Exhibition of the week
Emil Nolde: Colour is Life
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (00 353 1 661 5133, www.nationalgallery.ie). Until 10 June, then touring
Why is the German expressionist painter Emil Nolde (1867-1956) not more famous, asked Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Nolde was a true “modern visionary” whose “seething” canvases speak powerfully of “social angst and psychic turmoil”. However, he was also a “vicious anti-Semite” and a card-carrying Nazi who enthusiastically endorsed Hitler’s rise to power (although the Nazis subsequently condemned Nolde’s own work as degenerate). Thanks in part to his toxic views, Nolde has since been relegated to the status of a “footnote” in the history of modern art. While it would be “dishonest and cowardly” to ignore his racism, a “courageous” new exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin demonstrates beyond doubt that he was a “great modern artist”. Bringing together more than 120 works spanning the length of his career, it is a revelation. “There is no doubt that Nolde’s work is striking,” said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. The best paintings here demonstrate his “astonishingly dramatic use of colour”, with “sulphurous” sunsets, “delirious” flower gardens and hedonistic dancers lit by “lurid gaslight”. Indeed, individually, many of these paintings are tremendous. However, Nolde’s work is just “too much” when seen en masse. Everything “congeals into a solid, indigestible stodge of drama”. Furthermore, there are a lot of downright dreadful pictures here. Nolde’s religious allegories, for example, are “hamfisted” at best, utterly repellent at worst. The nadir comes with a “ludicrously angst-ridden” Crucifixion scene that frames its subject with loathsome caricatures of “hook-nosed” Jewish characters. Nolde actually produced his most “memorable” work long before the Nazis came to power, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. His iconic 1912 woodcut Prophet depicts a “craggy, sombre face” that is “seemingly agonised by dreadful wisdom”, while 1911’s Cabaret Audience presents a Berlin nightclub as a “swirling nightmare that threatens to tip over into delirium”. More “gorgeous” are his works on paper from the same period: among the best are some superb brush-and-ink drawings of steamers on the Elbe and a set of watercolours depicting Chinese junks with “spiked sails like dragon’s wings”. Later in his career, he proved himself far too inconsistent to be ranked as one of the greats. There’s no doubt that Nolde is a powerful presence, “who cannot be ignored”, but in the “pantheon of modern art”, he is surely a relatively minor figure.
Cabaret Audience (1911): a “swirling nightmare”