From today’s perspective, Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) and Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) can be described as the most important German sculptors of the Classical Modern age. Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s lifework is a national cultural treasure of international significance. In addition it forms the historical foundation, the artistic benchmark and conceptual perspective of the international collection of Modern sculpture in Duisburg to the present day.
The relationship between Lehmbruck and Duisburg is characterized by an eventful history. The only purchase made during the artist’s lifetime, namely the “Duisburgerin” of 1912, which was financed by the Böninger family, was followed by the artist’s refusal to sell a “Heldenfigur” in the Ehrenfriedhof Kaiserberg (Kaiserberg Cemetery of Honor) in 1915. It was not until 1925, six years after the artist’s early suicide, that August Hoff, as director of the Museumsverein, succeeded in obtaining a large proportion of the estate on loan from the artist’s widow, Anita Lehmbruck. As early as 1927 the bronze sculpture “Die Kniende” fell victim to a pre-Fascist attack. The Nazis deemed Lehmbruck’s work “degenerate” and sought to destroy it, which is why the estate had to be returned to the family. The Lehmbruck family was only able to preserve the artist’s lifework throughout the National Socialist period with great difficulty and in dangerous circumstances, and with some wartime losses. Owing to these experiences, it was with considerable effort and not until 1964 that the City of Duisburg succeeded in regaining the Lehmbruck estate on loan from the family, to coincide with the opening of the Lehmbruck Museum, planned by Manfred Lehmbruck, but without being able to secure it under contract. In return, since then the Museum has presented the artist’s lifework in the architecturally outstanding Lehmbruck wing and organizes numerous Lehmbruck exhibitions both at home and abroad.
The early sculptures from 1898 to 1906 essentially reflect the start of Lehmbruck’s years of training in Düsseldorf, which was pluralist in style, in fitting with the Gründerzeit, and conveyed to him by his teacher Carl Janssen and had a social and neo-Classicist orientation. It was principally through Rodin and his antipole Maillol that Lehmbruck found, by 1910, the beginning of his years in Paris, his own sculptural style and expression, namely in introverted, spiritual figures. They have an architectural form in a stricter sense than Maillol’s figures, are defined by scale and proportion and are kept together in an appealing, linear silhouette. By stretching and spatializing the figure, Lehmbruck increased the expression of his ideal figures of man and woman by 1914. With his “extrasensory tectonics”, he achieved the breakthrough to the Modern age in bronze, cast stone and terracotta figures. His forced return to Berlin in 1914 and experience of World War I turned the tectonic into expressive, fragmentary and reduced. During his years in Berlin and Zurich until 1918/19, Lehmbruck produced the existential antiwar sculptures “Der Gestürzte” and “Sitzender Jüngling”, profound and harrowing human images full of melancholy and loneliness, which express a deep longing for love and humanity, transcendence, inner peace and a purified, light world.
Parallel to his sculptural works, during his year’s in Paris Lehmbruck produced paintings ranging from portraits and nudes through pictures of groups of people in Paradise and conflict-laden representations of relationships between man and woman to the animated, graphic Expressionism of the last years. Likewise in Paris Lehmbruck finally produced his printed graphic work, above all etchings which contain their own iconography, but also take up themes featured in his sculptures. The artist adopted a purposeful and unconventional approach to the etching needle and sheets of paper for printing and repeatedly changed the states of these sheets.
The link between all the artistic genres and yet time and again also autonomous is the drawing, which abundantly links the decisive formal will with the tenderness of expression and repeatedly enables comparisons with the early work of Joseph Beuys. In summary, regarding the artist’s work from 1910 onwards, we can say that Lehmbruck rendered an early and considerable contribution to the modern image of man in 20th-century art with his “extrasensory tectonics” and “abstract expressiveness”.