Ernst Barlach

Ernst Barlach (Jan 2, 1870 – Oct 24, 1938) was a German expressionist sculptor, printmaker and writer. Although he was a supporter of the war in the years leading to World War I, his participation in the war made him change his position, and he is mostly known for his sculptures protesting against the war. This created many conflicts during the rise of the Nazi Party, when most of his works were confiscated as degenerate art.

From 1928 onward Barlach also generated many anti-war sculptures based on his experiences in the war. This pacifist position went against the political trend during the rise of Nazism, and he was the target of much criticism. For example, the Magdeburger Ehrenmal (Magdeburg cenotaph) was ordered by the city of Magdeburg to be a memorial of World War I, and it was expected to show heroic German soldiers fighting for their glorious country. Barlach, however, created a sculpture with three German soldiers, a fresh recruit, a young officer and an old reservist, standing in a cemetery, all bearing marks of the horror, pain and desperation of the war, flanked by a mourning war widow covering her face in despair, a skeleton wearing a German army helmet, and a civilian (the face is that of Barlach himself) with his eyes closed and blocking his ears in terror. This naturally created a controversy with the pro-war population (several nationalists and Nazis claimed that the soldiers must be foreign since true Germans would be more heroic), and the sculpture was removed. Friends of Barlach were able to hide the sculpture until after the war, when it was returned to the Magdeburg Cathedral. Yet the attacks on Barlach continued until his death.

In 1931 Barlach started to live with Marga Böhmer, whereas her ex-husband and Barlach’s friend Bernhard Böhmer lived with his new wife Hella.

In 1936, Barlach’s works were confiscated during an exhibition together with the works of Käthe Kollwitz and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and the majority of his remaining works were confiscated as “degenerate art”, for example the Güstrower Ehrenmal (Güstrow cenotaph) and the Hamburger Ehrenmal (Hamburg cenotaph). Barlach himself was prohibited from working as a sculptor, and his membership in the art academies was canceled. This rejection is reflected in his final works before his death from heart failure on 24 October 1938 in Rostock, Mecklenburg. He is buried in the cemetery of Ratzeburg.

In addition to his sculpture, Barlach also wrote eight Expressionist dramas, two novels and an autobiography Ein selbsterzähltes Leben 1928, and had a distinguished oeuvre of woodcuts and lithographs from about 1910 onwards, including illustrations for his own plays.