Ernst Barlach


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(b Wedel, nr. Hamburg, 2 Jan. 1870; d Rostock, 24 Oct. 1938).

German sculptor, printmaker, and writer, a major figure of Expressionism. Until he reached his thirties Barlach was as much a ceramicist as a sculptor, working in a fairly derivative Art Nouveau style, but a turning point in his career came in 1906, when he visited Russia. The vast empty landscape and the sturdy Russian peasants made a great impact on him; these hardworking people, with their simple faith, symbolized for him ‘the human condition in its nakedness between Heaven and Earth’ and helped inspire him to create a massively powerful figure style. He was influenced also by medieval German carving, with which he recognized both a spiritual and a technical affinity—he preferred to carve in heavy, close-grained woods, but even when his figures were modelled in clay and cast in bronze they retain the broad planes and sharp edges typical of woodcarving. In 1910 Barlach settled at Güstrow, a small town near Rostock, where he spent the rest of his life. By this time he had created his mature style, which changed little thereafter. His most characteristic works are massive, block-like, heavily robed single figures or pairs of figures symbolizing some aspect of the human condition (The Solitary One, 1911 Kunsthalle, Hamburg). He also produced several monuments commemorating the First World War and he was a prolific maker of lithographs and woodcuts, particularly of illustrations to his own plays, of which he published seven; they are sombre works, typically showing the individual wrestling with the ties of the material world in search of God, but they sometimes have a grotesque humour not seen in his sculpture.

After the First World War Barlach was much honoured, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933 he was declared a degenerate artist and his war memorials at Güstrow, Kiel, and Magdeburg were dismantled. The memorial in Güstrow Cathedral was restored after the Second World War and a copy made for the Antoniterkirche in Cologne; it takes the form of a hovering bronze angel and is considered by many to be Barlach's most deeply spiritual work. His studio in Güstrow is now a museum of his work and there are also museums dedicated to him in Hamburg and Ratzeburg.

Subjects: Literature — Art.

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