Revisionism and the Art of Decay

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish” William Blake

Detail J.M. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) Manchester Art Gallery.

In July I attended the opening of the Emil Nolde- Colour is Life exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the subject of a previous post. It’s an exhibition that has remained in my mind ever since, for the issues it raised as much as the art. When the show first opened in Dublin, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” William Cook’s article suggested that; “the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?” This question has been compounded by reports of wider historical revisionism in the press throughout 2018. Some based on well-meaning curatorial or civic actions, all begging further investigation.

The renaming of a 1929 Emily Carr painting by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the removal of a 19th Century nude painting by J.M. Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery, the recent controversy of boycotted music by Richard Wagner aired on Israeli radio and the removal of an “Early Days” racist colonial statue in San Francisco are all potent examples, worthy of their own article.  Each one is an act of historical revisionism that raises essential questions about who owns culture. Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all? In my profession all art is political, whether consciously nailing its colours to the mast or not. The expression of ideas can certainly be dangerous, depending on the ideological intent of the maker and the lens of hindsight / historical context we use to examine it. However, reading a book, seeing a play, film, art exhibition or listening to music doesn’t mean you agree with the content or the opinions of the artist(s) who created it. You have free will (as long as you live in a place that hasn’t banned the means of expression) to make up your own mind. At what point did we need to be protected from that process and for whose benefit?

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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.

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