Käthe Kollwitz drew Karl Liebknecht at the request of his widow at the Berlin morgue on the morning of 25 January 1919, the day he was buried together with 31 other victims of the January uprising.
Impressed that Liebknecht’s funeral turned into a mass demonstration, the artist designed the commemorative sheet for the leader of the KPD as a lamentation of the dead. In late March she made a note in her diary: »I’m working on the ‘Funeral’. While working on it, the sheet has slowly developed into a farewell to Liebknecht.« The composition of the final version is an allusion to the Christian motif of the ›Lamentation of Christ‹.
After several experiments, Kollwitz’ exploratory search to give the right expression to this sheet resulted in her opting for her preferred techniques – etching, lithograph, and, eventually, woodcut. Although she was already in her 50s, this is only the second woodcut work she composed.
A comparison of etching, lithograph and woodcut reveals that the etching shows far more compositional differentiation in the treatment of lines, while the lithograph gains concentration and intensity of expression, which is even more true for the woodcut. In the woodcut, the contrast between the compact, dark areas of the garments in the foreground and the sharply cut white lines of the workers’ heads is striking. The effect achieved by the artist is characterised by dignified, quiet mourning.
Politically, the artist distanced herself from Liebknecht when she wrote of this work:
As an artist, I have the right to extract the emotional value from everything, to let it act on me and then to represent it. Therefore,
I have the right to depict the farewell of the workers at Liebknecht’s funeral, even to dedicate the work to the workers, without following Liebknecht’s political path.«
Käthe Kollwitz, Diaries, October 1920
Käthe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, rejected first version, 1919, line etching, aquatint, sandpaper, reservage and soft ground with imprint of laid paper, Kn 145 V
Käthe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, rejected second version, 1919, crayon lithograph (transfer of drawing NT 779 on ribbed laid paper), Kn 146