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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.