PRINT October 1963

Barlach in America

IN THE CASE OF THE GERMAN SCULPTOR and print-maker Ernst Barlach (1870–1938), the Biblical saying must be reversed: He is with honor in his own country, has been for the past fifty years, while he remained virtu­ally unknown in most places outside Germany. During the last few weeks, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death was celebrated with exhibitions, memorial meet­ings, lengthy articles and the performance of some of his plays in both the Bonn Republic and in East Germany. Inevitably the tenor of the speeches dif­fered in the two Germanys: in the West, the emphasis was on the master’s fervent individualism, his re­ligiousness devoid of ties to any particular denomina­tion, and his affinity to the carvers of the Gothic past; in the East, Barlach was described as a fighter for Socialism (which he was not, since his shy, reserved nature did not permit him to engage in any political action), and as a victim of Naziism (which he was, in the sense that his enemies ostracized and in sev­eral instances, destroyed, his work, which they con­sidered “degenerate,” alien to the Teutonic spirit.)

While all this jubilation went on in Barlach’s native country, a large Barlach exhibition, organized by Ham­burg’s Barlach Society and circulated here by the Smithsonian Institute, was winding up its long itiner­ary without much fanfare, at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and finally at the William Rock­hill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City. Was the exhibition, which included drawings, prints and small bronzes, but unfortunately, none of Barlach’s work in wood, a success? The reviews which appeared in the journals of the largest of the ten American cities took cognizance of the fact that the American public might be baffled upon learning that Barlach enjoyed such a tremendous reputation in his native land. The modern onlooker, the critic of the Chicago Daily News writes, is embarrassed “in the presence of a world as clumsily soulful as Barlach’s. He has the look of the peasant about him, . . . and he wears his heart on his sleeve. His coarse and rustic commen­taries on the subject of man and his relation to God are too obvious, too serious and too raw for today’s cool generation, which, having lived in a world vastly more convoluted and uncertain than Barlach’s expects subtler philosophies from its artists.” Hence, he urges the American spectator to judge the master’s work within the framework of early 20th century German sculpture (which had no Rodin, Bourdelle or Maillol) and then continues:

“If his [Barlach’s] North German background lacked the cosmopolitanism that moved his Rhenish contem­porary, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, he made up for it largely by an intensity of feeling and surging masculine power.”

Most of the reviews that appeared in U.S. news­papers, as the exhibition moved from place to place, indicated that to virtually all reviewers Barlach was a completely new subject. Not one of them, as I recall, knew that in Central Europe he is considered as im­portant a figure in literature as in the plastic arts. This is forgivable, for preciously little of Barlach’s literary production has appeared in English transla­tion. It is true that as long ago as 1924, no less a writer than Thomas Mann let people on this side of the Atlantic know that Barlach was a very important dramatic poet. But his essay appeared in an esoteric American periodical, The Dial, with small circula­tion. Even smaller was the number of those who, three years later, in Columbia University’s Germanic Re­view, read a professor’s praise of the playwright Bar­lach. The definitive edition of Barlach’s writing was published in the artist’s homeland only in the late fifties. A major portion of his numerous letters has appeared as recently as 1952, and some of these have been rendered into English by M. E. Knight, (in Art and Artist, University of California Press, 1956). A complete edition of Barlach’s extant letters, in their original German, is still in the making.

As might be expected, the print-maker Barlach came to the attention of the American public long before the sculptor and the poet. Prints, small in size, less expensive than paintings, and available in numer­ous, virtually identical copies, are in many ways the most ideal ambassadors of an artist’s creative force. In 1914 five lithographs from the cycle Der tote Tag were included in a New York show of original graphic works by contemporary Germans, among whom were Lavis Corinth, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt. The gallery’s owner, Martin Birn­baum, introduced Barlach as “the woodcarver who is like a powerful Gothic shade come to life. . . .” A year earlier in an illustrated article on contemporary Ger­man lithographs that appeared in the Print Collec­tor’s Quarterly, Birnbaum had hailed Barlach, then still virtually unknown even in his native Germany, as “one of the most original figures of the day.”

Barlach’s fame was not established in Germany un­til the 1920’s and early 1930’s. At that time, American newspapers and art periodicals occasionally carried references to him, chiefly from their Berlin corre­spondents. One letter from Berlin, printed in the Christian Science Monitor in 1929, stated: “It is not the representation of the world of form that Barlach seeks: it is the evidence of the inner man.” A letter that appeared late in 1930 in Art News mentioned what was altogether the first show of bronzes by Bar­lach (at the Flechtheim Gallery in Berlin). The cor­respondent expressed a view that has been shared by many: “In spite of their emotional intensity and breadth of sculptural form stripped of all non-essen­tials, the warm and living quality of wood is better suited to Barlach’s temperament and characteristic technique.”

Naziism suddenly and abruptly reversed public opinion in Germany. It was not until the mid-thirties, when Barlach was defamed as a “degenerate” in his own country, that the free world finally took notice of him. He was then an “Inner Emigrant,” ostra­cized and ailing, and he knew that his end was near. An exhibition at a New York gallery early in 1937 led an Art News reviewer to praise Barlach’s subtle manner of carving, his emphasis on fundamental form, and the absence of any “self-conscious effort for virtuoso distinctions.”

German-Jewish refugees, brought to America works by Barlach who, along with Kaethe Kollwitz, had con­siderable appeal for this group. In 1937, Barlach’s war memorial––a floating angel––at the Cathedral in Guestrow had been removed upon the insistence of fanatical Nazis, but a bronze version of the angel’s head was given several years later to New York’s Museum of Modern Art by the American philanthropist, Edward M. Warburg. In 1931 this head was one of five sculptures by Barlach loaned to the museum for its extensive show, “German Painting and Sculpture.”

Altogether, it might be said that the America of Franklin D. Roosevelt was an “ideal” place for Bar­lach’s reputation to strike new roots. The economic depression and the news of racial persecution in Germany, political purges in Russia, and civil war in Spain had caused a large number of Americans to abandon their cheerful optimism; their blind hope in industrial progress had given way to more somber thoughts related to the possibility of having eternal, unchallenged happiness on earth. The atmosphere was thus more conducive to the contemplative mood required for the proper viewing of Barlach’s meta­physical work than was the buoyant, frivolous attitude that prevailed here during the “Flaming Twenties.”

Moreover, esthetic tenets had changed. Long gone was the generation who had demanded white marble and classic idealization of form. Those born after 1900 no longer admired the large public monuments that, with technical proficiency but little introspection, had managed to translate American political personalities into huge, idealized Roman figures. The dates of Gutzon Borglum (1871–1941) are almost iden­tical with those of Barlach, yet the newer generation of American art lovers, if asked to choose between the images of American presidents that Borglum and his team had carved into a mountainside, and the small, humbler pieces that emerged from the Barlach studio in the forlorn town of Guestrow, would not hesitate for a moment in deciding for Barlach. It is also no exaggeration to say that nearly all the Amer­ican artists of the Thirties who believed in Social Realism saw a brother in the German sculptor whose heart was filled with compassion for the underdog, and who suffered from the Fascism that was threat­ening to engulf the world. But their kinship to Bar­lach was not merely a philosophical one: America’s young sculptors admired both his manner of carving and the precedents he had chosen; rather than fol­low the conventions of Renaissance tradition, Barlach chose the free manipulations and distortions of the Gothic age. As woodcarving became fashionable again, American sculptors began to study with curiosity and reverence the work of the German carver who ex­tracted from the medium of wood an endless variety of human passions. They agreed with the statement in the catalog of the Buchholz Gallery in New York that staged a Barlach Memorial exhibition (November 29–December 20, 1938), that “With the passing of Ernst Barlach on October 24, the world lost one of the finest sculptors.” On view were three wood sculptures, fourteen bronzes, eight prints and fifteen drawings.

Even after the U.S.A. had entered the war against Germany, the Buchholz Gallery continued to show the works of this German anti-Nazi who, had he lived to see his country involved in a war, surely would have prayed for the defeat of the German army. Individual pieces by Barlach were also on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, (in, for example, a “Free Art” exhibition arranged in 1942). But by the mid-forties, interest in what Barlach and his art represented had dwindled in this country. To the men who then began their careers, Barlach, with his heavy, static forms, and his messianic fervor, seemed rather old-fashioned. The sculptural quality of weight, a traditional sine qua non, gave way to “mobiles,” to attenuated forms rhythmically moving through space. The materials he used—in particular wood and clay, from which the bronze casts were made—were forsaken for iron, steel and silver, bent, hammered, welded or annealed with uninhibited freedom. Plastics, synthetic stone and other unorthodox materials were also used, while a number of artists even went so far as to put together discarded farm equipment, parts of automobiles and other machines, furniture, stuffed birds, and what­ever else might engage the attention of an artist utterly unencumbered by esthetic inhibitions.

Barlach was not without a sense of humor, and in his prints as well as his plays he often moves into a surrealist whimsicality. Yet beneath his humor there was always a feeling of deep responsibility, of meta­physical earnestness, that never allows his utterance in any medium to deteriorate into frivolous play or sensational absurdity. It cannot be denied that the best of our contemporary sculptors are as eager as was Barlach to express through their work the pre­vailing atmosphere of uncertainty and anguish. Much too much, however, seems to be the sterile product of artistic nihilism and skepticism.

Dissatisfaction with an art that overrated technical inventiveness, novelty of expression, and surface charm at the expense of philosophical depth, was one of the factors leading to the “discovery” of the Ger­man expressionists in the America of the mid-fifties. These artists, who had developed their philosophy and fashioned their style in the seemingly peaceful but actually turbulent decade before the outbreak of the first World War, were passionate men who saw behind the facade of a world still at peace only the rapid preparation for war; they were idealists who sym­pathized with the disinherited, the sick, the poor. They were a school only in the freest sense of the term, although it was correct to say that they “re­jected the imitation of the outer world of reality for the expression of an inner world of feeling and imagination.” Kirchner, Nolde, Kokoschka, Barlach, each had something different to say, and each in his own very personal way, though their common con­cern was, as Barlach said of himself, “what man can suffer and must suffer.”

In 1956 the first large Barlach show after a lapse of nearly two decades was assembled by the Uni­versity of Nebraska Art Galleries. It moved to the galleries of the University of Washington, to the Day­ton Art Institute, and finally ended its tour at Har­vard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. The response to the show––which included one hundred and seventy-six works of art in all media, plus a number of memora­bilia––ranged from polite rejection to mild enthus­iasm. America was as yet not ready to see Barlach. Some of the reviews elicited by this traveling exhi­bition, by the simultaneous Barlach show at New York’s Borgenicht Galleries (1956) and by a 1962 show at the St. Etienne Galleries, also in New York, re­vealed a certain haughtiness.

It must be admitted, though, that few of the sculptures––and Barlach was primarily a sculptor––shown in this country measure up in importance to the pieces that have remained in Germany. He was at his best when struggling with logs of wood, yet in the Smithsonian Institute’s show not a single wood piece was included, since owners of these wood sculptures were unwilling to lend them for exhibition so far away from home and for such a long time. To know Barlach, one must have visited the museum that was recently dedicated to him at the city of Hamburg, where his nine-piece woodcarving, Frieze of Listen­ers, is displayed; one must have seen the three large sculptures filling niches in the facade of an old church in Luebeck, and the Memorial for the War Dead, a bronze replica of the one in Guestrow, is now suspended from the ceiling of the Antonites Church in Cologne (Unfortunately, the impressive wooden war memorial in the cathedral of Magdeburg and the Bar­lach museum in Guestrow, the city where the artist spent the better part of his career, are now virtually inaccessible to holders of American passports.) In particular, the often-heard charge that he was merely an imitator of Gothic art is absurd. Eric Newton, re­viewing England’s only Barlach show (it was held at the Arts Council Galleries in London in 1961) boldly remarked: “What Barlach achieved and the early Gothic visionaries just failed to achieve, is human dignity. The boy who clasps his knee, leans back and bursts into song is a more serious musician and is producing a more complex melody than any Gothic chorister. The little double statue of the meeting between Christ and Saint Thomas is more moving than any Gothic visitation.”

Alfred Werner