The German sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), working predominately in wood, created important figurative carvings in that medium.
Ernst Barlach was born in Wedel, a small town near Hamburg, the son of a physician. He studied at the Hamburg School of Applied Arts (1888-1891) and the Academy of Art in Dresden (1891-1895). He briefly attended the Académie Julian while residing in Paris (1895-1896), but his stay in France did not leave any apparent mark on his sculpture.
Returning to Germany in 1897, Barlach periodically sketched for the journals Jugend, Simplizissimus, and Die fliegende Blätter and taught ceramics. One of his earliest known pieces, the Cleopatra of 1904, suggests the strong Art Nouveau interest of the time. Barlach's first mature work came as a result of a trip to southern Russia in 1906. He transformed his drawings of Russian peasants into small ceramic pieces, rounding out the generally rough features of the beggars, villagers, and shepherds. His work caught the eye of the Berlin art dealer and publisher Paul Cassirer in 1907. Two years later Barlach won the Villa Romana Prize and a subsequent year in Florence. Upon his return to Germany in 1910, and with Cassirer's continued support, he settled in the rural village of Güstrow, only occasionally traveling to Berlin.
Barlach began to carve in wood in 1907, and it became the principal material in which he worked throughout his life. He drew principally on the life of small German towns for his imagery, and his approach to the material recalls the simplicity and strength of expression found in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture of northern Europe. His works are only of single figures, and they depict man's loneliness, fear, and suffering. This pessimism, often emphasized by the gesture of the hands and the visionary gaze of the eyes, was spiritually akin to the mood of the German expressionist painters, but he was never affiliated with the expressionist movement. Like the graphic artist Kathe Köllwitz, he remained apart from any avant-garde movement or style.
Barlach's hatred of the suffering and chaos of war was forecast in his Panic, Fright (1912) and the Abandoned Ones (1913). Like Daumier, Barlach depicted those who were left homeless by the conflagration. His themes remained constant, and he seldom altered his tendency to compose in a solid block form. His greatest works are his war memorials, and he is the sculptor who most successfully captured the terror of war in the 20th century. His best-known memorials are the Hovering Angel (1927) in Güstrow, the Champion of the Spirit (1928) in Mannheim, and the Memorial for the Dead of World War I (1928) in Magdeburg.
Barlach did not complete one ambitious commission, the facade figures for St. Catherine's Church in Lübeck (1930-1932), owing to the rise of the Nazis. Although he opposed the Nazis, he remained in Germany, where his work was condemned as degenerate; his Magdeburg and Güstrow memorials were removed. The continued persecution of the sculptor ultimately contributed to his death of heart failure in 1938.
Barlach's graphic work, both woodcuts and lithographs, reveals the same vital energy and bold composition found in his best sculpture. His work includes the Modern Dance of Death and illustrations for the writings of Goethe and Schiller. Barlach also illustrated some of his own plays.
The most important work on Barlach is the catalogue raisonné in German, Friedrich Schult, ed., Das plastiche Werk (1960). Schult also edited the catalogue raisonné of Barlach's graphic art, Das graphische Werk (1958). Two useful works in English are Alfred Werner, Ernst Barlach (1966), which provides a concise summary of and introduction to Barlach's sculpture, graphics, and dramatic pieces, and Carl Dietrich Carls, Ernst Barlach (1931; rev. ed. and trans. 1969), a good biographical study of the artist. □