Opinion  October 28, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Barlach's "Wandering Death"

Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Wandering Death, 1923. Lithograph.

The October 2021 Focus for Reframed is Ghoulish

It is an understandable human instinct to treat any crisis as if it were the first of its kind. A century ago, those fears revolved around a widening gap between rich and poor, a global pandemic, and a growing loss of community. Sound familiar?

Enduring those three crises, German expressionist Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) created the 1923 lithograph Wandering Death, shown here in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. His black and white work shows the figure of death striding along fearlessly, cloak billowing behind him, relentlessly prepared to kill off not only the weak, the needy, and the vulnerable but also the strong, wealthy, and seemingly invincible.

Barlach’s portrayal of the figure of death smoking a pipe was meant to emphasize this notion that death comes to us all: the poor and the middle-class and the wealthy.

Detroit Institute of Art.

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Wandering Death, 1923. Lithograph.

Smoking a pipe while walking was, in Barlach’s time, an artistic symbol that indicated to a viewer a man was sophisticated, yet approachable. How fascinating it is the way that connotations morph throughout the years; when this author first saw the figure of death smoking a pipe, her thoughts immediately associated it with carcinogens and cancer, thoughts that never would have occurred to Barlach.

The artist’s own death of a heart attack at age sixty-eight in 1938, and his creation of Wandering Death itself, has always seemed both tragic and fortunate. While he escaped persecution by the Nazis, Barlach also did not see the ultimate destruction of Hitler, something his artwork aimed to promote.

In the wake of the past few years of global crises, however, Barlach’s lithograph also seems, well, ghoulishly comforting. The Western world survived the tragedies in Barlach’s time and, though death may be ever-present here in the twenty-first century, progress has undoubtedly been made.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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