Emil Nolde was a Nazi party member who expected to have his genius recognised, but was held up to ridicule in Hitler’s ’Exhibition of Degenerate Art’ in Munich in 1937. An artist of perverse selfishness and moral failings, he was also one of the greatest
Emil Nolde exhibition comes to the National Gallery
Emil Nolde is something of a loner in the history of 20th century European art. Tangentially associated with the German Expressionist group Die Brücke, he backed away from continued involvement. The caricaturish view, which bears some relationship to the truth, is that he was a recluse who lived on the bleak shores of the Baltic and North Seas and made wintry paintings with spiritual overtones such as Blue Day by the Sea, 1940, or Landscape [North Friesland], 1930. He is, though, an indispensable figure in Expressionism, exemplifying in extreme form its core attributes, notably in his uncompromisingly subjective responses to a few basic themes.
The National Gallery of Ireland has an exceptionally good Nolde: Two Women in a Garden, 1915, purchased with the Shaw Fund in 1984. Now the National Gallery of Ireland’s exhibition, Emil Nolde: Colour is Life offers a rare opportunity to see by far the largest ever exhibition of the artist’s work ever shown in Ireland. It is a collaborative project with the National Galleries of Scotland and the Nolde Foundation Seebüll, Germany and co-curated by NGI Director Sean Rainbird. The vast majority of the works – more than 130 pieces – come from the incomparable Nolde Foundation collection and span Nolde’s creative life.
Nolde was the surname adopted by Emil Hansen when he married Ada Vilstrup in 1902. Vilstrup was Danish and Hansen came from the tiny village of Nolde on the German-Danish border, the sixth child of a German-Fresian father and a Schleswig-Danish mother, born in 1867. The Hansens farmed a difficult, marshy, low-lying terrain; a contested wind-swept region lying between two brimming, restless seas. As Emil’s appropriation of the name of his birthplace suggests, he identified with this challenging landscape. His attachment to it and intimate knowledge of it, day by day and season by season, is invested in his many brilliant sea pictures, urgent firsthand accounts of stormy skies and troubled waters, realized with forceful, disconcerting immediacy, as in Rain over a Marsh, of unknown date, or Light Breaking Through, 1950.
Although he moved on from his birthplace, in time he was drawn back, first to a farmhouse, Utenwarf, and eventually building a modernist house and studio at Seebüll. The location, and his complex relationship with it, inspired him deeply but also posed questions of national and cultural identity. His efforts to deal with those questions cast a long shadow over his life, career and reputation. A crucial moment came when, after the end of the first World War and the Treaty of Versailles, boundaries were redrawn following a plebiscite on the border and his home-place suddenly became part of Denmark. Against his will, Danish citizenship was foisted upon him (see Paradise Lost, 1921). Resenting the physical changes as massive drainage works commenced, Nolde criticized the interference of “foreigners”, implicitly rejecting the modernity of Danish initiatives in favour of the ancient, unchanging landscape enshrined in popular, nationalist German notions of Volk and homeland.
By this stage Nolde was a well-established figure in the German art world, with a room in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin permanently devoted to his work. His every statement and decision reinforced his self-identification as German, which in time led him into dangerous territory. Despite his assertive nationalism, he actually felt like a perpetual outsider throughout his life – which may have catalysed that nationalist urge.
One senses he would like to have been accepted as a sophisticated urbanite with a rural background, for example, but he never felt at ease in the city. The mix of local dialects with which he grew up were ill suited to city life in either Denmark or Germany, a problem exacerbated by his strictly religious schooling, which brought with it an antique, biblical grammar of its own.
Woundingly, his speech was mocked by his contemporaries in both Copenhagen, where he struggled to be understood, and Berlin, where Ernst Ludwig Kirchner doubted that he could speak German at all. His intense religiosity manifested itself in two different though related, dominant strands in his work: an ecstatic, often eroticised (as in Ecstasy, 1929), pantheistic absorption in the elemental facts and forces of nature, recalling and reinventing the Romantic tradition (Ruffled Autumn Clouds, 1927, and the grisly Martyrdom triptych, 1921), and a stark, naturalistic treatment of religious subjects (Pharaoh’s Daughter Finds Moses, 1910), with a nod to the medieval pictorial tradition that had endured in the work of Northern Renaissance masters like Grünewald. Something of the woodcarver comes through in the blocky, hacked forms of Nolde’s figures. Throughout his entire working life, it should be said, he was a brilliant graphic artist, and the show includes many tremendous examples of his graphic work.
Technically, working with oil paint, watercolour or graphic media, he is audacious, trusting to – or rather abandoning himself to – instinct. Instinct is, he wrote “ten times more valuable than knowledge.” He was susceptible to the enthusiasm for tribal art that was prevalent among many European artists early in the 20th century, and drew on displays of Oceanic art on display in ethnographic collections: Exotic Figures II, 1911, or Still Life with Masks, 1911. “I have always been fascinated by everything primeval and archaic,” as he put it, “The wide, tempestuous sea is still in its original state; the wind, the sun, even the starry sky are virtually the same today as they were fifty thousand years ago.”
He and Ada embarked on a voyage to the South Seas in 1913. It was in theory a scientific expedition, but they had no official function. Travelling via Moscow, Siberia, Korea, Japan and China, they eventually visited New Guinea. Gauguin was an inspiration but Nolde didn’t quite follow in his footsteps, nor does he seem to have intended to. War had broken out by the time they returned.
The South Seas provided subject matter (Bay, 1914, is a good example, or South Sea Warriors, also 1914) but didn’t decisively alter his vision. From early on, he found French painting too harmonious, even in its post-Impressionist manifestations, including the work
‘‘ Colours, he wrote, have a life of their own, especially when they were ‘placed in opposition to each other: cold and warm, light and dark, dull and strong . . . heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death’
Emil Nolde’s nine-part polyptych The Life
of Christ (1911–12) at the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1938. Right: Self Portrait (1912).