‘The Grieving Parents’ by Kathe Kollwitz are monumental figures which dominate their territory like Sphinxes in the Egyptian desert. At first it is difficult to relate to them as they are abstracted, universalised, archetypal. But as you look more deeply, you see all the familiar signs and gestures expected from ordinary parents mourning the death of a child – but the emotion is buried, like the dead soldiers, deep beneath the stone overlay. Symbolically they are the parents of over 25,000 dead soldiers buried in Vladslo Cemetery, Belgium.
The father figure (on the left), is folding his arms against himself in a gesture of self-protection. He is bare-headed, chilled, gripped with fear. Yet he is determined not to be bowed down and to face the world – as stereotypically one may expect from the male parent. The female figure (on the right), in contrast is bowed down – arms crossed against her chest over her grieving heart in prayerful gesture. Bare-headed like her companion, she has a priestly aura – almost monk-like. Her crossed arms are the only reference here to Christianity. Will her holding onto her grief possibly redeem it? Is this a sign of hope?
There is a poignant space between the two figures – again, this may be expected as we know bereaved parents usually grieve in very separate ways – it can often divide them. The isolation of both the parents from each other and the dead in their separate slab-marked graves (the original crosses have been removed), is perhaps the most chilling aspect to this powerful work. And yet we know it’s a work of great compassion in which the parents unite with the dead and also with us, the viewer or visitor, on some other mysterious level – personal feeling is universalized.
On another level, the figures symbolize the sculptress Kathe and her husband Karl, who lost their son Peter in the First World War. Karl, a doctor, has his eyes focused on the 9th slab which contains his sons’ remains. This is the skill and signature of Kollwitz – she transforms her own deeply painful personal experience into universally applicable truth.