In Ernst Barlach’s play Der tote Tag (The dead day), a mother’s selfishness plunges the world into darkness. The mother is visited by a blind beggar who has come to lead her son to a destiny that would benefit all mankind. Not wanting to lose her son, she kills the mystical horse which was to spirit him away. The horse’s death causes the sun not to rise the following morning. Racked with guilt and despair, the mother takes her own life; her son, even then unable to free himself from her, soon follows. Rich with allusions to Christian and Nordic mythology, the play and its accompanying illustrations explore man’s relationship to God, the key theme throughout Barlach’s printmaking, sculpture, and writing.
Der tote Tag was the first of seven plays Barlach wrote and illustrated for Paul Cassirer, his close friend, gallerist, and publisher. For the illustrations, Cassirer persuaded Barlach to make lithographs, the artist’s first proper work in the medium. These prints capture the ominous and bleak atmosphere of the play, while spotlighting incidents—such as the mother slicing open the horse’s throat—that are not detailed in the text. Barlach’s figures share the same bulky monumentality and timelessness as his sculptures, which were inspired by Gothic art and Russian peasants.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.