Art museum presents works of German artist Barlach

The Princeton University Art Museum is presenting a rare American exhibition of the works of German sculptor, printmaker and playwright Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) through Sunday, June 7.

“Myth and Modernity: Ernst Barlach’s Images of ‘The Nibelungen’ and ‘Faust’” conveys the versatility and narrative power of Barlach’s work through several of his sculptures and woodcuts.

Ernst Barlach woodcut “Faust and Mephistopheles II”
The woodcut “Faust and Mephistopheles II” (1923) is among the works of German artist Ernst Barlach on view in a new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum. (Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum)

The Princeton exhibition represents the first time Barlach’s cycle of drawings on “The Nibelungen,” a medieval epic, will be on view to an American audience. His graphic interpretations from the 1920s of two cycles of German literary classics — 20 woodcuts illustrating the Walpurgis Night pagan celebration scene in Goethe’s “Faust” and the powerful series of 17 charcoal drawings and studies inspired by “The Nibelungen” — are the cornerstones of the exhibition.

The exhibition was organized with the cooperation of the Ernst Barlach Foundation in Güstrow, Germany, where it will become part of an expanded presentation next year. “Myth and Modernity” was conceived by Peter Paret, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, who organized the exhibition with Calvin Brown, an associate curator of prints and drawings at the University.

“The exhibition’s major examples of Barlach’s sculpture and graphics will provide a good introduction to the work of one of the great artists of the 20th century,” Paret said.

While “Faust” is a classic text well known in this country, “The Nibelungen” is less familiar, primarily recognized as the inspiration for a 1924 silent film by Fritz Lang and for parts of composer Richard Wagner’s operatic “Ring Cycle.” Written versions of this epic poem of love, honor and revenge were made around 1200. Several manuscripts, discovered in the late 1700s, were translated into modern German, and by the 19th century became well known throughout Germany. “The Nibelungen,” considered a Germanic counterpart to the epics of Homer in modern Greek history, has played an important role in German culture and history to the Third Reich and beyond.

“Although the artist’s importance has been long recognized abroad, this will be the first monographic exhibition devoted to Barlach to be held in the United States in over 35 years,” Brown said. The exhibition “will be of interest to students and scholars across many disciplines throughout the University community,” he added.

Barlach’s sculptures and drawings are held in several major American museums and collections, but his singular interpretation on modernism is better known in Europe. As independent in his political beliefs as in his work, he defended the autonomy of the individual and was opposed to any form of ideological constraints. His drawings of “The Nibelungen” take the beauty and power of the epic seriously, but refuse to glorify its characters’ bloodlust and unquestioned loyalty to the death, which nationalists and National Socialists elevated as models for the German people. During the Third Reich, Barlach’s work was removed from museums and art galleries. Some of it was destroyed, and a volume of his drawings was confiscated by the Gestapo and shown in an exhibition of “Degenerate Art.”

“The Nibelungen” drawings and some of the sculptures are on loan from the Barlach Foundation. Other works, including prints from “Faust” and sculptures in wood and bronze, are drawn from German and American private collections, as well as the Princeton University Art Museum. Among the few works in the exhibition not by Barlach is a bronze sculpture created by his friend Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), in homage to the master at the time of his death.

Events are planned in conjunction with the exhibition, all held in 101 McCormick Hall. A symposium on issues of art and politics raised by Barlach’s work, titled “Ernst Barlach: Image, Form, Text” will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28. Fritz Lang’s film adaptation of “The Nibelungen” will be shown in two parts at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 9, and 5 p.m. Friday, April 10. The April 9 screening will be followed by a reception and tour of the exhibition beginning at 7:30 p.m.

For more information on these events, visit