Lovers. Ernst Barlach
Artist Sculpture

Ernst Barlach a brilliant German artist who fiercely hated war

Photo of Käthe Kollwitz and the face of Angel Ernst Barlach
Photo of Käthe Kollwitz and the face of Angel Ernst Barlach

Ernst Barlach German artist of the twentieth century, a brilliant sculptor who worked in the styles of Art Nouveau, Realism and Expressionism. Ernst Barlach was also a renowned writer who produced a range of literary works (novels, dramas and plays). Many of the masterpieces of the master’s work have a pronounced anti-war orientation, and his biography is an example of the active struggle of an art worker for the triumph of a peaceful life.

Ernst Barlach, in addition to sculptural works, left to descendants a significant number of engravings and lithographs. Most of them are author’s illustrations for their own literary works.

Man in a slingshot
Man in a slingshot

Ernst Barlach was born on January 2, 1870 in Rostock in the family of a doctor. He was the eldest of 4 sons of Georg and Johanna Louise Barlahov, who raised their children in strict Lutheran traditions.

Biography of Ernst Barlach

In 1872, the family of the future artist moved to Schoenberg, and 4 years later to Ratzeburg. But after the sudden death of the head of the family in 1884, the widow and her sons returned to Schönburg, and it was in this city that the children graduated from high school.

Since childhood, Ernst was fond of literature and woodcarving, so for a long time he could not decide on his future profession. He wanted to become either a sculptor or a writer, but nevertheless the young man made a choice in favor of the fine arts and entered the art school in Hamburg in 1888. After graduating from this institution, he studied for 4 years at the Dresden Academy of Arts, where his mentor was the sculptor Robert Diez.

Blind beggar. Ernst Barlach
Blind beggar

Barlach then left for Paris to continue his studies at the prestigious private academy of Julian (Académie Julian). His student life ended in 1897 when he settled in Hamburg and began a career as an independent artist. At the initial stage of his creative career, Ernst gravitated towards the Art Nouveau style, in which he created sculptures from wood and ceramics.

The works of the young author were not in great demand, so he had to look for additional sources of income, working as a teacher at school and drawing illustrations for the art magazine Jugend. In 1904, the artist’s first personal exhibition took place, which did not bring him much popularity. The lack of commercial success weighed on Ernst, and he decided to visit his brother Hans, who was living in Russia at the time. For 8 weeks, the sculptor, together with his beloved model Rosa Schwab, traveled to the southern regions of the European part of the Russian Empire.

Ernst Barlach. Frieze of the Listening, 1930-35
Frieze of the Listening, 1930-35

A trip to Russia had a noticeable impact on the artist’s work.

During this trip, the couple had a son, Nicholas, but suddenly the relationship between the young people was completely upset and they broke up. Over the next two years, Ernst sued Rosa for custody of his son and eventually won the lawsuit.

The style of his work changed, he began to gravitate more towards Gothic art. The works of Ernst Barlach, presented at the Berlin Salon in 1907, were enthusiastically received by the public. The German Academy of Arts even awarded the artist a retirement trip to Florence, where he had the opportunity for ten months to admire and study the work of the great masters of the Renaissance.

Lovers. Ernst Barlach

Upon his return from Italy in 1910, Ernst settled in the small town of Guestrove with his mother and son, where he lived most of the rest of his life. At that time, expressionism was the dominant style in artistic circles in Germany and other European countries. Like many of his colleagues, Ernst Barlach at the time remained a fierce supporter of the impending war, which he saw as a powerful stimulus for revolutionary changes in the visual arts.

Yielding to a patriotic impulse, at the end of 1915 he volunteered for the active army, but due to serious heart problems he was discharged after 3 months. Staying in the trenches had a sobering effect on the artist. He returned from the front as a convinced pacifist, which he remained until the end of his life.

Russian beggar, 1907
Russian beggar, 1907

Career peak

The 1920s was the peak of the heyday of Ernst Barlach’s

creative career, his sculptures and literary works enjoyed great success with the public. But gradually, revanchist sentiments began to gain strength in German society, which eventually led to the power of the Nazis.

True to pacifist views, the master fought desperately for the triumph of peaceful ideals. His work had a pronounced anti-war orientation, which irritated a significant part of the Germans, blinded by the thirst for revenge for their defeat in the First World War. And when in the early 1930s Hitler became the German chancellor, a fierce persecution began against the artist. Among other progressive cultural figures, he was declared an adherent of “degenerate art”. All his works were withdrawn from museums, temples and squares; under the onslaught of ill-wishers, the master had to give up his membership in the Academy of Arts.

Sleeping peasant couple, 1912
Sleeping peasant couple, 1912
last years of life

The aging artist very painfully experienced the events taking place in his homeland, but remained faithful to art. Despite the prohibitions of the authorities, he secretly created sculptures and kept them in his home.

The hard trials that befell the master inevitably led to a tragic end. After three heart attacks, on October 24, 1938, Ernst Barlach died with his relatives. On his grave in Ratzenburg, after the end of the Second World War, an original tombstone in the form of a sculpture “The Singing Disciple of the Monastery” was erected a copy of one of the works of the great artist.

The Avenger, 1914
The Avenger, 1914
The most famous works of Ernst Barlach

The brilliant German author has created many beautiful masterpieces in the field of sculpture, literature and graphics. And yet, the most famous works of Ernst Barlach are rightfully considered:

  1. “Weeping Woman” (1923) the most expensive work of the artist, sold at art auctions. In 2012, the winning bidder at Christie’s paid more than 930,000 for this small wood figurine.
  2. “Soaring Angel” (1927) is a sculpture that personifies the inconsolable grief of mothers who lost their children in the war. During the reign of the Nazis, the original bronze work of the master, installed in the city cathedral of Gustrow, was melted down, and after the war, two copies of it were made from the surviving casts.
  3. Dukhoborets (1928) is a work with a very difficult fate, which since its presentation in Kiel has been negatively perceived by the majority of local residents. Only in 1954 this unique monument of art was re-erected in front of the main Lutheran church of the ancient city.
  4. Magdeburg Ehrenmal (1929) is a skillful masterpiece carved from wood by an artist for a Lutheran church. The faces of German soldiers with an expression of despair and sorrow make the audience think seriously about the monstrous horrors of any war.

Ernst Barlach left a bright mark on the history of German art in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite the fierce persecution, he fought against the war for many years, which forever earned the gratitude of grateful descendants.