The best known of modern German sculptors, Ernst Barlach was equally important as graphic artist and as Expressionist dramatist. Born in 1870, he derived from northern Germany, like Nolde with whom he might be compared in some respects. Barlach studied in Hamburg, at the Dresden Academy, and in Paris; to his Dresden period he probably owed the flowing, curvilinear quality of many figures that may be allied to the general Jugendstil development of the late nineties.
Barlach's early interest in Millet and Meunier -- exponents of a Romanticized proletarian art -- was reinforced by a visit to Paris in 1895-1896 when he was acquainted with the art of Van Gogh, whose more powerful emotions of sympathy and suffering influenced the German further along the path of his natural development. The supposed similarities between Barlach and Rodin are rather superficial at best, since the French master remained naturalistically Romantic while Barlach went on to rhythmically conceived, flowingly designed, and semi-abstract symbols of human feeling. Where Rodin suggests the Baroque, Barlach evokes the Middle Ages in the intensity and deliberate harshness of many of his forms.
His trip to Russia in 1906 had considerable effect on his point of view. In the endless Russian plains, in the simlicity and profundity of the Russian peasant and his primitive religiosity, Barlach seemed to have found the spiritual direction of his art. As in the case of the symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Barlach's contact with Russia was decisive, although with both men it is not clear exactly how the change came about. Barlach represented, however, a concrete instance of the general influence of Russian symbolism and mysticism on the nascent Expressionist attitude at the beginning of the century.
His early figures, especially some of the porcelain sculptures, showed Russian types: beggars, wanderers, etc., in a generalized and symbolic portrayal of the typical rather than the individual, expressing in almost mystical fashion the ideas of suffering, helplessness, poverty, and futility which occupied the Russian intellectual world. Many of these concepts remained permanent parts of Barlach's ideology in his plastic and literary works, just as they had their influence on the whole Expressionist movement. In contrast to this vivid Russian experience, Barlach's trip to Italy in 1909 left him relatively untouched, a not uncommon phenomenon with Germans of that time, judging by the experiences of Nolde and Beckmann.
As with other artists of the era, Barlach achieved the aesthetic realization of his natural emotional bent through the Gothic art of his own country, differing only in that he leaned toward an earlier phase than most, the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Yet, as was often the case with Expressionists, this material was used for the sake of the mood it suggested -- the mingling of factual and spiritual -- rather than for technical procedures. In some instances, it is true, we do feel an actual borrowing of methods, a sin The Beggar (Fig. 112), a crippled figure with a medieval Christ-like face and form shown verticalized on its crutches. Elsewhere, however, this modern artist was attracted by the spirit of the Middle Ages which elevated the material and brought the spiritual closer to the human. Working in the monastic loneliness of his studio at Güstrow, Barlach produced the stirring works that betokened his reaction to the unrest and disquiet of the age.
His Seated Shepherds of 1907 and his Listeners Frieze, on which he was working as late as 1934, express the remarkable combination of exaltation and earthiness, the apparently paradoxical longing to escape from the world, that is felt so strongly by these earthderived creatures. Here again it would seem that Barlach was part of a general movement in which these qualities were fairly typical, but one should distinguish between his closeness to nature and that of Nolde with whom he has so often been compared (cf. Pl. 33, P. 156, Fig. 157).
Barlach managed by the force of exaltation to raise his peasants and his poor into symbols of universal feeling, always arousing our sympathy by the strength of his own compassion. However mean or evil the circumstances of existence, the poet-sculptor evoked some strong humanistic response of indignation, hopefulness, or similar emotion. To Nolde, life meant evil, terror,
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Publication information: Book title: The German Expressionists:A Generation in Revolt. Contributors: Bernard S. Myers - Author. Publisher: Frederick A. Praeger. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1966. Page number: 78.
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