A striking double portrait of a man and a woman, Doppelbild (Sie seltsames Licht) is one of a number of richly coloured, enigmatic representations of figures that Emil Nolde painted in 1918. The head of a man is partially covered by the outwardly gazing face of the woman. Although the couple’s close physical proximity to one another suggests an intimacy or familiarity, the nature of the relationship between the pair is, like their impenetrable stares, ambiguous. Painted with yellow and ochre tones against a luminous turquoise background, the faces of the figures in Doppelbild (Sie seltsames Licht) are rendered with a simplicity and directness, imbued with a mask-like expression. The highlighted areas of dappled yellow on the woman’s face appear to reflect the ‘strange light’ that Nolde has referenced in the title of the painting.
In Doppelbild (Sie seltsames Licht), the closely cropped composition emphasises the facial features and expression of the two figures. The distinctive physiognomy of both the man and the woman – the large, almond shaped eyes and jet-black hair of the woman, and the long, angular, bearded face of the man – demonstrates Nolde’s life-long interest in indigenous identity. The artist had undertaken an extensive yearlong expedition to the South Pacific in 1913. Travelling with his wife, Ada, Nolde journeyed through Siberia and Russia, China, Japan and the Philippines, before arriving at their destination, New Guinea. Exposed to an overwhelming array of cultures and people, Nolde was fascinated by the often striking shared facial characteristics of different ethnic groups and this remained a central theme of his portraiture long after he had returned from this inspirational year of travel. In Doppelbild (Sie seltsames Licht), the physiognomic differences between the man and the woman, which are emphasised through their overlapping poses, also reveal Nolde’s interest in the fundamental dualities of life which he sought to incorporate into his art; ‘Duality always had a generous place in my paintings’, Nolde wrote, ‘Together or opposed: man and woman, pleasure and suffering, deity and devil.’ (E. Nolde, quoted in B. Reinhardt, Emil Nolde: Portraits, exh. cat., Ulm, 2005, p. 76).