Käthe Kollwitz, Woman in the Lap of Death, 1920/1921, woodcut, Kn 165, Cologne Kollwitz Collection © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

The suicide of Käthe Kollwitz’ cousin Else Rautenberg in 1920 is, according to a diary entry, »the saddest event« for the artist in that year. Her exploration of this incident is reflected in this woodcut from 1921.

The interpretation of death is given a completely new aspect in this work. Death is not depicted as a power that grips living beings in order to destroy them, but as a force that gives refuge to a person who – maybe after a long and painful struggle – has arrived at Death’s door. Shrouded in a wide cloak and held by Death’s strong hand, the dead woman can rest and find peace in his lap. Her head rests on his breast and her open mouth conveys the image of a final exhalation, of being allowed to let go. This image is underlined by the woman’s wooden shoes that have been removed (bottom left). A thin crown of thorns lies on the floor in front of the crouching figure. Death, with a solemn and benign expression on his face, has lowered his head almost affectionately to hers and sits contemplating and keeping watch. The symbol of the crown of thorns is a reference to Christ who, although innocent, was beaten and mocked, but did not defend himself.
In this work, Käthe Kollwitz referred to her cousin Else Rautenberg who was also defenceless in her situation as a mentally ill outsider in a difficult marriage.

The artist wrote to Arthur Bonus about this work:

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Isn’t it the one with the crown of thorns at the bottom, left? My idea was that Death gently offers the woman refuge. The crown of thorns is left lying on the floor. Or, Death gently lays her to rest, but she no longer wears the crown of thorns.«
Käthe Kollwitz, in: Arthur Bonus, Das Käthe Kollwitz Werk

Studies

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921, charcoal and black crayon on Ingres paper, NT 883, Cologne Kollwitz Collection © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921, charcoal and black crayon on Ingres paper, NT 883

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921, black crayon on blue laid paper, NT 884, Cologne Kollwitz Collection © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921, black crayon on blue laid paper, NT 884

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921/1922, charcoal, black and brown crayon, blotted, on olive-brown laid paper, NT 885, Cologne Kollwitz Collection © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

Käthe Kollwitz, Death takes a Woman, 1921/1922, charcoal, black and brown crayon, blotted, on olive-brown laid paper, NT 885

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