Barlach’s The First Day (1922)

Ernst Barlach, a German Expressionist, had a fervent belief in the unity of all creation. Most major artists do because it is a central principle of the Inner Tradition.1 Barlach, though, was known to be a mystic like few others are. In 1922 he created a series of seven woodcuts titled The Transformations of God. This one, on the creation of light, is titled The First Day.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Barlach, The First Day from the 7-woodcut series The Transformation of God (1922) Woodcut on paper.

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The scene is not what most people think. To begin with, God's face is modeled on Barlach's, both bearded as in his fifties (top) and as a young man (below). Most noticeable are his sharp nose and a mouth which slopes down to the right. And as a youth his hair had a similar contour.

Even the rolling clouds are deceptive, based as they are on his hair in the prime of life (compare large details at bottom.)2 Thus God appears from within the poet's head like Christ in Dante's in Michelangelo's Last Judgment and other masterpieces.3

Most paths of the Inner Tradition believe nature's creative power is in our minds. Barlach did and illustrates his creative moment as God creating light, a glimpse of Self-realization on conceiving this print. There are many ways, both secular and religious, to realise the divine Self but the journey is often long. Art, when seen like this, encourages like minds to start on their own path to realization as scripture and philosophy have always done.

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Top rows: Details of Barlach's First Day; Barlach's Self-portrait (1928); and photograph of Barlach when young
Bottom rows: Barlach's First Day and detail of photo above.

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Barlach's self-representation as God can be seen in His beard as well (left). Beards are a common esoteric feature because as "paintbrushes" (similar material and shape) they are joined to the head as craft is combined with the intellect.4 Here, though, in a twist Barlach makes the beard resemble a brushstroke in oil paint quite like Roy Lichtenstein's brushstrokes in a screenprint (right).5

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Barlach's The First Day
R: Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstrokes (1967) Screenprint

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Hands displayed to the viewer are likewise a common reference to the artist and his craft.6 In this case, Barlach forms the sleeve-openings and their odd shadows (?) below into the shape of his own initial while the fingers within form a smaller E for Ernst.7 The other hand reflects similar shapes as in a mirror, a common theme for hands when pressed together praying.8 Light also streams outwards or, in our view, straight lines extend from the hands as the iconic essence of a woodcut.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Barlach's The First Day

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Lastly, the folds in God's robe are said to have been influenced by Gothic sculpture. In fact, I have no doubt that they are the steps of a staircase (more traditionally seen as a ladder) on the way to self-realization as God. They are the steps with which Barlach encourages the viewer to follow him, steps the artist himself had taken on his way to this creative moment.

Captions for image(s) above:

Barlach, The First Day

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More Works by Barlach

Notes:

1. See explanation under the theme Inner Tradition.

2. For very similar use of an artist's hairstyle, see Rembrandt's Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638), Rubens' drawing of a Forest Path (17th cent.) Cézanne's Five Bathers (1885-7) and his Large Bathers (1906), Renoir's Le Cannet (1902), Picasso's Five Figures in a Boat (1909) and the EPPH post "A Hair-raising Tool to Understand Art" (2013).

3. See Abrahams, Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes (2008)

4. See explanation under theme Hand and Eye.

5. It is worth noting that, like the habitual practice of Hendrick Goltzius, both Barlach and Lichtenstein represented the stroke and facture of one medium (oil) in another (woodcut and screenprint.)

6. See my explanation of Basquiat's Boy and a Dog in a Johnnypump (1982)

7. See the theme Letters in Art.

8. See my explanation of Hans Memling’s Portrait of Tommaso di Folco Portinari (c. 1470)

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 22 Jan 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.