With a keen eye for a person’s characteristics, Ernst Barlach was interested above all in people living on the fringes of society. His drawings and sculptures showed the harsh lives of beggars, drunkards, procuresses — in general, of the down and out, portraying them as lonely but self-contained figures.

Born in 1870 in the northern German town of Wedel, the artist studied sculpture in Dresden at age 24. The teachers at a vocational school in Hamburg where he had previously studied art overlooked his talent, but today his early sculptures and graphic art testify to his unique skills. The Herb Plucker, Barlach’s first sculpture and final work at the Dresden Academy, depicts a bent-over farm girl and strikes the viewer as thoroughly realistic still today.

copper engraving of a man writing on parchment (SKD, Foto: Andreas Diesend)

Barlach created the copper engraving “Writing Prophet” in 1920

Read more: Hans Posse: The man who curated Hitler’s stolen art 

Years of artistic quest

Barlach long searched for his own path as an artist. In 1895, he moved to Paris, the city of impressionist art, but didn’t feel that he was making progress in the visual arts there.

He did discover another highly productive skill however: writing plays. Yet Barlach described his three years in Paris, the Mecca of Modernism, as “strangely unfruitful.”

The quest for artistic identity continued in the following years, as documented in the catalogue of the Barlach retrospective at the Albertinum Museum in Dresden marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. Showcasing about 230 works, it traces the path of an exceptional artist who sought to portray the human soul.

Traveling to Russia for two months in 1906, he finally found the long-sought impulses for his development. Finding a more expressive, more monumental idiom, he discovered a new motif as well: the beggar — to Barlach, a symbol of humanity.

Turning point in Russia

The stay in Russia marked Barlach’s artistic breakthrough. It was then that he began fashioning the iconic block-like sculptures of farmers, clergymen and beggars, depicting those representatives of different milieus with the greatest possible precision. Berlin art dealer Paul Cassirer became a patron, encouraging and supporting him financially from 1907. A year later, the artist discovered the perfect material for his work: wood.

The Dresden retrospective documents Barlach’s career and reception up to his death on October 24, 1938 at the age of 68 in Rostock. As was the case with many other modern artists, his works were frowned upon by the Nazis.

Barlach’s “degenerate art”

The roughly 17,000 artworks labeled by a special Nazi commission as “degenerate”and confiscated in museums and public spaces in 1937 include 381 by Ernst Barlach, including memorials for the city of Kiel (Mother of Tears, 1922 and The Ghost Fighter, 1927); for Hamburg (Mother and Child, 1931), for Magdeburg and for Güstrow (Hovering Angel, 1927).

The fate of the latter work is well-known. Created for the 700th anniversary of the Güstrow Cathedral, it honors the soldiers who died in World War I. In 1937, the Nazis had the bronze angel removed, and four years later, after the artist’s death, melted down. Three copies of the original plaster cast exist and are on display in Güstrow, Cologne and Schleswig.

Describing the idea for the sculpture, Barlach wrote, “For me, time stood still during the war,” adding that time seemed to float as if it had no earthly connection. “I wanted to express that feeling with the fateful figure floating in the void.”

Barlach, the pan-German artist

The Dresden exhibition also documents the posthumous appreciation of his work in East Germany (the GDR). In 1968, the country’s German Cultural Association founded a “working group for the cultivation, interpretation and popularization of Barlach’s work” so that “the 200 GDR members of the all-German Barlach Society can finally leave that site of capitalist horror behind.”

Barlach’s archetypically poor, sad and disadvantaged characters were appropriated by the East German regime as anti-capitalist statements. But when West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt visited Güstrow Cathedral in 1981 together with East German leader Erich Honecker to view one of the Hovering Angel copies, it was seen as a recognition of Barlach as a pan-German artist.

Timeless, touching memorials

The existential questions and issues associated with many of Barlach’s works seem as topical today as ever. The “New Gallery” in Kassel displayed his 1907 Russian Beggar Woman II in a key spot during the 14th Documenta exhibition in 2017.

Artists today still reference Barlach’s timeless memorials, writes Hilke Wagner in the exhibition catalogue, adding that she sees Manaf Halbouni, a Syrian-German artist and graduate of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, as following in Barlach’s footsteps. For an installation on Dresden’s Neumarkt square in 2017, Halbouni upended three decommissioned public transit busses as a reminder that in his home city of Aleppo, buses are set up that way as protection against snipers.

Three upended busses on a broad square with the Frauenkirche in the background (picture alliance/dpa/ZB/S. Kahnert)

Manaf Halbouni’s Barlach-inspired installation in front of Dresden’s “Frauenkirche”

Dresden residents reacted with enthusiasm, anger and even hatred. Like Barlach, Halbouni, says Wagner, created a memorial to the fruits of war, vividly showing the defenselessness, vulnerability and anonymity of its many victims — that sensitive and expressive visual language having a single role model: Ernst Barlach.

Running from August 8, 2020 to January 10, 2021, the retrospective at the Albertinum Museum in Dresden was established in cooperation with the Ernst Barlach House in Hamburg and the Ernst Barlach Foundation in Güstrow.