Klimt / Schiele

Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna
Royal Academy of Arts, London
4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914
Graphite, gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit. / To the age its art, to art its freedom. (i)

The day before the Klimt / Schiele preview, I saw a London Underground billboard advertising the exhibition. Three naked figures with a banner collectively preserving modesty declared this work too shocking for public display, even in 2018. Potential offence and outrage are ever present in contemporary life, lived mostly online, with critical discussion and reflection harder to find. Coming face to face with humanity, warts and all, is a given with this exhibition and it would be a shame to expect anything less. Unmasking the nature of provocation and social propriety is unavoidable when following the drawn line of both artists. Although the official PR images don’t come close to representing it, the viewer is consistently arrested, having to psychologically, morally and ethically grapple with where they stand, often in relation to taboo subjects.

As the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the drawing practice of both artists, Klimt / Schiele presents a rare opportunity to see over 100 delicate works on paper from the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Among these are some of the finest examples of life drawing I’ve ever had the privilege to see, sublime, assured and intensely beautiful. Equally I loved this exhibition for the disquieting, uncomfortable questions it raised and for the timeless radicalism of both artists which positively sings, howls and scratches its way off the walls. The drawings are on an intimate scale and arranged thematically to highlight each artist’s creative process, explore relationships between them and engage with the confrontational nature of their work in juxtaposition. Together with this insightful visual survey, the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provide a timely focus for questions about art and censorship in our own time.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Pair of Lovers, 1907-08
Graphite, red pencil, gold paint on Japan paper, 29.6 x 28.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Having been reproduced in golden decorative splendour on posters, t-shirts and greetings cards the world over, Klimt’s radicalism, his essential rejection of the academic art establishment, has almost been gift shopped out of public consciousness. However, this decorative, chocolate box status is effectively stripped away by the pioneering vision of his line, which resonated with Schiele the moment he saw the older artist’s work. Outside the German speaking world, the cultural gravity of the gesamtkunstwerk as a lived idea is often lost or misunderstood. This, together with the 21st century assumption of unrelenting human progress makes it is easy to perceive Klimt as an artist of gilded aesthetics, rather than an innovator or iconoclast. The much-celebrated ‘Golden Age’ of his work, including highly romanticised images like The Kiss, paint an insubstantial picture of the artist. Society portraits that enshrine the sitter in fashionably liberated attire, steeped in colour, symbolic pattern and ancient mythology have become merely decorative to contemporary eyes. What’s gratifying about this exhibition is returning to the bones of Klimt’s art, to drawings which are the basis of his understanding and first response to the world around him. The human figure is central to that vision, and how he renders it paves the way for large scale paintings and the work of artists like Schiele.

Klimt’s state commission of three 4.5 x 3m faculty paintings Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna caused a public scandal. The preparatory drawings for Medicine, including Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, squared for transfer (c. 1900, black chalk and pencil on paper) and Three Studies for the Oil Sketch of Medicine (Black chalk on packing paper, 1897-98) reveal his immediate concern with the drawn line as a potent flow of energy. Sculpted with line and animated shading, three female studies drawn from below, floating above the viewer with their arms outstretched, are an invitation to the entire dance of life. They are a dynamic invocation of where we are led in Klimt’s paintings, an engagement with humanity that encompasses the human cycle of procreation, birth and inevitable decay. It is a departure from the idealised perfection and austerity of 19th Century academic Neo-Classical painting. Looking at these studies there is a complete sense of abandonment and a vital, emergent rhythm that steps across all boundaries of time. In Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, the human body is seen unflatteringly variable in form, aging and vulnerable. This expression of humanity has undeniable impetus in an era of Darwin, Freud and in the context of turn of the century Vienna, once described as ‘the research lab at the end of the world.’ Age old certainties and regimes were crumbling, giving way to modernity and the horrors of mechanised warfare. In Medicine Klimt presents the viewer with over 40 entwined figures bound by instinct to eternal cycles of growth and decay, rather than the elevation and respectability of a noble profession. At the apex of the column, the skeleton/ Death will eventually claim us all, despite the goddess of cleanliness, hygiene and healing, Hygieia at the base of the image, like a caryatid holding up the vertical procession of figures above her. Advances in science and social conventions may define our lives and try to keep us ‘safe’, however from cradle to grave natural drives, creative and destructive, are constantly shaping our trajectory. There’s a feeling of free fall in Klimt’s three female studies for Medicine that to me, sum up the context of Klimt’s time and our own. The earth beneath our feet is no longer stable.

Egon Schiele, Cellist, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

There are many astonishing works in the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition that confront the viewer on multiple levels. The sheer skill of draughtsmanship and investment in the human mark is impressive throughout. These aren’t just bodies but souls on display, a quality which will probably cause some discomfort to 21st Century eyes accustomed to the clinical separation of the two. It is stunning in every sense of that word, to be confronted with work that floors you with its unapologetic rawness. As a life drawing student, recognition between sitter and artist is paramount and I was ever conscious, especially in Schiele’s work, of the complex nature of one human being beholding and documenting the living presence of another. Schiele’s Black-Haired Nude Girl (1910, Pencil and watercolour with protein-based binder and white gouache heightening on packing paper) elicited particularly strong responses. I watched people giving this piece a wide berth, mentally and physically distancing themselves from the image of a young girl meeting the gaze of the artist/ viewer. Even the catalogue reproduction triggered shocked, sharp intakes of breath. The girl’s trade is very clearly defined in black stockings, with her lips, nipples and labia accented in red. As an image of child prostitution, it is (and should be) a disturbing sight. On the streets of Vienna circa 1910, where the age of consent was 14, it would not have been uncommon for underage girls to be working due to grinding poverty, partially sanctioned by what we would now consider to be an immoral law. Over 100 years later, in an age defined by mass displacement and global human trafficking, gross economic inequality still rules. Although the depiction of the subject may be hard to look at and/or deeply upsetting, the Schiele’s image deserves closer scrutiny. Not simply because it still has the power to shock, but because the gaze of the human subject demands it.

What struck me most about this drawing wasn’t the red-light triangle labelling of the body, but the embodiment of ‘Death and the Maiden’ in this adolescent female figure. Her body is thin, angular and death grey-pale with blackened fingertips, hands drawn up beside her face, eyes which regard and consider the artist/viewer across the ages. It is a powerful portrait of an unknown girl right on the edge of burgeoning sexuality, arguably the most excruciatingly difficult of all stages of life. I had to confront and question my initial disgust, because whatever circumstances led her into this pose, there is dignity in her gaze, captured by the artist. On a human level, the projection of judgement is problematic and in any case that is not what Schiele’s treatment of the figure conveys. I don’t see this image as one of seduction or desire. Both ideas as projections of a male gaze are negated by the presence of the girl herself; naked, vulnerable and eternally questioning. She stands like a column, anchoring herself in a world of brutality, poverty and decay, with a halo of thin white gouache around her. It’s an image that is impossible to make peace with or to feel comfortable in front of, but that, I would argue, is precisely the point. I am certain that many people would regard this image as obscene and simply turn away in order to distance themselves from it. However, whether it is pornographic i.e. explicitly created for sexual arousal/ gratification by the artist is debateable. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this drawing is that Schiele doesn’t just paint the body and face of this girl, he captures something else, her uniquely perceptive expression. I agree that the idea of maturity in this image is highly contentious, complex and bound to historical perception of Schiele as a male artist. However, that this girl’s gaze is still present, questioning the viewer with mistrust, is significant and I am glad that anyone visiting the exhibition will see and bear witness to the fact that she existed. One doesn’t detect the same empathy in front of a Balthus painting or one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, where there is absolutely no self-possession afforded to female subjects, wholly objectified by the artist. Schiele’s work may be ambiguous, but many of his images of women and girls grasp the human beings before him in ways that other male artists, historic or contemporary, could not. Schiele’s drawings Embrace (1915, Black crayon on Japan paper) and Group of Three Girls (1911, pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) are good examples.

Egon Schiele
Group of Three Girls, 1911
Graphite, watercolour, white and coloured gouaches on brown packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

It’s fascinating to see Schiele’s naked self-portraits subject to the same line of enquiry as his sitters, with terse dry brush marks and tensely drawn ribs, squatting, arms outstretched and excruciatingly truncated. Collectively they are interrogative rather than celebratory, not just kicking over the white marble pedestal but smashing it. Self-proclaimed artistic genius gives way to everyman/woman, subject to the same raw anxieties about one’s place in the world. The positioning of the figure in Schiele’s compositions has always fascinated me. The lone human being is consistently pitted against the negative space engulfing them, not just as a pictorial element but as an existential crisis. I get the same feeling from Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98, Black and red chalk on paper) an innocuously titled drawing that engulfs the lone protagonist in finely spun darkness.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze), 1901
Black chalk on brown packing paper, 44.5 x 31.9 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The figure of the femme fatale, embodied by the sinuous curves of Kilmt’s Beethoven Frieze Gorgon studies (1901, Black chalk on packing paper) is given more considered depth in Schiele’s work. Female Nude (1910, Pencil, black crayon, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is a fine example. The female figure, crowned with deep crimson hair and narrowed eyes meets the gaze of the artist/ client/viewer, back arched, belly, breasts, vulva and the top of her blood-black stockings all unashamedly visible. There’s a feeling of the male artist being sized up by the model’s fixed gaze, rather than being submissive to any kind of ‘master’. It is an intensely powerful portrait, more a measure of a person than a life study. She’s not just draped and arranged, but pointedly takes charge of the composition. Even the focus on the torso doesn’t diminish her mindfully present, penetrating gaze. The same Female Nude, Seen from Behind (1910, Black crayon and watercolour with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is elongated and angular, we can feel the spine and hip bones protruding, surrounded by an aura of living energy. The heightening use of white gouache charges the human figure with a kind of electricity against the plain beige ground of packing paper. This everyday rough texture permeates the entire drawing. Schiele’s models were family, friends, prostitutes and street children, there is nothing glamourous or idealised about them. As an artist he appears to meet his sitters halfway as equals, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexuality in the work of Schiele is very permissive and surprisingly liberated in its antiquity. Unlike Rodin’s erotic drawings, simply powered by male voyeurism, Schiele’s drawings present a more expansive, self-determined view of female sexuality and present a variety of human embraces, between men, between women and between sexes. Curatorially the exhibition takes the idea of Klimt’s Embracing Couple (Study for ‘This kiss for the Entire World’, ‘Beethoven Frieze’) (1901, Blackchalk on packing paper) and expands it in a sequence of drawings in the final room. The erotic focus becomes more fluid than masculine dominance and is critically punctuated by an adjacent drawing, Man and Woman (1917, Pencil and black crayon on Japan paper). This is a work and a kind of fractured, disintegrating mark I hadn’t seen in Schiele’s work before. It struck me as an admission of inequality, starkly violent and ever present in the world. At the base of the drawing a woman lies with her back to us, clothing drawn up while the male figure kneels over her, his face and hands a series of broken, incomplete marks. The drawn detail centres on his hairy, bestial hips, legs and feet and her static head and hair, topped and tailed together, almost as a bookended comment on the male/ female relationship. She is remarkably still, drawn complete by comparison, while he goes about his business, blindly fuelled by instinct. His raised arms ambiguously flail-is he about to embrace her or exert further control by pinning her neck and head? Whilst physical male dominance is present, so is confusion on the part of the male protagonist, communicated by faceless, broken lines. It’s an extremely interesting image of power and pity, because strangely that’s how I felt towards the male figure, despite the position of the woman beneath him. ‘What is the artist’s/ viewer’s position in all of this?’ is the uncomfortable question that must be faced when confronted by this drawing, doubly so in a room of ‘Erotic’ themed work. Provocation, propriety and politics are at the heart of this valuable and very timely encounter.

There were many other aspects of both artist’s practices to be considered and I took three turns around the exhibition, revisiting connections and themes, as well as just pausing to drink in the confident line of human form held in negative space. I found insistence on life in the architectural façade of Schiele’s Old Gabled Houses in Krumau (1917, black crayon on Japan paper) and in the human presence in absence of Organic Movement of Chair and Pitcher, 21 April 1912 (Pencil and watercolour on primed Japan paper), created during the artist’s incarceration. Klimt / Schiele is an exhibition which makes the viewer grapple with where they stand in an age of uncertainty, reminding us that the relative freedoms of our age are exactly that.

In 2017, the inscription above the Vienna Succession building threshold, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom’, was adopted by the Austrian far right nationalist government as part of their cultural policy, an ideological alignment rejected by the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Succession. Seeing the Klimt / Schiele exhibition reminded me of a statement ‘of relevance and quality’ issued by the association on 20 December 2017 in response to the government’s misappropriation of the Successionist motto:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe. When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.’ (ii)

At the heart of the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition is the embrace of artistic freedom, ‘pluralism and dialogue’ which begins with both artist’s drawings, extends through the thematic hang of the show and in the collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum in a pre-Brexit landscape. When I look at free movement of the human body in Klimt and Schiele’s remarkable drawings, I’m inspired by what lives in those lines, the questions they raise and the fact that I can look at them in a relatively ‘free society’, despite any discomfort they may cause me. Although aged 100 years, this is the art of our time and it needs to be examined

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele 

[1] Inscription above the door of the Vienna Succession exhibition hall, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

[2]Art News ‘ Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avante-Garde- and They’re Not All Pleased’ by Hili Perlson, December 22, 2017.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vienna-museum-takes-a-stand-as-austrias-new-right-wing-government-quotes-its-motto-1187462

Emil Nolde – Colour is Life

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Old Man and Young Woman(Man with Feather in his Hat) (Alter Mann und junge Frau (Mann mit Feder am Hut)), c. 1930s-40s
Watercolour on paper, 16.2 x 15.4 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

14 July – 21 October 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)

“Colour is strength. Strength is life. Only strong harmonies are important.” Emil Nolde, Travels. Ostracism. Liberation. 1919–1946.

Colour is Life presents a rare opportunity to come to grips with the undeniable vibrancy and jarring contradictions in Emil Nolde’s art. This illuminating retrospective features 120 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints from the Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, Northern Germany. Nolde’s images reveal the journeys of his life; from rural villages, domestic gardens and highly charged religious subjects, to the bustling, industrial port of Hamburg, the cabarets of Berlin and indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. His extraordinary land and seascapes are among the highlights of the show, together with his controversial “unpainted pictures” incorporating elements of folklore and the grotesque.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Landscape (North Friesland), (Landschaft (Nordfriesland)),1920
Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 106.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Living on a shifting border between Germany and Denmark and with a lifetime (1867-1956) spanning two World Wars, there are inevitable conflicts in terms of how the artist saw himself and how he/his work has been perceived by successive generations. When this exhibition first opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in February 2018, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” The mistake we make too often in the age we are living in is making superior moral judgements that reinforce polarity rather than understanding, based on the assumption that the function of art is enjoyment. What I found fascinating in Colour is Life is human nature on display and how you must confront beauty and ugliness in full view of each other; in the comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work and within yourself as a viewer, or potential witness.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Martyrdom II (Martyrium II), 1921
Oil on sackcloth, 106.5 x 156.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

You can’t ignore the open declaration of antisemitism, distortion of human form and glowering colour in the central panel of Nolde’s Martyrdom triptych (1921, oil on sackcloth), nor can you deny the depth and emotional investment of colour in Nolde’s The Sea B (1930, oil on canvas). Nolde is all about dualism, stark juxtapositions and human impulses. His shield in the times he lived in, was to retreat into Nature and the primitive, forever pursued by the idea that the original garden itself was corrupt. The stupefied self-awareness on the face of Eve in Paradise Lost (1921, oil on sackcloth) comes from an artist mindful of human complicity in its own fall. One of the most affecting images in the exhibition is The Sea B, which is so darkly saturated with emotive colour that it becomes a twilight of the soul. This sunset seascape sees the purple density of cloud and light fading down into the horizon in an epic sweep of honesty. Green, orange, yellow and the white crest of waves contribute to an almost biblical churning of the waters. The sea takes on a kind of fearful solidity, what I can only describe as a conscious foreground of burnt ultramarine- though no such colour exists straight out of a tube. It lives in the complexity of human experience, a realisation that hits you when you get up close and see Nolde’s brush bristles, hitting the canvas like salt spray, stinging your eyes. It is as heartfelt an image as you are ever likely to see and regardless of the artist’s politics or beliefs, one worthy of attention on a variety of perceptive levels.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
The Sea B (Meer B), 1930
Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm
Collection: Tate, London, purchased 1966
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde was an artist seeking to build upon a golden age of German Art which he recognised in the work of Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. He was also keenly aware of what he described as the “great” French “ice breakers”; Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Signac” and the work of contemporary Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a pioneer of Expressionism. Nolde’s brief affiliation with German Expressionist group Die Brücke (Bridge) is often cited, however his allegiances run deeper than the revolutionary world of modern art. The key to works such as his 1912 woodcut on paper Prophet, lies in a more subliminal collective of seeing. It’s is the gouge into woodgrain, the raw, fecund material of the mythic German forest and the black and white heightened truth of religion. The contradiction of human aspiration and impulse (or desire) is fervently expressed in Nolde’s individual work.


Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Prophet, 1912
Woodcut on paper, 29.8 x 22.1 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his 1912 painting Candle Dancers, the ecstatic revelry and trance like state of the dance equates to freedom. The “primitive” is a central preoccupation in his art and this is as much about eroticism as it is about the purity of ecstasy, entering a different state of perception or being. Nolde’s painting Ecstasy (oil on canvas, 1929) is an unholy alliance of a middle aged male gaze and immaculate conception. Although I find this painting profoundly ugly, I can have no argument with the incandescent heat of purple and orange, the emotional intensity of colour-which leaves even the attendant angel Gabriel surprised. The problem isn’t with the expression ecstasy (personal or religious), or even the female body openly thrust forward, but with the doll-like face, a mask which renders the body devoid of any self-awareness or possession, either in piety or pleasure.  Nolde was 62 when he made this work and a child of the Nineteenth century, so it isn’t surprising that he simply renders the female figure as a vessel. His overwhelming use of colour (and all it means in Nolde’s art) presents me with a dilemma and ultimately prevents me from dismissing the image. Although the painting repels me, the contradictions in Nolde’s Ecstacy, are worthy of further examination and debate.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Candle Dancers (Kerzenttänzerinnen), 1912
Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 86.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

There are many such vessels in Nolde’s art. His interest in indigenous people and ethnographic art is another highly charged projection of “primitive” freedom. In 1913-14 the artist and his wife Ada made the epic journey on the trans-Siberian railway to Asia and then to Papua New Guinea.  Nolde’s paintings and drawings from this trip present the idea of noble warriors, seen in the form of head and shoulder studies with gravitas and stark simplicity. They may be naïve, in the way that many white travellers view other cultures as an escape hatch to an idealised, primordial paradise, however they also represent a more open and respectful view than one might expect, given Nolde’s later membership of the National Socialist party.

What Nolde hoped for, as a man/ artist in his 60’s by the time Hitler came to power. was a golden harvest, a new age of “let’s make [Germany] great again”!  Millions of people believed that twisted promise, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, consumed by self-interested Nationalism, what the cost of that iron melded vision would be. Misappropriation of ideals is the collective lesson here, not the mistaken belief or demonisation of an individual. Seeing this exhibition, I was reminded that historical hindsight is a privileged position, founded on human survival. At base Nolde’s use of colour as strength ensured his survival. Whilst I may be able to sit back and judge his politics /morality through 21st century eyes, what I also see in this work is an important confrontation with the extreme dynamics of his art and the prevailing Zeitgeist. You can’t neatly relegate this to the pages of history, because his art is so alive today. I’m glad of the discomfort Nolde’s work brings me, cast between the sun-drenched, vivid affirmation of blooming life in Blonde Girls (1918, oil on canvas) and the tormented purple skin of Soldiers (1913, oil on sackcloth) in uniform compliance, ready for war.

Emil NOLDE (1857-1956)
Self-portrait (Selbstbild), 1917
Oil on plywood, 83.5 x 65cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his autobiography, Nolde wrote about the “key role” of “Dualism” in his paintings and prints; “Both together and in opposition: man and woman, pleasure and pain, god and the devil. Colours were also placed in opposition to each other: cold and warm, light and dark, dull and strong.”

Dualism ultimately defines his life. On the one hand as a “victim” of The Third Reich’s cultural policies; branded a” degenerate artist”, banned from exhibiting, selling or publishing his work and on the other, an avid supporter of the party.  Nolde had over 1000 works confiscated in Hitler’s purge of Modern Art from Museums and Galleries. Nolde featured prominently in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, held in Munich in 1937, which toured Germany and Austria. The aim was to ridicule and denounce Modern Art, but more than that- to clamp down on freedom of expression or any form of communication that did not further the party’s aims. The role of propaganda or controlling the visual should never be underestimated in bringing entire populations to heel. Anyone thinking that art is just entertainment are twice as primed to be duped. The head of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry, Dr Joseph Goebbels would have loved the knee jerk control of Twitter. Although speaking entirely about his own work, Nolde’s statement in a 1905 letter to Hans Fehr that “harmless pictures are seldom worth anything” is chillingly prophetic.

Essentially Nolde saw himself as a good German. The idea of “Heimat” or deep-rooted identity, which has no direct translation outside of the German language, is forever tainted by Nazi bastardisation. It becomes the rhetoric of “blood and soil”, just as the idea of “Volk”, people and lore, become contorted into cultural and biological superiority under the regime. Contemporary German artists such as Anselm Kiefer have been instrumental in unpacking these ideas, returning to raw materials of the earth and forest, to find the truth behind the lies. The idea of Volk informs works such as Nolde’s Market (1908, oil on sackcloth) with its circular huddle of farmers or Milkmaids I (1903, oil on canvas) reminiscent of Van Gogh’s many studies of labourers in the fields. Nolde’s turn of the century images speak of social cohesion and living close to the land in harmony with Nature and God. They represent the validation and virtue of honest, hard work according to the Protestant work ethic. When Nolde, born Emil Hansen, marries his Danish wife and changes his name to that of the village of Nolde in North Schleswig, it is a statement of identity, not just with place, but in terms of cultural belief.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Canal (Copenhagen) (Kanal (Kopenhagen)), 1902
Oil on sackcloth, 65.5 x 83 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

It is fascinating to witness the transformation of light and colour from Nolde’s Canal (Copenhagen) (1902, Oil on sackcloth) onwards and see the evolution of his mark.  The way that bold, beautifully observed human marks in the artist’s ink and wash drawings translate into colour is one of the highlights of the show. Tugboat (1910 Brush, ink and wash on paper) and Smoking Steamboats (1910 Oil on sackcloth) are particularly fine examples. The impact of smoke and heavy industry on the environment isn’t lost on the artist. Nature is rendered with energetic brushwork in yellow, green, blue and deep purple, fighting back to engulf the human presence on an eternally vital sea.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Tugboat (Schlepper), 1910
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 35 x 42.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Smoking Steamboats (Qualmende Dampfer), 1910
Oil on sackcloth, 57.5 x 71.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Solo Female Dancer (Solotänzerin), 1910–11
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 32.1 x 27 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde’s drawings in Berlin cafes and cabarets display his immediate responses to the parade of humanity before him in eloquent, ink shorthand. Dancing Couples (1910-11 pen and ink and wash on paper) with its smitten body language and highly animated rhythmic marks of the crowd, present a self-absorbed microcosm of urban life.  The group of 1930’s and 1940’s watercolours on paper, known as the “unpainted pictures” carry their own mythological narrative. Rendered in technicolour washes and linear drawing this is a curious group of images populated by human grotesques, giants and hobgoblins. Yet the fantastical elements are anchored. There’s hints of satire and allegory in Three Fools, Two Animals or folklore and ethnography in Dance Around the Rock. The sublime elegance of movement in the Skater is stunningly precarious humanity on a blade edge. The “unpainted pictures” are those made whilst Nolde was banned from being a professional artist. We don’t know to what extent he was monitored as a branded artist by the Gestapo, but it is sobering to consider the climate of paranoia, at a time when the mere smell of dissenting oil paint could condemn and obliterate the maker. I imagine only three options for a branded artist; defiantly continue to work and face imprisonment or death, flee the country forever or be compliant with the regime and do what you’re told. Given Nolde’s generation and strong identification with the idea of a second golden age for Germany, I’ve no doubt that the easiest path for him,  ideologically and practically, was the latter.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Skater (Schlittschuhläufer), 1938-1945
Watercolour on paper, 25.8 x 18cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

He could still immerse himself in colour as life, even if the high German culture he revered and European civilization were progressively collapsing all around him. He still had “the painter’s basic materials: colours that have a life [and soul] of their own, crying and laughing, dream and joy, hot and holy, like love songs and sex, like hymns and chorales! Colours vibrating, with the sound of silver bells and the ringing of bronze, heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death.”

I think it is too easy to judge Nolde’s work in terms of black and white morality and we do ourselves no favours as critics by dismissively waving the Nazi card, therefore distancing ourselves from the tough questions raised by his work. Demonising anything simply places it outside ourselves, abdicating responsibility and denying the possibility of change. Go and see this show, be elated and/or deeply troubled by it, whilst acknowledging that the world still needs such art. Whether it is in radiantly joyful blooms or in blackened caricatures that mirror our own prejudices, Nolde expresses what we are holistically capable of. There is no immunity. We too can get lost in the ecstasy of the dance. Nolde’s intense, contradictory work, together with the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition catalogue on display, demand that we face what beauty, ugliness and complicity truly mean, right here and now.  The question is not whether we can enjoy the art of a Nazi, but whether we can afford not to see it.

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