Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) was an accomplished German artist, with interest ranging from writing and printmaking to sculpturing. Despite his popularity as a writer, he faced stiff State level opposition against art and most of his sculptures were either destroyed or confiscated, after Nazi Regime termed them as ‘degenerate art.’ Ernst’s most prized existing pieces of work are “Magdeburger Ehrenmal” or “Magdeburg Cenotaph” and sculptures based on the theme of Russian beggar women.
Barlach’s change of stance from a war proponent in his earlier years to an anti-war ‘Expressionist’ subsequently, drew much of the State ire. “Magdeburg Cenotaph (Magdeburg Ehrenmal)” is a classic example of his anti-war sentiments in the later years. The Jurisdiction of Magdeburg originally commissioned this work to Ernst, as a war memorial to commemorate the sacrifices of German soldiers in the World War I. Barlach, on his part, transformed the very subject of this sculpture into a denunciation of ‘war’ mentality. This monumental work was created in 1929 as a monochromatic bronze sculpture with three full and three half figures. The figures represent Russian, French, and German soldiers in different headgears, but similar Gothic drapes in full length, a characteristic of Ernst’s majority works. The most remarkable feature of this cenotaph is the grim expressions binding all the figures in the similar thread of emotions and spelling out the horror, catastrophe, gloom, and sorrow that wars bring.
The sculptor has carved out the human figures, in “Magdeburg Ehrenmal (Magdeburg Cenotaph),” including the hands and facial expressions with arresting finesse that gives further impetus to its already forceful theme. The tallest central figure is depicted as loosely holding a large cross, with a war-torn visage and sight, apparently directed straight, yet looking into the vacuum. The beginning and the ending years of the World War I, 1914 and 1919, respectively, are engraved on the front of the cross. On both of its sides, relatively smaller figurines of soldiers are carved that measure barely up to the shoulder line of the central figure, carrying a similar countenance marked by serenity and unhappiness. At the feet of three standing figures are three half figures, describing the dread and mournfulness engulfing their lives. The statute in the extreme right is shown hiding its face under a thick veil, clenching its fists tightly, as if cowering from the fear of being taken. The central figure is that of a soldier bending its head down and lamenting on the fallouts of war. The third figure on extreme left is displayed, desperately trying to block its ears against the deafening sounds of warfare.
The Cathedral Parish Council of Magdeburg eventually ordered the removal of “Magdeburg Ehrenmal (Magdeburg Cenotaph),” which also faced the possibility of confiscation by the Government. After its withdrawal, this sculpture was kept in the Bern Art Gallery and could return to the Magdeburg Cathedral in 1955 only. No matter how much opposition Barlach had to face at the hands of the Nazi regime during his lifetime, his dedication to peace still lives through the “Magdeburg Ehrenmal (Magdeburg Cenotaph).”