Although contemporary critics often referred to Ernst Barlach as an Expressionist, the artist rejected the label, as he felt the term did not accurately communicate the timeless, universal spirit which underpinned his approach to art. ‘I really believe with all my heart that I am chosen to portray a stylised humanity,’ he explained. ‘Truly I feel that for sculpture mankind is the only possibility, which could be raised into the monumental, shaken by fate or surpassing itself through selflessness. In short, mankind could be set in some kind of connection with the great eternal concepts, which soar above the misery peculiar to any one time, and whose expression of joy and suffering can not be treated with condescension’ (letter to Wilhelm Radenberg, 8 Aug 1911; reproduced in R-C. Washton Long, ed., German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, Berkeley, 1995, p. 110).
Created in 1924, Schwangeres Mädchen (Pregnant young woman) is a powerful illustration of Barlach’s passion for the innate, expressive potential of the human figure. He had reached an artistic breakthrough while travelling through Warsaw, Kiev and Krakow on a visit with his brother in 1906. The people he encountered on this journey, who seemed to the artist ‘alike inwardly and outwardly,’ sparked his imagination, the existential simplicity of their lives in the midst of such vast landscapes leading him to create a huge number of sketches, which served as the primary source material for his sculptural work on his return to Germany. In order to capture a sense of the stoic endurance that he witnessed, their perseverance amidst the struggles and hardships that underpinned their everyday lives, Barlach began to employ a new restrained approach to form in his work, creating sculptures which focus on solid, weighty figures imbued with an intense inner emotion and spirit.
In Schwangeres Mädchen a young woman is seen clutching a thin cloak tightly to her body, her face only just visible amidst the drapery that envelopes her form. Though the title reveals to us that she is pregnant, the cloak covers her figure almost entirely, her condition merely suggested by a slight swelling around her mid-section. Executed with a melancholy starkness, this is not a serene, celebratory image of pregnancy. Rather, the woman appears sombre, her lips pursed and eyes closed, her face an unreadable mask as she braces herself against the harsh environment in which she finds herself. It was this unflinching, yet subtle examination of the difficult realities of life which earned Barlach a reputation as one of the most profound sculptors of his day. As Professor Peter W. Guenther has explained: ‘Barlach’s works give form to the most fundamental level of human life and suffering, frequently touching upon hunger and misery, death and grief. No accidental or nervous gesture breaks the closed forms; the heavy garments prevent detail from disturbing formal unity. The faces, too, avoid specifics, summarising instead a state of existence. There are, however, no abstract forms in the works of Ernst Barlach. For this artist, only the human form was capable of carrying meaning for man’ (‘Ernst Barlach,’ in German Expressionist Sculpture, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1983, p. 61).
This unique carving reveals the debt Barlach’s aesthetic owed to the German tradition of woodcarving, a medium that he came to prefer over all others. Sharing a similar interest to the artists of Die Brücke, whose revival of the woodcut was largely inspired by the Northern masters of the Renaissance, Barlach saw something quintessentially expressive in the working of wood. He approached the material methodically, embracing the natural textures and rich colours he discovered as he cut directly into the wood. Barlach never sought to conceal the marks of his tools, leaving the myriad planes that resulted from his chipping away little by little at the wood to remain visible, ensuring the surface of the sculpture retained a record of the organic growth of the composition as he worked the material. This aspect of his art was highly prized by, among others, Max Liebermann who, writing on the 1930 Barlach retrospective at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin, commented: ‘Like Nietzsche, Barlach philosophizes with a hammer. No hollow pathos, but the most moving humanity flows from his work: It lives and will live’ (S. Fischer, Max Liebermann - Die Phantasie in der Malerei, Frankfurt, 1978, p. 247).
Schwangeres Mädchen was purchased directly from Paul Cassirer, Barlach’s dealer, by Hermann Lange in 1926. Lange, a silk manufacturer and industrialist based in Krefeld, was an early member of the Deutscher Werkbund, an association of German architects, designers, and manufacturers, who set out to improve the aesthetic qualities of industrial design. He was also an avid collector of art, frequenting galleries in Berlin and Paris, purchasing works by a variety of French and German avant-garde artists. By 1930 he had assembled a collection of more than 300 paintings and sculptures, acquiring works by the leading figures of Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, the Bauhaus, as well as paintings by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. In 1927, together with his business partner Josef Esters, Lange commissioned the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design two adjacent residences in Krefeld. Completed in 1930 with his art collection in mind, Haus Lange provided a modern setting for Lange’s extensive collection.