Ernst Barlach – The German Sculptor and Printmaker

Ernst Barlach was a German sculptor, printmaker, and an author. He was one of the most venerated artists of the ‘Expressionist’ movement, with his style of work being often referred to as ‘Modern Gothic.’ He was born on January 02, 1870, in Wedel, west of Hamburg, to Johanna Luise Barlach and Dr Georg Barlach, a physician. The artist had his primary schooling at Ratzeburg. Ernst’s father died in early 1884, when he was only fourteen years old.

During 1888-91, the artist was a student at Gewerbeschule (Trade School), Hamburg. Later, he moved to Dresden to broaden his knowledge about arts and enrolled into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts for 1891-95 sessions. During his stay in Dresden, Barlach created one of his most famous works, “Die Krautpflückerin (The Herb Plucker).” Barlach migrated to Paris in the year 1897, for joining the Académie Julian, where he adopted the French style of ‘Expressionism.’ After finishing his education, Ernst Barlach started working as a sculptor in Hamburg and Altona. He embraced the technique of ‘Art Nouveau,’ which beautifully blends the elements, as diverse as architecture and furniture into a form of decorative art. He created many ceramic sculptures and started teaching at the Vocational School for Pottery, Höhr-Grenzhausen/Westerwald in 1904. The same year, he put up his first solo exhibition at Kunstsalon Richard Mutz in Berlin, it, however, could not gain much commercial recognition.

Disappointed, the artist, ventured out to explore Russia in 1906, along with his brother, Nikolaus. The 2 months trip had a lot of positive influence on Barlach. He created several sketches during this time, which were published under the name “Eine Steppenfahrt (A Steppe Journey)” in 1912. A son was born to him in August 1906 out of his relationship with Rosa Schwab. After a legal battle for the custody of the illegitimate child, it was finally granted to Barlach. The artist returned from Russia in 1907.The focus of his subjects now drifted more towards face and hands, rather than the whole body. Barlach used woods and bronze extensively in his sculptures, taking up the ‘Gothic Art,’ portraying dramatic emotions through a narration of pictures. Barlach’s works, as an author, were exhibited through the German journal, ‘Simplicissimus.’

In 1909, the artist stayed for 10 months at Florence, Italy, to settle eventually at Gustrow, Mecklenburg in 1910. Barlach was a strong supporter of World War I, a perspective that is clearly reflected in his sculptural work, “Der Rächer (The Avenger) (1914).” After serving a year’s term in the military in 1915, he returned in 1916, only to become a total pacifist, professing an anti-war philosophy. After the war, he was awarded by the Prussian Art Academy (1919) and Munich Art Academy (1925). In the year 1924, he created one of his masterpieces, “Die Sündflut (The Flood),” which portrayed the personal upheaval in the story of Noah and the Ark. Barlach received the prestigious Kleist Prize for this piece. In 1926, he tried to express his internal emotional struggle through his drama, “Der blaue Boll (Squire Blue Ball or Boozer Ball).” He also wrote two novels and an autobiography called “Ein selbsterzähltes Leben” in 1928.

Around the same time, in 1928, during the rise of Nazism, Barlach created many anti-war sculptures. He highlighted the sufferings of the French, Russian, and German soldiers in the war – “The Magdeburger Ehrenmal” being one such work. The Nazis did not approve of his anti-war sentiments and confiscated his works in 1936. He was disallowed to work further. This suppression and emotional trauma was evident from his works created before his death on October 24, 1938, in Rostock, Mecklenburg.