Ernst Barlach

Self-portrait by Ernst Barlach (source: Wikimedia)

In earlier blog posts on German art the name of Ernst Barlach has been referred to. This is not surprising as he is one of the most important German artists of the 20th century. While best known as a sculptor he also created a substantial oeuvre as a graphic artist and a literary author. He is often referred to as an exponent of Expressionism but his work transcends narrow stylistic boundaries.

Barlach was born in 1870 in Wedel near Hamburg. He studied art in Hamburg and Dresden. A journey to Russia in 1906 was pivotal for the development of his unique style. In 1910 he settled in the small town of Güstrow in Northern Germany where he lived until his death in 1938.

This year the 150th anniversary of his birthday is being celebrated. As befits an anniversary the occasion is being marked by new publications and exhibitions. Two institutions dedicated to the work of Barlach, the Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg and the Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow have collaborated to commission a critical edition of Barlach’s letters. The 2200 letters have been published in a four volume set. The editorial work for this project was undertaken by a research group at the Institut für Germanistik, Universität Rostock. This comprehensive collection of Barlach’s letters allows us to gain insight into the everyday life of Barlach as well as into his creative process.

Barlach’s preferred medium was wood, and his wood sculptures are generally regarded as the most important part of his oeuvre. The Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg holds the most substantial collection of Barlach’s wood sculptures in the world.  To mark this year’s anniversary it commissioned the photographer Andreas Weiss to take images of most of the existing wood sculptures starting with the holdings of the Barlach Haus.  Weiss managed to capture 70 of the 85 existing sculptures. His photographs are collected together in a sumptuously produced volume.

The University Library has acquired both the correspondence set (747:37.c.201.45(1-4)) and the wood sculpture volume (S950.b.202.1). We also recently acquired the latest substantial biography of Barlach by renowned biographer Gunnar Decker (C216.c.3172). These acquisitions enhance further our substantial Barlach holdings.  The University Library has collected continuously over the years material relating to Ernst Barlach. We now hold over 50 exhibition catalogues as well as numerous volumes of criticism and various collections of Barlach’s writings.

“Der Kessel,” woodcut from Der Findling (source: Wikimedia)

The majority of titles were published after 1945 but we do hold a few titles which were published in Barlach’s lifetime. We are particularly proud to have a copy of Barlachs’ play Der Findling (F192.a.1.1) published in 1922 which Barlach illustrated with woodcuts. The work was published by Paul Cassirer who not only published Barlach’s literary works but presented him in his gallery.

Sadly, the Barlach volumes held by the University Library cannot be consulted currently as the library is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, there are numerous web resources available which allow us to explore the work of Ernst Barlach. A good starting point would be the websites of both the Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg and the Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow.

One of Barlach’s most iconic sculptures, “Hovering Angel”, was included in the major exhibition “Germany: Memories of a nation” held at the British Museum in 2014/15. Neil MacGregor’s talk on the “Hovering Angel” is currently available on BBC Sounds:

The German broadcaster NDR has put together a biographical feature on Barlach which includes a sound recording from 1932 of Barlach reading from his autobiography:,ernstbarlach101.html

I find it fascinating to hear Barlach’s voice when he speaks with his strong Northern accent.

Having been to Güstrow a few years ago, admiring the “Hovering Angel” in the cathedral there and seeing Barlach’s atelier, I am looking forward to being able to travel again and visiting museums to seek out Barlach’s works. In particular, it would be nice to travel to Dresden to see the Barlach retrospective at the Albertinum which is planned for August to October this year:

Christian Staufenbiel

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