Colour loaded

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY AI­DAN DUNNE

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).

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