”My work is labelled with terms such as “cultic” and “mystical” and people rack their brains to work out which riddle I am posing and the skill with which I make it difficult to solve. My belief is: that which cannot be expressed in words can be made accessible by form and can become the property of another. I need an object, on which I can break my teeth to pieces.”
Ernst Barlach, 1932

The cliché of Ernst Barlach (1870–1938) as an other-wordly seeker of God still prevails, however the work of this important expressionist sculptor, drawer and writer is complex and ambivalent. Barlach’s life-long occupation with the human form combines the pursuit of timelessness with a critical approach to time, concrete observation with abstraction, and a sparse repertoire of forms with vitality and a wealth of meaning.

Barlach’s path to Expressionism led through the academic traditions of the 19th century and the creative ideas of Naturalism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. In 1906, a journey to Russia gave him the decisive motivation for a radical simplification and monumentalisation of his visual imagery. Through the reduced outer appearance of his figures, Barlach sought to comprehend elemental inner states. The interlinking of individual form with universal content, material limitations with freedom of thought and a rootedness in the here and now with a yearning for transcendence became the main theme of his art. Barlach’s attempts to create timelessly valid statements about the nature of human existence did not prevent him from taking a critical angle on the present – his art reflects social hardship and defies bourgeois conventions.

The First World War – which he initially welcomed as the beginning of a new era and then endured as the breakdown of western civilisation – heightened Barlach’s scepticism towards conventional values and worldviews. He increasingly dedicated himself to key questions of faith yet without committing himself to any particular confession. Barlach’s interest in that which goes beyond the rationable and tangible, did not only fuel his sculptural and graphic production but also characterised his dramas, which are infused by idiosyncratic metaphors.

From 1927, Barlach designed several monumental works for public spaces. In his memorials and monuments for the victims of the First World War, he found fundamental new forms of collective commemoration. His demonstrative decision to forgo hero cult and an unbroken pathos caused him to become the target of nationalist defamation campaigns; until his death in 1938 he was hounded by the National Socialists as a “degenerate” artist. Despite massive attacks Barlach remained imperturbable: He publicly advocated freedom of thought and artistic expression and persevered with his work. Marginal figures in society – the needy, the broken, the outcast – remained the focus of his art. In radical opposition to the fascist ideology of “community”, he turned to address the existential loneliness of the individual.

After the end of the Second World War, Barlach was quickly rehabilitated in Germany. His œuvre has long been regarded as an important contribution to 20th century art – and it still remains a challenge today.

Ernst Barlach 1909
Ernst Barlach working on his wood sculpture
The Thirsty Man, 1933
Ernst Barlach and Hermann F. Reemtsma
in front of Frieze of the Listeners, 1935