Treasures from the Vault: Ernst Barlach

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

How much stuff is in a museum, anyway? As we’ve continued our Century of Making Meaning rotating exhibition here at FWMoA to celebrate our 100th Anniversary, we’re hearing this question more and more. Most museums hold more treasures than they can exhibit at once, ours included! Even with a Century of Making Meaning, our curators are still having to do their jobs, choosing (curating!) the pieces they think our audience would most like to see from each decade. One that recently didn’t make the cut: Ernst Barlach’s The New Day (Der Neue Tag), a gift to the museum in the 1950s.

A black-and-white lithograph of two men in robes blowing horns.
Ernest Barlach, German, 1870-1938. The New Day (Der Neue Tag). Lithograph on paper, ca. 1932. Gift in Memory of Carolyn Randall Fairbank, 1950.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Fitting for Memorial Day, as Barlach was an infantry soldier in World War I who returned from active duty a pacifist; today, he is primarily known as a sculptor and printmaker. The eldest of four sons, he studied in Hamburg, Dresden, and, despite his criticism of German artists copying French artistic styles, spent a year in Paris. Inspired by Art Nouveau, known in Germany as Jugendstil, Barlach briefly considered a career in the decorative arts before settling on sculpture. A 1906 trip to Russia with his brother (to visit another brother) marked a turning point in his career. His encounter with the strong bodies and expressive faces of the Russian peasants led to the development of his mature style, evident in the lithograph in FWMoA’s permanent collection: bulky, monumental figures in heavy drapery that explode with bound energy. His wood carvings and bronzes are similar to those in early Gothic art with their dramatic attitudes and overflowing emotions that suggest spiritual ecstasy. In fact, his style was deemed “Modern Gothic”, despite his influence on the German Expressionist movement. Paul Cassiver, an art dealer, approached Barlach in 1909 and offered him a fixed salary in exchange for his moving sculptures; ultimately, it was this financial security that provided Barlach the space to focus on his emerging style. In both sculpture and print, Barlach worked with Cassiver from 1909-1926. It was Cassiver who suggested Barlach attempt printmaking! Barlach’s woodcuts and lithographs translate his gestural, angular sculptures that convey emotion and movement onto a two-dimensional surface. Including prints for the five plays and books he wrote himself, Barlach made more than 200 black-and-white lithographs and woodcuts.

In the lithograph above, we see two figures blowing horns. The lines around the horns suggest sound waves, or perhaps a rising light behind the figures who stand on a patch of earth. Draped in long, white robes and wearing simple shoes, the men appear to be out of breath as they blow their horns; the one on the left is bent over with cheeks puffed out while the one on the right appears to be taking a breath as he holds the weight of his horn in his hand, his tired eyes look off to the far edge of the composition. Focusing on the figures, they bear Barlach’s dramatic and emotive style. You can feel the strain they are under to trumpet the new day and rising sun. Though not overtly propaganda, what was happening in Germany in 1932? Perhaps the lithograph refers to a political or social win, such as then-President Paul von Hindenburg winning a second seven-year term against Adolf Hitler, or an event in the personal life of the artist. Hitler would be named Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, marking a crucial turning point in his rise to power and Barlach’s imminent fall.  

Initially, Barlach supported World War I, hoping it would usher in a new artistic age. He joined as an infantry soldier from 1915-1916 but the experience turned him into a pacifist and staunch opponent of war. He achieved fame in the 1920s and 1930s following his celebrated war memorials in Magdeburg and Hamburg, reminders of and warnings against war. His most famous of the several he created was the 1927 bronze sculpture of a hovering angel, the life-size figure of his friend and fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz, suspended outside the Gustrow Cathedral in Germany. Because much of his art showcased the horrors of war and advocated pacifism, he placed himself in direct opposition to the war-mongering Nazi party; consequently, Barlach was deemed a degenerate artist. In a statement the Party declared, “sculptures that are offensive to the national sensibility and yet still desecrate public squares and parks should disappear as quickly as possible, regardless of whether these works were created by geniuses like Lehmbruck or Barlach”. Barlach, alongside his contemporaries Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, and Otto Dix were included in the 1937 Nazi Party Degenerate Art Exhibition that sought to discredit Modern art, particularly Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, and Fauvism. (Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, and Marc Chagall have all been on display in a Century of Making Meaning!). Forbidden to sell or exhibit, many of these artists, including Barlach, had their works removed from public view and even destroyed. He died soon after this, in 1938, shunned and forgotten because of Nazi condemnation and false rumors of Bolshevism. Today, his former home and studio in Gustrow, near Luneburg, function as a museum for the public.

Want to see some of FWMoA’s treasures in person? Visit the museum throughout the year and check out a Century of Making Meaning, our rotating exhibition of works collected by FWMoA over the past 100 years.

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