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Ernst Barlach: ‘Degenerate’ Artist

J.M. Towers


Barlach rebelled against the Industrial Revolution and the war with beautiful works against Nazism.


Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) is one of the most important multidisciplinary German Expressionists. He cultivated sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, design, and literature, and his works can be found in collections and museums around the world. His most iconic work, the Güstrower Memorial (Floating Angel), is a sculpture that remains, after more than 100 years, one of the most famous anti-war statements of the last century.

Ernst Barlach
Ernst Barlach.

During the Nazi era in Germany, Barlach‘s works were considered “degenerate art.” They were seized and dismantled, and over 400 of them were partially damaged.

Among the German Expressionists, Barlach stood out as a solitary figure. He did not travel to other cities and didn’t attend the inaugurations of its exhibitions or the premieres of his plays, despite being one of the most successful playwrights of his time. He loved solitude and nature, and for 30 years lived in seclusion in a remote rural area in northern Germany.

Ernst Barlach
The Wiedwesehen.

Barlach continually questioned the blind welfare promises that some predicted. He considered that progress should be the path to a future in which spiritual, ethical, and humanistic qualities would predominate.

His sculptures show peasants, beggars, vagrants, and hustlers; simple, solitary, skeptical, and introspective figures that Barlach used to reflect on the glorification of technology, rationalism, and the prevailing materialism. It was his way of rebelling against the rapid acceleration of the industrial society.

World War I (1914-1918) revealed the aggressive and destructive nature of the industrial era, which declared that everything should be bigger, faster and better, a quest that caused more than 12 million lives, not only in the front but also among the civilian population.

Ernst Barlach
Der Berserker.

For Barlach, there were no winners or heroes in this war, only losers, so in the following years, he never tired of warning of the dangers of war and the importance of committing to peace.

The horrors of war are reflected not only in his suffering and unhappy images, but also in beautiful and hopeful characters such as singers, musicians, and dreamers who were able to rise above the destabilizing state of the world.

The works of Barlach still represent a commitment to transforming the world in a powerful, immediate and unavoidable way, a vision that he described in 1908: “When I lie down at night, and the pillows of darkness oppress me, sometimes I feel enveloped in a clear melodious light, visible to my eyes, my ears.Then the beautiful images of a better future are grouped around my bed.”

Ernst Barlach
Hundefänger.

The bulk of Barlach’s sculptures, porcelain pieces, paintings, and drawings are in Germany, in the Church of St. Nicholas of Kiel and the Church of St. Catherine of Lübeck. Other pieces are guarded in the city of Güstrow, on Gertrudenkapelle Street and its cathedral.

His workshop in Güstrow is now open to the public. Also, there is a beautiful collection of sculptures and drawings in the museums of the Ernst Barlach Society in the cities of Ratzebourg and Wedel. For those wishing to learn more about this great artist and thinker, his home in Hamburg is also open to visitors.  ■


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