Ernst Barlach (1870–1938) is the finest artist no one knows outside Germany. Empathetic and with a keen sense of pathos, the Expressionist sculptor and graphic artist was born in a village near Hamburg as the son of a country physician. He studied sculpture in Dresden and Paris, then travelled. It was a trip across the Russian steppes in 1906 that made him. His sketchbooks filled up with figures of exaggerated facial expressions – tortured, helpless, radiant, primitive – based on the peasants he met. In them he saw an intense Christian humility that chimed with his passion for German medieval art. These sketches served as the basis of his vigorous, rough-hewn works whose archaic power and inner spirituality has sometimes seen Barlach pigeonholed as “modern Gothic”.
The horrors of World War I only intensified his humanism – Barlach, by now a reader of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, quickly lost his early enthusiasm for war as a means to shake up the ruling elite – and by 1930 he was a leading figure of German art, commissioned for a large war memorial in Magdeburg Cathedral. Such socialist leanings did not square with the militaristic hubris of the Nazis, however. His bronze of Christ and St Thomas was labelled “Two Monkeys in Nightshirts” in their Munich exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) in 1937, and many of his works were smelted. He died in Rostock a year later and was buried beside his father in Ratzeburg. Like fellow Expressionist and “degenerate” Käthe Kollwitz, Barlach’s place in the German canon was restored after the war: direct and immediately accessible, his works celebrate an empathy and humanism that strikes a chord.