A key figure in the German Expressionist movement and one of modern art’s greatest colourists, Emil Nolde (1867-1956) today remains highly controversial. Although the Nazis confiscated some 1,000 of Nolde’s works from German museums and art collections on the grounds that they were ‘degenerate’ — a figure higher than that for any other artist — Nolde, an early and enthusiastic fan of the regime, remained committed to the party.
While this allegiance complicates our appreciation of his work, his talent has never been in dispute; in 1952 he was awarded the Order of Merit by the West German government — its highest civilian honour.
In 2018, just months after Christie’s set an artist world auction record of $5,262,500 for Nolde’s painting Indische Tänzerin, a retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art offered an exceptional opportunity to consider the breadth and depth of his career. Emil Nolde: Colour is Life, the artist’s largest show in the UK for more than 20 years, transferred to Scotland from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
Here, Scottish National Gallery co-curator Keith Hartley talks about Nolde's life, his many artistic connections with Van Gogh, and the present-day artist whom Nolde has most influenced.
What made Emil Nolde special?
Keith Hartley: ‘The usual answer to this question is that he was one of the pioneers of German Expressionism, which is certainly true. But for me, what’s remarkable about Nolde is the fact that he maintained the intensity of his vision — and emotion — right up until the end of his career, decades later.
‘Other Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Oskar Kokoschka couldn’t maintain their levels of intensity over a prolonged period of time, but Nolde could. We have a 1950 sea painting of his in the exhibition called Light Breaking Through (shown above) that is as powerful as anything he painted before it.
‘With more than 120 works on show, the idea was very much to make this a full retrospective. The media range from oil paintings and watercolours to lithographs, while the dates of works range from 1901 to 1950.’
‘All the major periods and series in Nolde’s career are covered, such as his café and cabaret scenes from Berlin in 1911; his vibrant paintings from a trip to the South Seas a few years later; as well as the so-called “Unpainted Paintings” from the 1930s and 1940s. These were jewel-like watercolours executed on pieces of paper at a time when he was branded “degenerate” by the Nazi party and officially banned from working as an artist.’
Is it fair to say that colour was Nolde's real strength?
KH: ‘I think so. He had a passion and a truly brilliant talent for it, which he never lost. This is why we called the exhibition Emil Nolde: Colour is Life. To stand in front of a Nolde painting is to experience what amounts almost to an electrical current, so strong are his colours.
‘I should add, though, that he wasn’t a calculating painter, with a regulated way of working. He painted viscerally; choice of colour seems to have come to him by feeling.
‘Nolde hailed from a very Protestant family in the north of Germany. Apparently, the only book in his house when he was growing up was the Bible, which he read regularly and avidly. He was a devout man, who painted a number of fine religious paintings. Rather like Van Gogh, the intensity of his colour stemmed greatly from that devoutness.’
Given Nolde’s fondness for fierce brushwork, too, can we say Van Gogh was a serious influence on him?
KH: ‘In his writings, he made that point himself. Nolde was largely a loner — he was an official member of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke for just one year before leaving it in 1907 — which is another parallel with Van Gogh.
‘It’s important to note, though, that he saw himself and his work very much in the context of art from his own country. Which is to say, as part of what he called “a great struggle” to “create a second period of great German art”, the first having occurred with the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald during the German Renaissance.’
Isn’t it ironic that an artist so preoccupied with the greatness of his nation’s artistic heritage was ostracised by the Nazis?
KH: ‘In a word, yes. Nolde, perhaps understandably, believed that contemporary German art, too, would be championed by the party. But he was profoundly mistaken. Although many in the Nazi leadership, such as Goebbels, believed Expressionism should be a standard bearer of home-grown culture, in the end it was Hitler’s preference for classicism — and his prejudice against all forms of new art — that won out.’
Does Nolde's work still influence artists today?
KH: ‘I certainly see a great affinity with the works of Peter Doig. Like Nolde, Doig has made a considerable number of works on paper, and there’s an incredible speed and a spontaneity to both artists’ efforts.
‘We’ve a wonderful South Seas watercolour of Nolde’s in the show, Aboriginal Man Swimming [above], which to untrained eyes could easily be mistaken for a Doig. It looks like it might have been painted in under a minute!’