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Ernst Barlach (1870-1938)


German sculptor, illustrator, and playwright, whose art was condemned by the Nazis as "degenerate" and presented in the exhibition Entartete Kunst. In it Ernst Barlach's statue The Reunion, which showed the recognition of Christ by Saint Thomas was labelled "Two Monkeys in Nightshirts." Like many Expressionist artist – Oskar Kokoschka, Ludwig Meidner, Walter Hasenclever, Arnold Schönberg etc. – Barlach was active in more than one medium of expression. In his woodcarvings Barlach combined influences from the Late German Gothic art with archaic power, angst and spiritualism. "Mythic observation is to me the foundation of all art," Barlach once stated. His reputation as a dramatist rests mainly on his later plays, Die Echten Sedemunds (1920, The Genuine Sedemunds), Die Sündflut (1924, The Flood) and Der blaue Boll (1926, The Blue Boll).

"... Barlach deliberately rejected the clerical tradition in favour of the Gothic or Nordic tradition. In some degree this brings him nearer to Rodin with his admiration for the image-makers of the Middle Ages, but Rodin was sensitive enough to feel the classical element in mature Gothic..." (Herbert Read in A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 1964, p. 25)

Ernst Barlach was born in Wede, Holsteinl. His father, who was a country physician, died when Barlach was fourteen. His subsequent education was irregular, but in 1888 he entered the Hamburg School of Arts and Crafts. From 1891 to 1895 he studied sculpture and design at the Dresden Academy of Arts. In 1895 he went to Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian in 1895-96, and worked as a sculptor.

After his Paris days, Barlach traveled extensively. He lived in Hamburg, Berlin, and many other German cities. From 1898 to 1902 he worked for Jugend magazine and from 1901 to 1905 he designed ceramics for the Muntz factory in Wedel. During this period he became friends with the publisher Reinhard Piper; his correspondence with Piper appeared in 1997. Another important supporter was the art dealer Paul Cassirer, who also helped Oskar Kokoschka.

In 1904 Barlach taught at Hör School of Ceramics in Westerwald. Barlach's journey across the Russian steppes with his brother in 1906 and his romance with the seamstress Rosa Schwab became the turning points of his career. Rosa, with whom he had an illegitimate child, had sat for him as a model. Among the peasants of Russia he saw "Christian humility toward all things" and he started to read the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Barlach's drawings and sculptures on Russian beggar women belong to his most famous works, which interlinked material and spiritual needs of human beings. His characters are solid, reduced into their essential broad geometrical forms, and their eyes are often closed or half-closed. Sometimes the facial expressions are primitive, sometimes grotesque or touchingly comic. Alone, without any reference to surroundings, Barlach's self-absorbed figures seem to exemplify loneliness and helplessness in front of divine mysteries. Art became for Barlach an expression of a spiritual search for God, inner self, and other human beings. It has been argued that this vision never changed much further after his visit in Russia, but his figures gadually underwent a  transformation from seemingly passive, tortured existence towards spiritual transcendence and inner power.

From 1907 to 1908 Barlach was an illustrator of the satirical magazine Simplicissimus. In one drawing, in which he criticized the German court system, the figure of Justice holds a dented sword in one hand and a tipped scale of justice in the other. Following a short stay in Florence Barlach settled with his son in 1910 in Güstrow, an old Mecklenburg town known for its cathedral. When World War I broke out, Barlach first greeted it with patriotic enthusiasm. He had a very short military training, and after he was exempted from military service he worked in an orphanage. Güstrower Tagebuch (1980) reflected his thoughts of the horrors of the ongoing war. Barlach's mother, who had suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1920. In the mid-1920s, Barlach met the sculptor Marga Böhmer who became his life companion. The rest of his life Barlach spent in Güstrow, in solitude and almost complete seclusion. Barlach died from heart failure on October 24, 1938, in a Rostock hospital. He was buried near his father in Ratzeburg.

Barlach's first play, Der Tote Tag, was published in 1912 with 27 lithographic illustrations. It was an allegory of a mother and son who live in a vast hall in perpetual twilight. The son tries unsuccessfully to break away from his mother. His quest for his paternal spirit becomes also his search for God in the world outside. Eventually the mother commits suicide, and then the son. The play introduced some of Barlach's favorite themes – the tension between physical world and spiritual struggle, mysticism and realism, suicide, and the special father-son relationship. There is also an autobiographical element, namely, Barlach's battle for the custody of his illegitimate son Nikolaus. Der blaue Boll is generally regarded as one of Barlach's best dramas. The central character is Squire Boll, a robust country gentleman and hedonist, who contemplates suicide. His fate to struggle and suffer is linked to Grete Greendale, who contemplates the murder of her children in order to transform them into pure spirit.

By 1920s, Baclach was considered one of the leading expressionist sculptors of the country. He liked to sculpt by carving directly in wood; this method was often associated with "primitive" art. In 1919 he became a member of the Prussian Art Academy, and in 1924 Barlach received the Kleist Price for Drama. In 1933 he was awarded the Prussian Order of Merit. Barlach received a commission in 1930 to execute a large war memorial at the Magdeburg Cathedral. His monumental works aroused much controversy, and after the Nazis had obtained power Barlach's work was seen as subversive. Hitler denounced in a speech in Nuremberg that there would be no place for  the "the spoilers of art." Artist were told to produce art, which would be understood even by the lowliest storm-trooper. "To be German means to be clear," Hitler said. (Hitler's True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis by Robert Gellately, 2020, p. 221) Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, had shown some sympathy for people like Barlach and Emil Nolde (1867-1956), known for his expressionistically distorted paintings. Moreover, he once kept a Barlach figure in his study.

It has been claimed that Barlach described Hitler as "the lurking destroyer of others" and called National Socialism "the secret death of mankind". According to Peter Parer, Barlach never referred to Hitler by name or added mankind to "the secret death". (An Artist Against the Third Reich: Ernst Barlach, 1933-1938 by Peter Paret, 2003, p, 169) In a letter to his friend Hugo Sieker he wrote that the "nationalist terror will probably outlast me . . . storm signals everywhere." (Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos, 2014, p. 144) There are very references to Hitler in Barlach's letters.

Barlach was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts. Also Käthe Kollwitz, who had been appointed to the Academy in 1919, resigned. At Magdeburg, Barlach's memorial was removed in response to the church council's demands and stored in the Berlin National Gallery.

Also the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg considered Barlach a threat to German art. Many of Barlach's sculptures were removed from German museums and his books were not published. The Reunion was confiscated from the Macklenburg state museum in Schwerin, but it surfaced again, along with some other works, in the 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Among the other condemned artists were Otto Dix, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, and some Jewish painters, such as Marc Chagall. At the opening of the exhibition in Munich, Hitler called Expressionists as criminals and fools, and announced a purging policy "against the last elements of our cultural perversion." However, Barlach never experienced physical violence or was imprisoned. But he suspected that his mail was being opened, and to avoid Gestapo's attention, he gave letters to friends to deliver and burned papers which could be used against him. Marga Böhmer's ex-husband, the Nazi-inclined art dealer Bernhard Böhmer tried to help Barlach with the authorities. 

Piper's book on Barlach, Zeichnungen von Ernst Barlach, was confiscated. "This is not art any more," Goebbels wrote in his diary. "This is destruction, incompetent fake. Horrible! This poison must not enter the people." (Culture in Nazi Germany by Michael H. Kater, 2020, p. 34) The book was placed on the index of forbidden literature. Nevertheless, Barlach was not a political artist, although he had contributed some lithographs to a socialist magazine during World War I. It was not until after World War II that his works were reinstated and his plays performed.  Marga Böhmer devoted herself to the memory of her husband and his art.

Barlach's novel or anti-novel about good and evil, Der gestohlene Mond, which he composed in the 1930s, was published in 1948. Seespeck (1948), which he wrote in the 1910s, was an account of a midlife crisis. Ein Selbsterzähltes Leben (1928) was Barlach's detailed autobiography from his childhood to his wandering years and early struggle as an artist.

For further reading: Barlach by Reinhold von Walter (1929); Barlach by Carl D. Carls (1931); Barlach der Illustrator by Gisela Lantz-Oppermann (1952); Begegnungen mit Barlach by Paul Schurek (1954); Ernst Barlach by Paul Fechter (1957); Ernst Barlach: Wesen und Werk by Willi Flemming (1958); Der Dichter Ernst Barlach by W. Muschg (1958); Barlach: Das plastische Werk, Das Graphische Werk, Die Zeichnungen by Friedrich Schuldt (1958-71); Barlachs Roman "Der gestohlenen Mond" by Heinz Schweiter (1959); Barlach: Plastik, Zeichnungen by Wolf Stubbe (1959-61); Mein Vetter Ernst Barlach by Karl Barlach (1960); Barlach: Leben und Werk by Hans Franck (1961); Ernst Barlach: Plastik by Friedrich Hewicker and Wolf Stubbe (1961); Barlach: Eine Bildbiographie by Paul Schurek (1961); Barlach: Das schlimme Jahr by Franz Fühmann (1963); Der verborgene Gott: Studien zu den Dramen Barlachs by Herbert Meier (1963); Barlach: Interpretationen by H. J. Starczewski (1964); Barlach: His Life and Work by Alfred Werner (1966); Barlach: His Life and Work by E.M. Chick (1967); Ernst Barlachs Dramen by K. Graucob (1969); Ernst Barlach: Werk und Wirkung, ed. by E. Jansen (1972); Barlach: Leben im Werk by Naomi Jackson Groves (1972); Der Dramatiker Ernst Barlach by H. Kaiser (1972); Ich habe keinen Gott by H. Beckman (1974); Barlach in Güstrow by Franz Fühmann (1977); Zwei Aussenseiter: Barlach und Arnold Krieger by Willi Ferdinand Fischer (1981); Barlach und die nationalsozialistische Kunstpolitik by Ernst Piper (1983); Hitler and the Artists by Henry Grosshans (1983); Barlach by Elmar Jansen (1984); Der Wanderer im Wind: Barlach by Ilse Kleberger (1984); Ernst Barlach's Literary and Visual Art by K.W. Hooper (1987); Ernst Barlach: Artist of the North by Jürgen Doppelstein, Volker Probst, Heike Stockhaus (1998); An Artist Against the Third Reich: Ernst Barlach, 1933-1938 by Peter Paret (2003); Myth and Modernity: Barlach's Drawings on the Nibelungen by Peter Paret and Helga Thieme (2012); Artists under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos (2014); 'Jimmie Durham on The vision by Ernst Barlach,' in It Speaks to Me: Art That Inspires Artists by Jori Finkel (2019)

Selected works:

  • Der tote Dag: Drama in fünf Akten, 1912
  • Der arme Vetter: ein buch mit 34 zeichniungen, 1918
    - The Poor Relation: Drama in Twelve Scenes (in translation from German by Naomi Jackson Groves, 2001)
  • Der Kopf by Reinhold von Walter, 1919 (illustrator)
  • Die echten Sedemunds, 1920
    - The Genuine Sedemunds  (in Three Plays, translated by Alex Page, 1964)
  • Der Findling: ei spiel in 3 stücken, 1922
  • Die Sündflut, 1924
    - The Flood (in Three Plays, translated by Alex Page, 1964)
  • Der blaue Boll, 1926
    - The Blue Boll  (in Three Plays, translated by Alex Page, 1964)
  • Ein Selbsterzähltes Leben, 1928
  • Die gute Zeit, 1929
  • Aus seinen Briefen, 1937 (edited by Friedrich Dross)
  • Fragmente, 1939
  • Barlach im Gespräch, 1948 (edited by Friedrich Schult)
  • Seespeck, 1948
  • Der gestohlene Mond, 1948
  • Leben und Werk in seinen Briefen, 1952 (ed. by Friedrich Dross)
  • Pariser Fragmente, 1952
  • Die dichterische Werk in drei Bänden, 1956-59 (3 vols., edited by Klaus Lazarowicz and Friedrich Dross)
  • Die Prosa, 1958 (edited by Friedrich Dross)
  • Spiegel des Unendlichen, 1960
  • Two Acts from The Flood; A Letter on Kandinsky; Eight Sculptures, 1960
  • Der Graf von Ratzeburg, 1961
  • Frühe und späte Briefe, 1962 (edited by Paul Schurek and Hugo Sieker)
  • Three Plays, 1964 (The Flood, The Genuine Sedemunds, The Blue Doll)
  • Die Briefe, 1888-1938, 1968-69 (2 vols., edited by Friedrich Dross)
  • Berichte, Gespräche, Erinnerungen, 1972 (edited by Elmar Jansen)
  • Güstrower Tagebuch, 1980 (ed. by Elmar Jansen)
  • Dramen. Der Arme Vetter, 1987 (ed. by Helmar Harald Fischer)
  • Ernst Barlach - Reinhard Piper, Briefwechsel 1900-1938, 1997 (edited by Wolfgang Tarnowski)
  • Ein selbsterzähltes Leben. Kritische Textausgabe, 1997 (edited by Ulrich Bubrowski)
  • The Poor Relation: Drama in Twelve Scenes, 2001 (in translation from German by Naomi Jackson Groves)
  • Barlach und Russland: Ernst Barlachs Russlandreise im Sommer 1906, 2002 (edited by Jürgen Doppelstein, Heike Stockhaus)
  • Unerhörtes Abenteuer im Irgendwo: Ernst Barlach und der Harz, 2006 (edited by Christian Juranek)
  • Die Briefe: kritische Ausgabe in vier Bänden, 2019 (4 volumes , edited by Holger Helbig [and 3 others]; withVolker Probst, Franziska Hell and Sarah Schossner)
  • Ernst Barlach: die Hölzer = Woodwork, 2020 (edited by Karsten Müller; photographs by Andreas Weiss)

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