'All art is abstract: only reality is not, because reality is not art' (Emil Nolde, 'Words in the Margin', 28th December 1940, reproduced in Nolde: Forbidden Pictures, exh. cat., London 1970, p. 9).
All his life Nolde was moved by the beauty of plants and flowers. In his later years in the grounds of his houses at Utenwarf and in Seebüll, Nolde created elaborate gardens filled with a wide range of exotic flowers from all around the globe. These he would paint repeatedly, seeking solace refuge and renewed energy from their colour and life during the many hard times of the 1930s and '40s. Indeed, flowers were such a central part of Nolde's life that in preparation for he and his wife's eventual gravesites he built elaborate banks of flowers in the shape of the letter 'E' for Emil and 'A' for Ada around the tomb that he intended they would one day share.
Painted in 1950, Mohn (Poppies) is one of Nolde's last paintings on the subject that, more than any other, had sustained him all his life. Brilliantly radiant and brimming with life as so many of Nolde's flower paintings are, the painting seems to express an eternal vitality and joy in life - elements that throughout the traumatic recent years of the war, Nazi oppression and his wife's death in 1946, had been all too lacking.
Nolde had been born Emil Hansen in the village of Nolde, near Tondern in North Schleswig. He had changed his name to that of his home town not merely to avoid confusion with other 'Hansens' but also as a way of identifying himself with his homeland and to reinforce his deeply felt primal and romantic sense of being a part of its landscape. It was something Nolde said, 'he wanted to do, in pursuit of a romantic impulse.' Many years later he also declared that, 'for my part, I consider that, in spite of my travels in all directions, my art is rooted in my native soil, here in the narrow land between the two seas' (Emil Nolde, quoted in Emil Nolde, exh. cat., London, 1995, p. 67).
Nolde's life-long love of flowers was also rooted in this same profound sense of 'Heimat' and seems to have begun in his mother's garden when he was a child. There, he recalled, 'I often walked with her in the garden... and so I could not help but watch all the flowers as they grew, blossomed and shone forth. There was a bed of noble red roses where I would sometimes cut back the wild, thorny shoots for her. All the flowers bloomed for her pleasure and for mine, and the sun shone out over the garden' (E. Nolde, Das eigene Leben (1867-1902), Cologne, 1994, p. 120). Later in life, it was on the island of Alsen, where Nolde often summered with Ada, that the island's well-kept fisherman's cottages, with their 'small, rich, beautifully kept gardens, surrounded by beech hedges and always abounding in flowers,' prompted and inspired Nolde not only to paint their rich semi-abstract displays of colour, but also ultimately, to establish his own garden. (Emil Nolde, Welt und Heimat (1913 -18), Cologne 1990, p. 139).
Flowers, Nolde, had also recognized, were a primal and vivid example of the eternal cycle of birth, life and death in Nature, and it was as such that they became a perennial subject in his art and an essential part of his life. As a passage in his autobiography reveals, flowers were ultimately for Nolde, both a metaphor for the life of the artist and the work of art, in the sense that their life cycles were essentially the same. Both were, he argued, the products of natural forces and thereby subject to the same laws of creation and inevitable decay, 'shooting up, blooming, radiating, glowing, gladdening, drooping, wilting, and ultimately thrown away and dying.' Our 'human destinies' Nolde lamented in 1934, 'are by no means always so logical or so beautiful.' (E. Nolde, Jahre de Kämpfe, Berlin, 1934, p. 228).
In Mohn Nolde returns to a subject he had painted many times before, most notably in his late years in the painting Grosser Mohn (Great Poppy) of 1942, which with its subtitle of Rot, Rot, Rot, (Red, Red, Red), recognizes the strongly abstract nature and dynamic colour arrangements integral to so many of his flower pictures. Indeed, it was because of this fundamentally abstract nature of the flower paintings that it was these works, more than any other, even those of the sea, that Nolde, forbidden from painting by the Nazi regime for so many years, could best indulge his passion for art and life to its greatest extent. For, as Werner Haftmann was perhaps the first to point out, it was in the painting of the flowers from his exotic garden in Seebüll that Nolde was best able to 'develop his fugal arrangement of colour in the greatest freedom' and the 'large canvas (that) was the necessary experimental field for testing the validity of his evocative method, which (in these late years) came very close to abstraction. Painter-image-reality are now one. The image is nothing but reflection of the painter's inner life. This conception of painting, which Nolde developed over the years, underlies all the works of his maturity' (W. Haftmann, Emil Nolde, London, 1973, no. 41).