Thursday 2 April 2015

Brussels to Cologne

The last time I was in Cologne, it was for less than an hour to change trains, boarding the City Night Line sleeper service to Copenhagen. On Saturday, I had most of the afternoon. With a few hours to spare before catching the train to Wuppertal, one thing I wanted to seek out in Cologne was Ernst Barlach's Der Schwebende. A literal translation is 'The Hovering' (as the Schwebebahn in Wuppertal is the hovering or floating train) but it's generally known as the Hovering Angel or simply Barlach's Angel; I had seen the Güstrow version of this sculpture in the recent British Museum exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. In Neil MacGregor's book to accompany the exhibition he details the remarkable survival of the Hovering Angel. Barlach's work was included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition and the original sculpture was destroyed. However, a cast had been hidden, but at the end of the war it could not be returned to Güstrow Cathedral, now in what would become East Germany. The surviving bronze cast was installed in the Antonite Church in Cologne. As a sign of cross-border friendship a new cast was made from the second Hovering Angel to be placed back in Güstrow Cathedral. This was the sculpture displayed in the British Museum. Barlach's experiences in the First World War made him a pacifist, but Der Schwebende is ambiguous as a memorial in terms of a position on the war itself, Barlach intended it to be approached by the viewer with "recollection and inner reflection". It represents muted grief with the features, appropriately, of Käthe Kollwitz, who lost a son at the start of the conflict. This lack of positioning made the sculpture suspect for the Nazis, beyond stylistic considerations: totalitarian regimes cannot stand ambiguity, as it allows for open interpretations. In Güstrow, the sculpture is suspended above the old font; in the Antonite Church Der Schwebende hangs above a slab which simply reads: 1914 - 1918/1933 - 1945.

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