Ex­hi­bi­tion of the week

Emil Nolde: Colour is Life

The Week Middle East - - Arts | Art -

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”

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