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The Volunteers

Kathe Kollwitz

The Volunteers

Kathe Kollwitz
  • Original Title: Die Freiwilligen
  • Date: 1922
  • Style: Expressionism
  • Series: War
  • Genre: genre painting
  • Media: woodcut, paper
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In the second plate of her War series, Kollwitz depicts young boys driven by patriotism and a sense of duty volunteering for battle. With a graphic woodcut style, she prioritizes figural movement over detail, emphasizing the collective solidarity of the soldiers. The boys form a curve that rises from the bottom right to the top left, propelled by their convictions. They sing with their mouths open and arms clasped around each other, while one boy beats a drum to lead them forward. However, Kollwitz foreshadows the tragedy to come by hollowing out their faces with thick strokes, presciently evoking the skeletons they will become. The drummer, whose call to join the war beats louder than all, has already transformed into the specter of death, and the open mouths of two boys in song become a scream of terror in a third.

Kollwitz identifies each of the soldiers by name as her son Peter's friends, who were killed during the First World War in the second state of the print. By choosing to place the central figure, with an optimistic glow on his face, at the image's center, the artist highlights the tragedy of the young men's innocence, who gave up their lives for what they believed was a greater cause. Kollwitz chose to emphasize the personal, emotional, and psychological consequences of conflict on those who participated and those left behind in War. By doing so, Kollwitz sought to give universal importance to Peter's death and promote public causes through her personal loss, which came to be intimately intertwined. Similarly to her contemporaries, Otto Dix and Francisco Goya, Kollwitz critiqued war from her own experience.

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