Beyond the Boarders of Existence. Ernst Barlach / Käthe Kollwitz

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Preamble The existential conditions for mankind are key concepts in the exhibition “Beyond the borders of existence” in which two North German expressionists are presented for the first time in a comprehensive exhibition in Denmark and Norway. It is the unpolished and harsh depiction of the human being which brings together the two German expressionists Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Ernst Barlach (1870-1938). In the period around the two world wars they both explored a new expressive style rooted in a common Northern German cultural unity. Barlach was preoccupied with the coarse rural population of his native Northern Germany, whereas Kollwitz focused on the down-and-outs of Berlin and on the horrors of war. However, they both found a humanity in the people of the lower classes that had perished in the rational machinery of industrial society. Their interest in basic human problems and everyday life placed Kollwitz and Barlach in an artistic movement searching a genuine and immaculate past rooted in a regional or national identity. The sculptor Ernst Barlach left metropolitan Berlin behind and found his artistic inspiration among the rural population of his native northern regions of Germany. Through his concrete and plain sculptures he attempted to confront the observer with universal feelings. The rational and divided individual of Enlightenment is discarded and replaced by the unsophisticated and unpretentious human being. Barlach is especially inspired by the Nordic Middle Ages and its mysticism. He wanted to depict a utopian ideal; primordial humanity in balance with its environment. The lithographic artist Käthe Kollwitz had a more practical approach to her art, basing it on a fundamental social indignation. Married to a doctor who attended the workers of Berlin, she found her subjects amidst all the poverty and misery of the workers and depicted their living conditions with great sympathetic insight. Kollwitz plainly drew a picture of the conditions at the bottom of society after world war one when the German Empire suffered social and economic disintegration. Though the two artists varied in their theoretical basis, their artistic expression manifests a very clear kinship. Kollwitz’ social indignation and Barlach’s spiritual quest unite in a common manifestation focusing on bodily physicality and expressivity. There is both outer and inner connectivity in their works. The human body is shown as distorted and excoriated, reflecting mental agony, but simultaneously mirroring the outer conditions generating this mental agony. Both artists belong to the expressionist movement from the beginning of the 20th century, which centred especially on the strong emotional expression. But whereas other schools within the German expressionism, such as “Die Blaue Reiter”, and “Die Brücke”, express their feelings and react against the straitjacket of bourgeois society by means of vivid colours and master strokes, Kollwitz and Barlach explore the monochrome simplicity of charcoal drawings, woodcuts and sculptures to create a sense of isolation, loneliness and sorrow. Emil Nolde, Franz Marc and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner found aesthetic models in primitive and exotic cultures, whereas Kollwitz and Barlach found inspiration in a simpler and coarser Nordic aesthetics. Barlach was partly inspired by Northern German Roman church ornamentation and the mysticism of the early Middle Ages, Käthe Kollwitz by a class unblemished by the pretentious world-picture of the bourgeoisie, and whose simple existence she rendered in a purely emotional way. Both artists insist on addressing the darker sides of life and give tormented man his place in modern civilization. There is a hint of spiritual affinity with Nordic colleagues like Edward Munch and August Strindberg in this. Whereas expressionists like “Die Blaue Reiter” and “Die Brücke” have been researched and exhibited several times – also in a Danish context – this has not to the same extent been the case with the more subdued, yet strong expression of Barlach and Kollwitz. The present exhibition aims at exploring this quieter manifestation. The travelling exhibition “Beyond the borders of existence” has come about through cooperation between the Ernst Barlach Gesellschaft Hamburg and the three Nordic art galleries Museet for Religiøs Kunst in Lemvig, Denmark, Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum, Norway, and Øregaard Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. We are grateful for the many important loans made possible by public and private lenders, as well as the Ernst Barlach Gesellshaft . The exhibition has been monitored by the curator of the Barlach fFoundation , Heike Stockhaus, who has a long series of exhibition projects behind her, both in Germany and worldwide. Consisting of approximately 150 sculptural and graphic exhibits, the exhibition offers a broad insight into the collective Barlach and Kollwitz oeuvre. Sincere thanks to the curator for the Ernst Barlach Gesellschaft Hamburg, Heike Stockhaus, for her great research prior to the exhibition, which has shed new light on the relationship between the two artists Barlach and Kollwitz. Also sincere thanks to Herbert Pieper, Heidi Krejberg, Tage Øe and Avitra for translating this catalogue. And sincere thanks to graphic designers Martin Franke and Flemming Dupont for respectively designing the exhibition and the catalogue. Finally, sincere thanks to the artist Bodil Kaalund for her inspiration and great insight in connection with the unfolding of the exhibition concept. The exhibition has been made possible through the generous and substantial support from the Edith og Godtfred Kirk Christiansens Fond. Finally, the exhibition catalogue has been facilitated by the Fritt Ord Foundation.
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