The Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie New York jointly acquired Self-Portrait in Front (1904) by Käthe Kollwitz, one of the most extraordinary self-portraits made at the beginning of the 20th century.
Christophe Cherix, Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints at MoMA’s Robert Lehman Foundation, said: “Käthe Kollwitz’s legacy weighs heavily on the 20th and 21st centuries. Executed in 1904, at the start of the artist’s remarkable life, Autoportrait en face is both a monument to the history of engraving and a work that speaks as much of his time as of ours. We are thrilled to have this exemplary work enter the MoMA collection and excited to present it to the public at MoMA this spring, where it will be installed in our newly renovated fifth-floor collection galleries.
Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945) was born in the Prussian town of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). She initially trained as a painter, but soon turned to drawing and printmaking, which she considered the most effective mediums for social criticism. (She also worked occasionally in sculpture.) Active in Germany from the 1890s to the 1930s—a period marked by the first wave of feminism, the social ills brought about by industrialization, and the political upheavals of the two world wars—Kollwitz used her work to confront the injustices of her time from a woman’s perspective, and to affirm the female perspective as a necessary and powerful agent for change. Along with motherhood and the working class, self-portraiture was an important recurring theme in her work; she used it as a vital form of self-affirmation and self-interrogation.
Kollwitz was 37 when she created Self-Portrait Opposite and, against all odds for a female artist and printmaker, she had become one of Germany’s most acclaimed artists, renowned for her painstakingly intricate and extraordinarily textured prints and for the deep compassion with which she approached her subjects. She underlined her artistic ambitions in this self-portrait by taking a virtuoso approach to color etching and presenting herself in a powerfully assertive frontal pose. Only 12 prints of this lithograph are known, and they were created in a few different color variations; this example is remarkable for the depth and subtlety of its hues. The artist used a red-brown pencil to shape the features of her face, a dark blue wash to frame her head dramatically, and an ocher shade to give subtle, vibrant depth. Joining 34 other prints by Kollwitz in MoMA’s collection, Self-Portrait En Face is one of the few works Kollwitz created in color; after 1905, she restricted her palette to black and white.
As part of the spring collection rotation that will end on May 28, 2022, the work is now on display in Gallery 504, alongside Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand (1907) by the German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Another rare and iconic self-portrait by a woman artist of the early modern period, Modersohn-Becker’s painting was also jointly acquired by MoMA and the Neue Galerie in 2017.
The acquisition was supported at MoMA by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Endowment for Prints and a gift from Jack Shear, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Alice and Tom Tisch (in honor of Marlene Hess), Kathy and Richard S Fuld, Jr., Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Maud I. Welles, Ronnie Heyman (in honor of Marlene Hess), and Carol and Morton Rapp; and to the Neue Galerie by a gift from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder.
Additionally, MoMA plans to organize and present a major exhibition of Kollwitz’s work in the future, and will publish an accompanying scholarly catalog.