their fate or give vent to the anger that had been accumulating for a long time.

 They are about to deal with Dreissiger, who is their employer and tormentor. The artist stands aside and watches this hopeless march, although she could not have really seen it. The dramatic events of the weavers' rebellion, which became the subject of the series of six prints, took place in Lower Silesia in 1844. Kollwitz saw them through the eyes of Gerhart Hauptmann, the author of the drama "Weavers".

Tkacze Hauptmanna stłoczeni na znaczku pocztowym. Źródło: Wikimedia Commons

Having watched the performance (1893), the artist abandoned her work on illustrations for Émile Zola's "Germinal". Over the next few years, she created six graphic compositions depicting the events described by Hauptmann. They were not illustrations to the text in the strict sense, but rather visual references to the story from 1844 presented by the outstanding playwright.

Gerhart Hauptmann 1907. Źródło: Wikimedia Commons

Kollwitz wants to convey her message in a suggestive and simple way, which is characteristic of her artistic style. Images of misery, crying out for sympathy, make the most of her talent. It is worth remembering, however, that this work refers to even more feelings and strivings of the artist. Kollwitz sincerely admitted that we should not perceive art solely or primarily as something driven by compassion. The aspect that attracted the artist's attention, and also compelled the recipients of her art, is the visual fascination with miserable and suffering people. The artist herself, representing what we would call the middle class today, said that the world, the circles which she was a part of, seemed dull to her. There was simply, colloquially speaking, nothing to lay your eye on. Kollwitz looked for beauty and found it in a rather unexpected place - among people who, due to economic inequality, had to endure the humiliation of injustice and poverty (if not starvation) every day.

Kathe Kollwitz z dwoma synami, Peterem i Hansem, 1909. Źródło: Wikimedia Commons

Literary critics drew attention to the lack of a leading character in Hauptmann's drama. These people and their fate are not represented by one individual member of the group. Each person says their part for a moment and gives way to the next character. The suffering that they experience every day reduces their position to a human crowd and this very crowd is the main hero of "Weavers". It seems that Kollwitz had a similar approach to her characters when she created “March of the Weavers". They are presented at different distances from the viewer, and it is difficult to say if any of these people is the main figure. Even the man with a clenched fist does not claim the title of a leader of the people following him, although he is the first in the march. Nonetheless, each person has their own face which is highly individualized. It is fascinating how Kollwitz made these separate figures a marching crowd.

In Hauptmann's drama, weavers walking by the windows of factory owner Dreissiger sang an angry song titled "the Weavers' Song". It may therefore be assumed that the open mouths of weavers in Kollwitz's print are singing this dramatic (similarly to the whole oeuvre of the artist) song:

The justice to us weavers dealt,

Is bloody, cruel, and hateful;

Our life's one torture, long drawn out;

For Lynch law we'd be grateful.


Stretched on the rack, day after day,

Hearts sick and bodies aching,

Our heavy sighs their witness bear

To spirit slowly breaking.


 You villains all, you brood of hell,

You fiends in fashion human,

A curse will fall on all like you

Who prey on man and woman (...)

(Gerhart Hauptmann, Weavers, translated to Polish by Wilhelm Szewczyk, Warsaw 1955, pp. 56-7)