Emil Nolde

Page 1


a review by Duncan Simcoe


LACMA is currently advertising an upcoming exhibit entitled: Expressionism in Germany and France: Van Gogh to Kandinsky. There are a couple of comments worth making about this. First, reservations are strongly encouraged (it is expected to be a popular exhibit); and second, the exhibit will include a few paintings by Emil Nolde, who The Art Newspaper has recently declared is Germany’s most beloved, prolific and controversial Expressionist. Related to this is the first largescale retrospective of Nolde’s work in twenty-five years, which has just wrapped up at the Staedel museum in Frankfurt. Why write a review about the Nolde exhibit at all? The rightfully anticipated popularity of the LACMA show tells one and all that by 2014, Expressionism is really good business. My oh-so-American students find his work incomprehensibly crude, but without any of the chalkboard scratching rage that it would have produced a hundred years ago. They are, after all, disciples of MASS culture, which means the references are video games, Deviant Art, Disney and Pixar, with more/better (slicker) images hyperavailable on an alternately puerile and/or sentimental level. The art sophisticates, on the other hand, have moved way past Nolde’s ubersubjectivity as a model; it’s just not smart enough to sustain in a theoryladen university art program. And then there is the troubling baggage of Nazism that he carries.... The fact is, Nolde was one of the very few Modernist painters who persisted in working with religious imagery in a non-ironic way—as if the images really mattered. For those who processed through Christian education, individuals like Nolde could pull a large amount of psychic weight through the one or two small reproductions in an art history text. And then there are the paintings themselves. These rarely travel outside of Europe, and reproductions of his work are very poor surrogates for the paintings. This is true for all paintings really, but more so with aggressively expressionistic paintings; cameras just don’t see layers and marks very well, and Nolde’s unusual color combinations give printers fits; they are always off.

Nolde is also an essential preface to the work of Anselm Kiefer. Both are sentimental artists, meaning that they are driven by strongly felt identifications with certain subjects: the oft-desolate German landscape, the sea, sunflowers, mythological/Biblical images and allusions—which the process of painting records like a phonograph. Both Nolde and Kiefer utilized Expressionism as a liberating language and as bookends around the immense tensions of twentieth century Germany history: Nolde as Nazi enthusiast, confused and frustrated by that unrequited love, and Kiefer as little boy lost, rummaging through the ashes trying to make sense of it all after the fact.


The centerpiece for the Staedel exhibit is about 100 years old. It is Nolde’s attempt at a grand religious painting. The Life of Christ is a nine-panel affair, arranged like a traditional altarpiece and housed in its own room, with ranks of benches to assist contemplation. It is a work that the Nazis chose to greet viewers with at the Degenerate Art Show organized in 1937. As Staedel Museum Director Max Hollein pointed out, “his religious and figurative themes triggered a fierce counteraction by the Nazis.” His early party membership notwithstanding, Nolde repeatedly attempted to ingratiate himself with the party as the only authentic practitioner of truly ‘German painting.’ Herman Goering agreed; Hitler did not.

This altarpiece and other figurative works were the result of a conscious decision on Nolde’s part in 1906-07, to downplay “the little garden pictures which had found favor with people because of their light, fresh colors,” in favor of “serious, spiritual and religious pictures,” as he wrote in his autobiography, Jahre der Kampfe. This shift in subject was accompanied with a shift in technique. Nolde dumped the ecstatic Impressionistic style—blizzards of unmixed colors aimed at semi-dissolving forms—in favor of an aggressive, simplified, formal language of near wholly local colors applied with minimal modulation after the first rush of muscular delivery. Because his process of paint-to-surface allowed for no refinement, facial features took on an outsider art character: big and over-drawn, permitting only the most rudimentary kinds of emotive characterizations. Eyes and mouths are large and cartoony, lending some justification to the criticism of his work as anti-Semitic caricature. Nolde objected to this, stating that he had “presented Jewishness as it was and as it has never before been painted.” Nevertheless, he also described himself as “virtually the only German artist in open combat with art by foreign elements,” which was code for Jewish Modernists active in Berlin (Max Pechstein for example.)

Nolde’s ‘shoot from the hip’ methodology guaranteed un-even results by nature; your nervous system really can’t tell the difference between duds and sparklers because they all feel the same as they happen. In The Life of Christ altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation of Christ to Simeon and Sarah are clunky kitsch, yet they rub shoulders with Doubting Thomas and The Birth of Christ (which physically occupy two opposite ends of the work as well as emotive hemispheres.) These latter two paintings strongly succeed, the first with its grimly frozen amazement, Christ standing there like a scarecrow squashed to the front of the composition by the vertical phalanx of nervous looking disciples. The Birth pulls off a remarkably disarming display of maternal warmth and wonder, which was uncommon turf for Expressionism in general. The Crucifixion is a mixed bag. I don’t know if Nolde saw reproductions of the Isenheim altarpiece or not—he did pride himself on being something of a naïve—but in any event, the Christ figure carries all the stark gravitas of Grunewald’s Christ, suspended stiff with sickly yellow flesh barely covering his angular ribs. The Prussian blue eyes are simply pits of suffering and his sheer size (about 7 ft.) physically knocks the viewer back. The flanking figures are more problematic. The mourning women (disciples) look like bummed out ghouls, while the soldiers on the right do look suitably indifferent and blandly painted; everyone is wearing red lipstick.

Other works with Biblical subjects are often large successes. The Last Supper was recognized very quickly as a masterwork and collected by the Director of the Halle Museum, Max Sauerlandt. I can’t think of another attempt at this subject that contains the level of sheer angst that Nolde worked into Christ’s face. It also profits by being more coloristically nuanced, with that viridian green pushed into off-yellow in shadows on the faces, giving the whole work a lurid atmosphere. On the other side of that emotive arc, Adam and Eve is a study in comedic intensity. Both figures sit facing the viewer, right up to the edge of the canvas. Their golden stumpy bodies remind one of R. Crumbs Illustrated Genesis. Like Crumb, Nolde has invested each character with, what for him is, a lot of facial and emotive characterization. Adam is simply glaring at Eve; his near arm pulled away from her for emphasis. She in turn stares at us with big blue marble eyes, bugging out as if she has just sat on an egg. Twined up a violet tree trunk between them is a goofily grinning serpent. Just when you think that it might be too silly, the sheer formal power of the painting pins you down like a bug on a board. Nolde himself rated The Entombment the “best thing I had done in years.”

It’s easy to see why. Unlike some of his other compositions, this painting appears very well considered: no nonsense, compact, with an insightfully conceived Christ looking like he is being drawn back into Mary’s body. Alternately, the surrounding blue cloaks become a sea into which, like Jonah, Jesus is being submerged. The face of Christ, like that in the Last Supper, conveys an intense internal struggle, now carried on in Hades. The paintings do have an iconic quality about them. This is not surprising since they were what Nolde called ‘Free Figural’ work; by which he meant that he was painting from imagination. And as such, there is no natural light source. Instead, the paintings are lit as if from within—light is simply ‘there’. Additionally, Nolde’s facility with paint depends a great deal on which work you are looking at. Much of the work in the Staedel show is executed in water media: portraits, landscapes, flowers and some of his ‘legendary’ images fall into this category. These are very fluent, with complex layers thrown down as if an after-thought. The flower watercolors are lush without sentimentality. Contrarily, the oil paintings are almost always talking about the physical struggle of getting the unreduced paint pushed around on the surface. Mien kampf indeed.


If you are engaged in the task of pushing paint around on a surface in order to achieve some kind of expressive ‘meant’ end, figurative or not, then Nolde’s work is going to have something to say to you (even given that Expressionism is a done deal, as the LAMCA show demonstrates.) But Nolde’s life and work embody tensions that are still very much with us: the urge to locate authenticity in the outsider-as-visionary (we even have M.F.A. programs that claim to traffic in ‘visionary art’ as such, wallowing in the conundrum of institutionalized outsiderhood.) The critical response of his time called it ‘folk peculiarity,’ back when the art of the insane was just being given serious consideration. In fact, Nolde and his wife paid a visit to the sister of the recently deceased artist Ernst Josephson, who spent about 18 years institutionalized for syphilitic dementia. The Nolde’s bought four of Josephson’s drawings, and greatly admired the freedom from convention they found therein. So, in Nolde’s own self-view, his works were a kind of primal utterance which he felt appropriately sensitive souls would recognize (don’t we all?) The Christian-as-Nazi facet of his legacy still has some currency in the US, depending on which right-wing patriot group you are looking at. But these groups don’t tend to produce painters these days, or send their kids to universities in general; their expressive muscle seems to be reserved for thuggish parodies of heavy metal. Perhaps the most vexing commonality here is the omnipresent desire for inclusion and the fact of exclusion of one’s creative output.

For those of us who have chosen to work out our vocation in some kind of dynamic relationship with ecclesiastical structures—either as physical entities, or as sources for nurture and affirmation—Nolde’s desire for acceptance by both the Nazi Party and the Church are poignantly weird reminders of the instability of this situation. That lack of reciprocity from either side grated on him severely. Neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant churches ever commissioned paintings or allowed Nolde’s work to be permanently installed. When the Life of Christ was exhibited in Brussels in 1912, it was panned (not surprisingly) by the Roman Catholic Clergy. Granted, there is a larger conversation to be had here about the relative roles of the devotional and prophetic voice within a worshipping community, but the reality of this historic tension remains. Within the evangelical American community, the issue of unrequited love seems the most present. (Am I the only artist to have his work removed from various church-related venues?) So, maybe Nolde can function for us in a Gandhi-like fashion; be the first in line to get beat up so you’re not surprised when it happens to you.

Duncan Simcoe is a painter and musician. He received his MFA from California State University Long Beach in 1987. Duncan’s work has been exhibited in galleries around the world including Daniel Arvizu Gallery, Santa Ana; Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach; John Thomas Gallery, Santa Monica; ARTSPACE Gallery; John Thomas Gallery; Laguna Beach Museum; Cathedral of St. George, Jerusalem, Israel; Los Angeles Municipal Museum;Vatican Collection of Modern Art, Rome; Queens College, Cambridge, UK; and Bode Museum, Berkeley, CA. He teaches full-time in the Department of Art at California Baptist University in Riverside, California.

Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.