During World War I Kaethe Kollwitz lost her eldest son, Peter. This tragedy is carved into her self portrait. In the years that followed she devoted herself in every way possible to ending the feelings of over-ripe nationalism and aggressiveness that had torn her country and sent her son to an early death. Though she repudiated her son's nationalistic philosophy she loved him deeply, and we may gather that he was the inspiration for much of her work if not for the famous Death series done later in her life. As she wrote in 1916 "Made a drawing: the mother letting her dead son into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him as if I had to find him in the work. And yet everything I can do is so childishly feeble and inadequate. I feel obscurely that I could throw off this inadequacy, that Peter is somewhere in the work and I might find him."
Unlike many modern women artists Kollwitz did not renounce her role as a woman or attempt to replace the responsibilities of a family with art. Rather she accepted her role, using and exploring it for the enrichment of her art. The bisexuality that she felt to be in every artist is reflected in her work by her manly style and womanly sensitivity. The brotherhood of man, sorrow over death, the cruelty of war, care of the sick--these great humanitarian sentiments were the themes of her work. She wasn't mawkish: her work is grim and reminiscent of Goya's Disaster of War. The grimness is lifted only now and then by a look of suprise on the face of a young girl or by a mother laughing as she plays with her child. Otherwise we realize that to Kollwitz the joys in this life were its responsibilities: the comfort we give to our children or the outstretched hand to our fellow men.
The huddling together of figures conveys in almost primitive fashion our need for one another if man is to be saved from fear and hunger. But at the same time man must be alone as well as related. Kollwitz develops this idea in her self portraits.
There are many who would criticize her style for its illustration quality. She herself realized the limitations of realism and criticized much of her early work as too "anecdotal." Yet her development was towards an extremely expressive monumental style that was bold, simple, and marked by heavy lines and broad rhythms. With great humility and a life's devotion to her art she joined her spiritual master Barlach as one of the masters of German Expressionism.