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Ernst Barlach

Ernst Barlach, (January 2 1870 in Wedel , Pinneberg, Germany - October 24 1938 in Rostock, Germany) was a famous German expressionist sculptor. He also worked as a graphic designer and writer. While he was a supporter of the war in the years leading to World War I, his participation in the war reversed his position, and he is mostly known for his sculptures against the war. This created many conflicts during the rise of the Nazis until most of his works were confiscated as degenerate art.




Ernst Barlach was born on January 2 1870 in Wedel, Pinneberg, Germany by the river Elbe just west of Hamburg as the oldest son of four sons of Johanna Luise Barlach and Dr. Georg Barlach. His brothers were Hans (1871), and the twins Nikolaus and Joseph (1872). He attended primary school in Ratzeburg. It was during this period that his father died early in 1884.

Study Years

Barlach studied from 1888 to 1891 at the Gewerbeschule Hamburg. Due to his artistic talent he continued his studies at the Königlichen Akademie der bildenden Künste zu Dresden (Royal Art School Dresden) as a student of Robert Diez between 1891 and 1895. He created his first major sculpture during this time, Die Krautpflückerin (The Herb Plucker). He continued his studies for one more year in Paris at the Académie Julian, but remained critical of the current German trend to copy the style of French artists. Nevertheless he returned to Paris again for a few months in 1897 for further studies.


After his studies, Barlach worked for some time as a sculptor in Hamburg and Altona, using mainly Art Nouveau style. He drew illustrations for the art nouveau magazine Jugend 1897-1902 and made sculpture in a style close to Art Nouveau, including some ceramic statues. Afterwards, he also worked as a teacher at a school for ceramics. He had his first solo exhibition at the Kunstsalon Richard Mutz, Berlin, 1904.

Formative years

However, the lack of commercial success of his works depressed Barlach. To lighten up, he decided to travel for 8 weeks together with his brother Nikolaus and to visit his brother Hans in Russia. This trip to Russia in 1906 has one of the biggest influences on him and his artistic style. Also during his travels in Russia his son Nikolaus was born on August 20 1906, starting a two-year fight with the mother, Rosa Schwab, for the custody of the child, whom Barlach finally was given custody of.

After returning from Russia, his financial situation improved considerably, as he received a fixed salary from the art dealer Paul Cassirer in exchange for his sculptures. The formative experiences in Russia and the financial security helped him to develop his own style, focusing on the faces and hands of the people in his sculptures and reducing the other parts of the figures to a minimum. He also began to make wood carvings and bronzes of figures swathed in heavy drapery like those in early Gothic art, and in dramatic attitudes expressive of powerful emotions and a yearning for spiritual ecstasy. He also worked for the German journal Simplicissimus , and started to produce some literature. His works were shown on various exhibitions. He also spent ten months in Florence, Italy in 1909 and afterwards settled in 1910 in Gustrow near the danisch border, where he spent the rest of his life.

In the years before World War I, he was a patriotic and enthusiastic supporter of the war, awaiting a new artistic age from the war. This support for the war can also be seen in his works, as for example the statue Der Rächer (The Avenger), from December 1914. His awaited new artistic age came for him when he volunteered to join the war between 1915 and 1916 as an infantry soldier, and he returned as a pacifist and a staunch opponent of war. The horror of the war influenced all of his subsequent works.


His fame increased after the war, and he received many awards and became a member in the prestigious Preußischen Akademie der Künste (Prussian Art Academy) in 1919 and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München (Munich Art Academy) in 1925. Barlach rejected a number of honorary degrees and teaching positions. In 1925 he also met Bernhard and Marga Böhmer for the first time.

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 a French, German, and Russian soldier showing the horror, pain and desperation of the war. This naturally created a controversy with the pro-war population, 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, his works are confiscated during an exhibition together with the works of Käthe Kollwitz and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and the majority of his remaining works were confiscated, for example the Güstrower Ehrenmal (Güstrow cenotaph) and the Hamburger Ehrenmahl (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 on October 24 1938 in Rostock, Germany. He is buried in the cemetery in 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.


  • 1894 Die Krautpflückerin (The Herb Plucker)
  • 1908 Sitzendes Weib (Sitting Woman), Nürnberg
  • 1914 Der Rächer (The Avenger)
  • 1927 Güstrower Ehrenmal (Güstrow cenotaph), Güstrow
  • 1927 Der schwebende Engel (The Floating Angel)
  • 1928 Der singende Mann (The Singing Man), Nürnberg
  • 1928 Der Geistkämpfer (The Ghost Fighter), Kiel
  • 1929 Magdeburger Ehrenmal (Magdeburg cenotaph), Cathedral of Magdeburg, Magdeburg
  • 1930 Bettler auf Krücken (Beggar on Crutches )
  • 1931 Hamburger Ehrenmahl (Hamburg cenotaph), Hamburg
  • 1936 Der Buchleser (The Book Reader), Schwerin
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