For this illustrated version of a poem by Russian émigré Reinhold von Walter, Ernst Barlach made ten prints using the woodcut technique, which he had only briefly experimented with years before. Set in Petrograd, Walter’s tale alludes to the recent political and social upheavals in Russia. A grotesque beggar-king, the titular “head,” encourages the masses to rise up in rebellion. Ultimately, their violent actions only increase their misery. Barlach drew upon sketchbooks from his travels to Russia for his imagery of despairing peasants.
Barlach met the poem’s author in the small northern German town Güstrow in 1918. Barlach had settled there in 1910 to escape the hubbub of urban life; Walter was working as a translator at the local prisoner-of-war camp.
Der Kopf was the second of three illustrated books Barlach published with Paul Cassirer’s Pan-Presse in Berlin. It achieved a rare unity of text, type, and image. The production process and attention to detail in every aspect of the book recalled the harmony of fifteenth-century printing. The text, set in Rudolf Koch’s evocative blackletter type, perfectly complemented Barlach’s rough images of an impoverished land.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.