THE HAIR is wild, the face blurred and fierce. A despairing, naked mother hunches over her dead son and clutches him to her, as if to subsume him back into herself. When this etching was first exhibited by the Berlin Secession, an artists’ collective, in 1903, viewers were shocked. In its visceral portrayal of anguish, Käthe Kollwitz’s “Frau mit totem Kind” (“Woman with Dead Child”, pictured) was unlike any previous depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus Christ.

Portrait of Käthe Kollwitz( Hugo Erfurth/Wikimedia Commons)

Some art historians regard Kollwitz, who died in 1945, as a virtuoso on a par with Dürer and Rembrandt. During her life her work was published in magazines and exhibited in galleries across the West, but it has since been largely overlooked. For much of the past century, the “critical establishment gave her the cold shoulder”, says Maria Gough, a professor of modern art at Harvard University. Two major exhibitions, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, aim to change that.

In the past critics argued that Kollwitz was “a pessimistic painter of suffering”. It is true that her subjects were human figures caught in the pain of war or poverty, but both exhibitions show that the artist was radical in both vision and medium. Like Charles Dickens, whose novels she read, she sought to capture the pain of those left behind by a rapidly modernising society and to portray life as “true and genuine and untinted” as possible. As she wrote in her diary in 1919: “Art can be a megaphone for those who cannot speak.”

She came by her conscience early, as the daughter of free-thinking parents in Königsberg (a German city that was ethnically cleansed by the Soviet army after the second world war and is now Kaliningrad, part of Russia). She was allowed to study art—hardly usual for a girl at the time—and did so in Berlin, Paris and Florence. After Kollwitz married in 1891 and settled in Berlin, her star rose quickly. In 1898 she exhibited her first cycle of etchings, “A Weavers’ Revolt”. A jury awarded her a gold medal, but the Kaiser refused to bestow it, as “a medal for a woman, that would be going too far”.

The controversy made her name, but just as her career began to flourish, the first world war broke out (partly thanks to the same Kaiser’s extraordinarily poor judgment). Her youngest son was killed in combat. From that point on, Kollwitz’s art focused on the human costs of battle: portraits of grief, narrative series of woodcuts and etchings and eventually sculptures, including a Pietà selected in 1993 by the German government for its national monument to victims of war.

Though Kollwitz was a member of the Secession, a group of artists who rejected academic tradition, she preferred the human figure and monochrome palettes to the colourful abstractions that came to define Modernism. Some Modernists, who saw painting real people, especially women, as somehow unsophisticated, dismissed her as a “social-democratic agitator”. Detractors focused on her themes and biography rather than her prodigious talent.

According to Starr Figura, the curator of the MoMA exhibition, it is high time that Kollwitz is recognised as “one of the most extraordinary draughtspeople and printmakers in history”. She is a touchstone for a host of contemporary artists, including Kerry James Marshall, one of the most celebrated painters working today. On display at MoMA are the successive “states”, or plates of each image, which show how Kollwitz conveyed such emotional power.

Meanwhile the political posters she made during the Weimar period—including the most famous, “Nie Wieder Krieg” (“Never Again War”, pictured above)—have had a long afterlife in left-wing politics. Her social-realist style led to her work being co-opted by the communist East and dismissed by the capitalist West during the cold war, the Staedel show points out.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kollwitz was forced to resign from teaching, her work sidelined by their censors as “degenerate art”. She died just as the second world war was coming to a close. Decades later, her images of war and death remind viewers of the harrowing images that fill screens today from conflicts around the world. With one singular difference: in Kollwitz’s art, the grieving are honoured with tenderness and empathy, and are truly seen.

“Kollwitz” continues at the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt, until June 9th; “Käthe Kollwitz” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until July 20th

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