'In painting I always hoped that through me, as the painter, the colours would take effect on the canvas as logically as nature creates her configurations, as ore and crystals form, as moss and algae grow, as flowers must unfold and bloom under the rays of the sun' (Emil Nolde, Jahre der Kämpfe 1902-1914, Berlin, 1934, p. 107).
Nolde’s flower paintings often use their subject matter as a vehicle by which to express a mood or emotion. The inspiration for such ‘humanizing’ of nature came in Nolde’s case from the example set by Vincent van Gogh. Nolde maintained an interest in Van Gogh’s work throughout his life and his own long-held preoccupation with sunflowers undoubtedly reflects the influence of the Dutch artist. As they had been for Van Gogh, for Nolde, a large part of the beauty of flowers, and in particular the sunflower, was the simple and expressive elegance of their life cycle. ‘The blossoming colours of the flowers and the purity of those colours’, he once remarked, I love them. I loved the flowers and their destiny: shooting up, blooming, radiating, glowing, gladdening, drooping, wilting, and ultimately thrown away and dying. Our human destinies are by no means always so logical or so beautiful’ (E. Nolde. Jahre de Kämpfe, Berlin, 1934, p. 100).
Painted in 1940, Sonnenblumen und weisse Dahlien ('Sunflowers with White Dahlias') is one of a large number of paintings of sunflowers that Nolde made throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. This was a period of great trauma for the artist when, under the oppression of the Nazi regime, he had been declared a degenerate artist and was ultimately banned from painting. For Nolde, the painting of flowers was, therefore, an effective retreat from the world of politics and everyday reality into a near abstract world of colour and joy. And it was also one reminiscent of his childhood.
Nolde, born Emil Hansen, had grown up in the small village of Nolde, near Tondern on the borderlands between Germany and Denmark. There his mother had kept house and tended the flower garden where, he recalled: ‘I often walked with her...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).
As it was for Van Gogh, the sunflower too became an almost personal symbol for Nolde of this kind of happiness. On first moving to Seebüll and building his now famous flower garden there, Nolde had immediately planted sunflowers, writing euphorically to his friend Hans Fehr at this time that ‘the sunflowers are so tall that I stand beneath them with my head thrown back, gratefully admiring their beauty...barely imaginable colours are glowing, and the scent of the mignonettes carries as far as the house’ (Nolde, letter 20 September, 1928).
In Sonnenblumen und weisse Dahlien Nolde paints a similarly joyous scene of fresh sunflowers blooming with white dahlias. Unlike many of his paintings of sunflowers of this period, which show the flowers wilting, or struggling against strong winds, as if symbolising his own precarious predicament during this period, there is little sign in this work of the trials and tribulations Nolde was undergoing at the time he made this painting. Only the fiery, autumnal colouring of the background gives any hint at the sombre circumstances amidst which this impressive work was created.