Käthe Kollwitz was a grieving mother who died just before the end of World War 2. She lived in Germany and only survived the Nazi regime because of her international acclaim as an artist and sculptor.
After her son Peter died in the 1914-1918 war, she wrote, “There is in our lives a wound, which will never heal. Nor should it.”
She began to think about a memorial, although it took decades before she completed it.
Two giant figures, much larger than life, stand now in the German war cemetery in Belgium.
I haven’t seen them in person, but this is how they’ve been described:
The man’s head is bare. He kneels upright, fingers pressed under his arms. He is stiff, he is cold, holding himself in. The woman, covered, leans forward: head and shoulders bent, swags of her robe dropping like tears. She could be praying; she could be in pain: one hand up by her chin, the other bundled up, level with your eyes. You have to bend, to look up into her face.Ruth Padel
The agony of pain felt by each parent, expressed in slightly differently ways, is how Käthe chose to represent her mourning for her son. It is a moving tribute, a lasting memorial.
Following Peter’s death in 1914, the artist went through many iterations of how best to pay tribute to her son. Kollwitz began with drawings and sculptural models of a mother with her deceased child but then later decided to focus on depictions of the grieving parents.
Kollwitz’s memorial materialized both the collectivity and isolation of parental mourning. Both parents kneel, with the father erect and the mother bowed in her despair. Neither can stand, and each physically clasps the body, as if both attempt to give comfort and to steel themselves against the overpowering weight of sorrow.
Kollwitz indicates that while this deep despair is shared, it remains unique to each parent.
In 1924, the artist reconceptualized the memorial, creating two, separate sculptures instead of one joint memorial, and she placed a distance between each parent. The separation of the figures allows visitors to see the graves and/or cemetery – the source of parental grief – between the two. This physical separation additionally underscores that each parent mourns alone, with the depths of each parent’s psychological torment unique and inaccessible to the other.Käthe Kollwitz Artworks & Famous Paintings | TheArtStory
As I look at the two figures, it strikes me that grief is so intensely personal. No matter who we might be grieving alongside, their experience of grief will not be the same as our own. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. We each find our own ways to survive.
Conflict triggers creativity
Ruth Padel made a radio programme on the Grieving Parents statue, and that’s how I found out some of the backstory of this memorial. Ruth’s take on creativity is interesting:
For many years, I’ve been working on the question of what drives us to create, and how conflict triggers creativity. In trauma, many people turn to making poems, paintings, songs. I think “making” is one way we cope. It is reparation: our defence against the dark. … You explore and make sense of your feelings about it by revealing the appalling thing that happened. Acknowledging it, you help us see it from a new and healing perspective: you trans-form it.Käthe Kollwitz, THE GRIEVING PARENTS – ruthpadel.com
There is great truth in this.
We, the grieving, make different things.
Some write poetry.
Some draw or paint.
Some create gardens.
Some compose music.
Sometimes our creativity might come in a great wave, particularly in the earliest months or years following our bereavement.
That wave may slowly peter out. One father I read about described how he wrote poetry in perfect rhyme for months. But then the poetry stopped.
For others, the creativity that grief has unleashed endures.
The process of creativity is more important than the product
Few of us are ‘good enough’ creators to produce something that other people will admire, at least probably not outside our own circle of friends or family. But that doesn’t matter.
The creative burst that grief unleashes is primarily for our own benefit. It is a way of memorialising our loved ones; a way of expressing how we feel.
The process of making it can be just as important as the end product, perhaps even more so.
If at the end there is something we want to share with others, that’s fine. Or if it’s something that we keep close to ourselves, that’s fine too.
Your grief journey – your creativity
Have you expressed your grief in a creative way? Have you created something to honour the memory of your loved one? It would be so interesting to receive pictures of what you’ve made. If you’d like to share anything that I can include in a blogpost for others to see, drop me a line by email or in the comments.
I’ll end this here with Käthe’s words. Her desire for her son’s presence is something that all of us bereaved parents can surely relate to.
My Peter, I intend to try to be faithful. What does that mean? … I want to honour God in my work, which means to be honest and sincere. Dear Peter, I ask you to be around me, to help me. I know you are there, but I see you only vaguely, as if you were shrouded in mist. Stay with me.”(Diary entry by Käthe on 31st December of the year her son died.)
READ MORE: Creativity and Grief
If you’re a bereaved parent, there is compassion and support available for you with The Compassionate Friends.