Georg Kolbe was one of the most successful German sculptors of the first half of the 20th century. As chief exponent of the idealistic nude he had a great impact on his generation. From the beginning the young artist's style differed from the commissioned traditional sculpture of the late 19th century, which, under Emperor Friedrich II, had led to a widely criticised boom of monuments.
Born in Waldheim/Saxony, Kolbe, the son of an art-loving master-painter first wanted to become a painter.rather than a sculptor. He studied painting and drawing from 1891 to 1898 in Dresden, Munich and in Paris at the private Acade´mie Julian. During this early period. Kolbe drew the attention of his contemporaries because of his symbolic compositions. During his stay in Rome from 1898 to 1901, he began sculpting rather by chance; the sculptor Louis Tuaillon aided him in.the technical matters of moulding.
In 1902 Kolbe returned to Germany, living in Leipzig for some time before moving to Berlin in 1904. At this time he abandonned painting completely. Very soon the young artist was successful in the German capital, being admitted to the Berlin Secession and supported by Paul Cassirer, the most important art dealer in the city. In 1905 Kolbe was one of the first scholarship holders at the Villa Romana, Florenz.
Around 1911/12 Kolbe found his own formal expression in sculpture.
The masterpiece of this phase of his work is "Die Tänzerin" ("Ballerina") (National Gallery, Berlin). A slender girl completely indulges in a harmonic dance position with her eyes closed and arms outstreched. This bronze became one of the best known German works of art of the 20th century. And Kolbes artistic purpose became clear: He strived after an autonomous, modern presentation of the human body. As a nude this figure distances itself from the everyday world while simultaneously reflecting the spirit of the time and its ideals.
With the success of the "Ballerina" Kolbe became widely recognized, and he was. soon after given his first public commission: A monument for Heinrich Heine in Frankfurt/Main. It is crowned by a group of dancers, inspired by the Russian dancers Waslaw Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.
The outbreak of World War I ended the first fruitful phase of Kolbe's work. In 1917 Kolbe was called up to active service, but he was spared fighting at the front, instead he was transfered to Constantinople, where he could work as a sculptor. After the war Kolbe took a leading position in Berlin art: by 1918 he had been awarded the title of professor. 1919 he became member of the "Preußische Akademie der Künste"(Prussian Academy of Arts) and chairman of the "Freie Secession" ( Free Secession), at this time a significant artist community. In this official position he promoted new artistic endeavours, befriending Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein, and collecting the paintings of these artists. The sculptor's style had developed after a trip to Egypt in 1913 from delicate, sensitive modellation to more compact structure, and after World War I Kolbe reacted to Expressionistic form-experiments by moving from naturalistic forms to geometric figures. He created strict statues, like "Assunta" or strongly moved expressive sculptures like the "Meerweibchen" (Mermaid) from 1921 (Georg-Kolbe-Museum).
Kolbes style changed again in the middle of the twenties simultaneously with the political and economic reassurement of the Weimar Republic. The sculptor distanced his work from stylised and unnatural proportions, instead fashioning athletic female figures in movement with sketchy, light surfaces. His bronzes of this time found large resonance; they were shown in many single- and group exhibitions in Germany, Europe and the USA, and were bought for numerous collections. The reputation of the sculptor can be seen in numerous portraits he created in the second half of the 1920s . At that time Kolbe also executed several public commissions, for example the helical Rathenaubrunnen in Berlin (consecrated 1930, destroyed in 1934, and reconstructed in 1987). His success was also reflected in the construction of his large studiohouse in Berlin-Westend in 1928.
The sudden and tragic death of his wife Benjamine in 1927 led to a strong incision in Kolbes career, for afterwards his cheerful girls figures were replaced with works which expressed sadness and loneliness (Requiem, Einsamer, Pieta, all owned by the museum). With vast intensity Kolbe worked on monuments and cenotaphs dedicated to Beethoven (1926-47 Frankfurt/Main, errected posthumous) and Nietzsche (1931-47, not realised).
Kolbe's human figures of the thirties reflect the idea of role models, based on Nietzschean philosophy. Having preferred figures in motion before, now standing figures in a degree of stagnation came forth. In the "Ring der Statuen" (Ring of Statues) (1933-47 Frankfurt/Main, errected posthumous) Kolbe combined seven male and female nudes in a community. The athletic male nudes in particular were in accordance with the Nazi-regime ideals and were used for the National Socialist propaganda. Georg Kolbe, however didn't want his work to be used for such purposes and therefore rejected a commission for a Hitler-portait. He took an interest in the Expressionist Artists he had befriended, for example as the last president of the "Künstlerbund" (artist confederation), which was prohibited in1936. Nevertheless, it remained important to Kolbe to show his work in exhibitions, even in the Third Reich, in doing so directly supporting the politics of the NS-regime.
The sunken down figure "Der Befreite" (The Liberated) reflected the strong emotions of the post-war German society. The artist, who suffered from cancer and loss of sight in his last 10 years, worked until his death. Georg Kolbe died in November 1947 in Berlin.
Based on his will the Georg-Kolbe-Museum was opened in his
studio house in 1950. The collection gives a summary of his
work in sculpture and drawing: A life-work, expressing the different
ideals of better and more beautiful people from the turn of
the century until post-World War II.