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Der Flüchtling (The Refugee)

Ernst Barlach

"Der Flüchtling (The Refugee)", 1920


13.98 x 15.08 x 5.51 in

Signed, foundry stamp: "H. NOACK, Berlin"
Cast after 1939, Edition size of 20
Expertise Ernst Barlach Lizenzverwaltung, Ratzeburg
Cat. Rais.: Elisabeth Laur, Ernst Barlach, Das plastische Werk (Vol. II), Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow, 2006,
Cat. Rais. No. 294, with ill. p. 168.


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Über das Werk

A good thirty years before adoption of the so-called "Geneva Refugee Convention", Barlach fashioned and broadly anticipated the very category of human being whom this accord was intended to protect. Under the terms of the Convention, a refugee is defined as "someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted [...] is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it." Even without knowing its title, row base, whose slight inclination symbolises the long arduous road ahead, is a bulky male figure, visibly in urgent motion. The distinctive folds of his garment only reinforce the stoic determination of his forward progress, together with his straining upper body which projects from the base like a launching pad, his "well-founded fear" impelling him relentlessly onwards. Typical for Barlach's sculptures are the massive, usually impenetrable forms. Thus here too, in order to emphasise the sheer physicality of his subject's endeavours, the sculptor affords us no unobstructed view between say the cloak's lower hemline and the plinth. Strongly accentuated strands of hair evoke the impression of a head wind, with which the migrant has to contend along his tortuous path. Conspicuous, and hardly coincidental, is also the upright and forward-facing posture of the man's head. Although we shall never learn whether his flight succeeds and leads him to his desired destination, our traveller betrays no trace of self-doubt. Clasped firmly in his hands are the few possessions he was able to take with him and despite the mental turmoil he must be enduring, he stoically trudges onwards, undeterred. The lack of detail over the contents of his "bundle" provides scope for much speculation: In addition to escaping from some form of political persecution, his hurried departure may have been occasioned by some personal problem, by some resolute determination to bring about change - even if he is carrying the baggage of his past with him on this involuntary journey. In October 1932, Barlach wrote to a friend: "Being prepared for change in honest intrepidity is the key to becoming human [...]."
(Letter to Wolf Dieter Zimmermann. Güstrow, 18. October 1932)
(Horst Otto Müller)

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