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Ernst Barlach

German, 1870–1938

Der Rächer (The Avenger), 1914

17 x 22 7/8 x 8 3/4 inches (43.2 x 58.1 x 22.2 cm)
Charles Clifton Fund, 1961

Ernst Barlach used the human body to depict expression, saying in 1911, “My mother tongue is the human body . . . the object through which or in which man lives, suffers, enjoys himself, feels, thinks.” Unlike many sculptors of his time, Barlach believed that a clothed body could be more revealing than an unclothed figure, and he used garments to help express his themes. The Avenger represents the artist’s response to the outbreak of World War I, which was initially one of relative enthusiasm. The concept of “avenger” is conveyed very simply, yet extremely effectively. The force of the man’s forward movement is emphasized through the work’s horizontal orientation, its slanted base, and the way the cloak flows back against the figure in diagonal folds. He carries a weapon that can only be used in hand-to-hand combat, and raises it to strike with a gesture that is at the same time heroic and tragic. His facial expression is difficult to define, reflecting the ambiguous nature of war, which, whether or not it is thought to be justified, is always horrific. Thus the sculpture represents not only the physical experience of war, but the psychological conflict as well. Barlach’s enthusiasm for the war quickly faded and he ultimately saw it as evil and shameful.


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