150 years of Emil Nolde

Galerie Herold
Nov 9, 2017 12:58PM

Former director of the Nolde Museum in Seebüll, Prof. Dr. Manfred Reuther takes an in-depth look at the German Expressionist painter who would be 150 years old today.

In the preamble to the joint testament of April 1946 written together with his wife Ada, a Copenhagen pastor‘s daughter and actress, they take up the early idea of their former friend and Hamburg museum director Max Sauerlandt to set up the Seebüll "Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation". Its purpose: „that Emil Nolde’s art should form a bridge of understanding between Scandinavia and Germany,“ and further that „... if at all possible, this besides all artistic activities– should lead to great fulfilment for both of us as artists and founders.“ The view of the Swedish art historian Lars Olof  Larsson merits mention: „A self-evident and unreserved identification of Nolde with Germany or Denmark probably did not exist. He felt connected to both nations, but defined himself primarily as a Schleswiger.“

Emil Nolde in his studio. ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil Nolde, „Inside a Café“,1908, pen and ink, 14,5 x 18,1cm , Private Collection USA, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde belongs to the generation of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alexei von Jawlensky, with whom he had been friends for many years and          exchanged pictures; to Edvard Munch, whom he met in the winter of 1907 in Berlin and with whom, even in the 1930s, he sought closer contact; with Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, who, like Nolde, only came to painting later in life; and Ernst Barlach, who confesses frankly to him in a letter “I cannot relate to your painting, I cannot come to terms with your colours,” but who nonetheless most definitely recognised his “artistry”. Käthe Kollwitz and Pierre Bonnard were born in the same year as Nolde. In that year Karl Marx published the first volume of „Capital,“ Charles Baudelaire died, as did the painter Auguste Dominique, after whose death, according to André Malraux, „the world of people recon- ciled with God, Raffael‘s world, despite all taboos, has become somewhat hostile“. Nolde had encountered this quite different world of image and form – Classicism – on his numerous visits to the Louvre during his stay in Paris at the turn of the century. He engaged with it at some distance, though also with curiosity. In the history of modern art, it was often the „outsiders who,“ as Max Sauerlandt already wrote in 1914 about his friend Emil Nolde, „approached from the outside with the unbridled power of a very naive view of things and extracted things according to their own choice and their own nature“.

Fifty years ago, on the 7th August 1967, in celebration of Nolde‘s centenary, Walter Jens gave the celebratory lecture in Seebüll. He created a stir with his analysis and with his clear statement that Nolde’s questionable sympathy for the Nazi movement was an alleged „Farewell to a Myth“, as the newspaper “Die Welt” headlined its report.
Jens expressed his appreciation of the great painter and his unique work. At the same time, understanding how to connect the elements together, he convincingly demonstrated Nolde’s bitter dichotomy; on the one hand his affinity with National Socialist thinking, his great expectations – also for artistic development in Germany, his entanglement in the regime and his ambivalent behaviour; but on the other hand the ostracism of his painting as „degenerate art“, the threatening uncertainty and daily anxiety about his work; all along whilst doggedly adhering to his artistic authenticity. Nolde’s pictures were confiscated mainly from public collections.

He was the most heavily represented artist at the Munich exhibition of „Degenerate Art“ in 1937, getting much exposure through the numerous works shown. In 1941 he was banned from painting.

Emil Nolde, „Ballett“ 1922, etching, 24,5 x 31,5 cm, Schiefler/Mosel/Urban Vol.I No. 230 II, Private Collection Hamburg, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Jens, without diminishing the extraordinary rank and importance of Nolde‘s art, sought to separate the peculiarities and antitheses in the world view of the painter; his contradictory, sometimes simple thinking; the discrepancy between his literary utterances and his artistic work, between his self-portrayals and self-interpretations and between man and artist. Equally, he reconciled the contradictory and disparate nature of the artist’s personality into a stringent unity; and pointed out that the national socialist virus had not compromised Nolde‘s artistic work. To this extent, in these years of Nolde‘s predicament, the resulting „Unpainted Pictures“ describe a particular and alternative artistic world of their own; and they express a form of inner emigration.  Jens was first a professor of classical philology at the University of Tübingen. He was then appointed to a rhetoric professorship, especially created for him. He was a literary scholar and man of letters, a member of the „Gruppe (Group) 47“, a dramatist and a free soulful power emerging from blotches and flows, spots and gradients. They are mostly free, figurative scenes, like the enigmatic fantasy images of fairy tales and legends, often including couple and group representations, often crowded, with a moving dramaturgy and gestural, lively interactions. Even in the seclusion of Seebüll, and in spite of distress and exclusion as „degenerate art“, such an artistic conception and its intuitive pictorial realisation are transformed into a rhetoric experience, which reaches beyond the immediate present, in effect encompassing the artistic actuality of tomorrow in the sense of „contemporanéité“.

Emil Nolde, Marschland with Rose Hedge, 1935-1940, Watercolour, 33.2 × 42.2 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll  

Emil Nolde, the colour magician, was a vigorous, highly industrious and obsessive painter, even in advanced age. When external problems, theoretical schemas, matters other than art interfered with his creative urge, he recalled himself to his real task with the strict appeal „painter paint!“. „I try not to think too hard“ he confesses, “a vague idea of fervour and colour is enough for me. The work develops under my hands.“ Equally he pulled himself together when he fell into brooding, when threatened with diversion, intellectual evaluation or superficial experiment. He was convinced that „the painter does not need to know much,... It is nice, if he can paint unerringly under the guide of instinct, just as he breathes or walks.“ Similar remarks can be found coming from Wols or Jean Dubuffet. Such basic views on spontaneous, intuitive design and direct image formation anticipated the artistic principles of the informal Tachism of the fifties, as it were, to let the images emerge from the suggestive colour base. Nolde‘s immediate experience of nature and its idiosyncratic, inner personification through haunted and fabled creatures, as in the spring of 1919 during his stay on the Hallig Hooge, are closely related to the worlds of the COBRA painting group. Its Danish co-founder, Asger Jorn, was deeply affected by the congenial expressive fantastic aspects of Nolde‘s work. Soon after the end of the Nazi regime, the much younger painter Ernst Wilhelm Nay visited the aging master in remote Seebüll in September 1949, and soon afterwards thanked him in a personal letter, which showed a mutual understanding and their artistic proximity: „How wonderful was the afternoon with you! (...) Extraordinary impressions greeted us with pointed clarity.“

Werner Haftmann, co-founder of the Kassel „documenta“, exhibited posthumously a selection of thirty „Unpainted Pictures“ in the summer of 1964 at „documenta III“, together with paintings by Nay. The actuality of Nolde‘s work is unwavering. His art continues to be explored and his painting and graphic work until most recently have influenced German, Scandinavian and English artists, from Georg Baselitz and Per Kirkeby to Ian McKeever. In the tradition of romantic art, Emil Nolde perceived his artistry as an  extraordinary attribute, which, as it were, absolved him as “old Deus” from the mere human.  „The artist is something like an encore to humanity and I can speak of him as something other than the self,“ writes the soon to be sixty-year-old in October 1926 to Max Sauerlandt.  

Emil Nolde, Cabaret Singer, 1910-1911, Watercolour,              20.1 × 12.6 cm, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll  

„The artist is a sensitive creature avoiding light and noise, often suffering, consuming himself in longing. (...) The devil in him dwells in the bones, the deity in the heart.“ Nolde‘s work, with all its variety, as with only a few artists, forms in its artistic concepts, in its design principles, as well as in its visual world, a closed unity without surprising changes or abrupt breaks. From the time when Nolde had mastered his technique and had found his unmistakable visual language, one can hardly talk of a development, but rather the blossoming of an abundance of visions that dominated his inner being. To this extent, it can be said that he never changed his cloak, even in times of existential hardship. He remained, in all diversity the same as when he had begun.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Manfred Reuther

Born in the Sauerland region, in 1944. Studied at the Art Academy Düsseldorf, at the Universities of Marburg and Tübingen: German studies, history, philosophy and art his- tory. State exams, doctorate in art history with a dissertation on „The Early Work of Emil Nolde“. Teaching positions as art educator, 1972 research assistant and curator of the Nolde Foundation Seebüll, from 1992 to 2012 its director. 2009 honorary professor of the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein. Numerous publications on the life and work of Emil Nolde, Expressionism as well as contemporary art.

This article is an extract from the Exhibition catalogue "Nolde 150+" and can be ordered from Galerie Herold on request.

Exhibition catalogue from Galerie Herold

Galerie Herold