The year World War I began, the sculptor Ernst Barlach cast “The Avenger” (1914), a powerful and ambiguous work showing an onrushing figure with a sword raised high. The sculpture’s enlivened dynamism conjures the ominous patriotic tensions that seethed in Germany in the months leading to the war. The following year Barlach volunteered for the German reserve infantry,
Yet the title of the sculpture seems a kind of chastisement to Barlach’s older self. The artist served just three months in the military before being discharged due to a heart ailment that was no doubt worsened by the battlefield horrors he witnessed.
Returning to civilian life a committed pacifist, his subsequent artistic trajectory was defined by the experience as he railed against man’s inhumanity to man.
An exhibition of his work, “Ernst Barlach Retrospective,” is currently showing at The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, before traveling to Tokyo and Yamanashi City.
Born in 1870, Barlach’s early work shifts between sculpture and the decorative arts, and is mostly undistinguished. His drawings are hastily done and tend toward caricature, while more developed graphic works, such as “Faun” (1898), follow in the Art Nouveau style popular in late-19th-century Paris, where Barlach studied in 1895 and 1897.
Aesthetic salvation first arrived during a 1906 visit to Russia. In eastern Europe’s poor and illiterate peasantry — the laborers, the beggars and the blind — Barlach found a personal antidote to modern man’s spiritually diminished existence. Crudely sentimental, squat and heavily clothed bodies became Barlach’s frequent subjects, representing to him man’s insufferable lot in the world. Barlach thought that all humankind were “beggars,” swept along by forces beyond their own control. “Walker in the Wind” (1934) clearly shows this mind set, with a figure sheltering in vain from the unseen elements which set upon him.
Barlach emphasized the textural elaboration of the faces and hands of his figures, a reference to a medieval European style of religious sculpture. And yet his simple curves, sinuous lines and immaculate blandness, mark him as a modern traditionalist. Though Barlach was the most prominent sculptor in German Expressionism, practically he embodied the opposite of Expressionist rage and energy as the pace at which his work was produced was much more methodical than the often frenzied Van Gogh/Matisse-inspired output of early German Expressionist painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde.
The Expressionism ubiquitous in German art circles prior to WWI proceeded into the 1920s in an impassioned humanitarian form. Barlach found in his hewn sculpture a chance to remake a disheveled and brutalized world, re-instilling it with faith and hope in transcendence, and embodying it with human feeling. “Laughing Beggar-woman” (1937) is a case in point of the joy and suffering of being human.
His increasing fame as a sculptor through association with the influential Cassirer Gallery in Berlin and then later through large-scale public commissions, resulted in several honorary positions and distinctions such as the Prussian Order of Merit.
But from the late 1920s, the rise of National Socialism would come to bear all too heavily on Barlach. As Germany moved once again into an aggressive stance, his “Magdeburg Cenotaph” (1927) memorialized the horror and pain of French, German and Russian soldiers in WWI — rather than German heroism. Barlach became the subject of vehement rightwing criticism, and as early as 1930, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a museum director in Zwickau, was dismissed for promoting Barlach’s work, among others.
Barlach wasn’t an overt political activist, nor was his work a skeptic’s disguised polemic against Hitler or National Socialism. The Nazis had no uniform set of standards for praising or condemning art, and in 1933, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels even invited Expressionist artists like Barlach, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde, and Erich Heckel to the inauguration ceremony of the Reich Chamber of Culture.
Still, Hitler’s 1937 speech left little ambiguity as to who was being addressed: “All those catchwords: ‘inner experience,’ ‘emotions pregnant with the future,’ ‘meaningful empathy,’ all these dumb, mendacious excuses will no longer be accepted.”
Barlach was banned from exhibiting and death hastened in 1938.
In August 1937, the confiscation of 15,997 works from 101 museums would form the basis of the infamous “Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst)” exhibition that featured several of Barlach’s works and those of 100 or so other artists. Opening in Munich, the show toured Germany and Austria, attracting 3 million visitors to the poorly hung artworks that were mocked by their labels as products of corruption and madness. The exhibition was designed to show the “negativity and incomprehensibility of the world.”
Ironically, that theme truly was half of Barlach’s intended message. But he chose to meld it to another, more humanist half: the desire to find in man’s wretched existence, space for great joy, hope and redemption.