How Should We Remember the Art of Emil Nolde?

How Should We Remember the Art of Emil Nolde?

The Perfect Victim

How should we remember the art of Emil Nolde? 

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The paradox has long been noted: One of the most prominent modernist artists in Germany, Emil Nolde, was an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism, yet his art was roundly rejected by the Nazis and included in great quantity in their notorious 1937 exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), culled from works confiscated from German public collections and presented for derision as ugly and anti-German in spirit, imbued instead with the polluting aesthetics of Africa, Bolshevism, and Jewry. After the war, Nolde’s complicity was often overlooked, and he was remembered more as a victim of the Nazis rather than as an adherent. His story could be seen as a case study in the ambiguities, ironies, and absurdity of the intersection between art and politics in the 20th century.

But how, finally, to draw up the balance sheet the case of Nolde? History will judge, it’s often said. But on the contrary, it’s contemporaneity that judges, often in blindness and ignorance. History refrains; causes and consequences rather than rights and wrongs are its main business. Maybe it’s the sense that the time for judgment is running out that underlies the appearance of an exhibition such as “Emil Nolde: The Artist During the Nazi Regime” at the Neue Galerie at the Hamburger Bahnhof–Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, a museum devoted to contemporaneity rather than art history. The living memory of those times is nearly gone; even people born in the early years after the war are now elderly. Now might be the last moment when settling these accounts really matters.

The polemical intention behind the exhibition, curated by Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring, and Aya Soika comes across more clearly in the double entendre in its German title, “Emil Nolde: Ein Deutsche Legende”—a German legend, meaning, yes, Nolde counts as a legendary German artist, but also, more to the point, the story of his life as it’s been received in Germany has not been the truth but a myth, almost a fairy tale with which the country has assuaged its bad conscience.

The German title’s double meaning points, in turn, to a vacillation or ambivalence in the exhibition itself. On the one hand, it is a conventional career retrospective, with over 100 works tracing the artist’s development from 1899—two years after the then-31-year-old Nolde (at the time still Hans Emil Hansen) lost his post as a commercial drawing teacher and set out to fulfill his dream of becoming a fine artist—through 1951, when he stopped painting on canvas. (He continued to produce watercolors almost until his death at 88 in 1956.) On the other hand, it can be seen instead as an essentially documentary exhibition, a forensic dossier of original and reproduced evidence laying out a case to show that Nolde’s reputation was whitewashed in postwar Germany.

Cooperative art historians and politicians alike, needing to believe that there always was another Germany, a resistant and independent-minded Germany that, by whatever subterfuge, managed to quietly persist under the heel of Hitler’s regime, cultivated what the exhibition curators call “a one-sided emphasis on Nolde’s victim status.” In order to forge a hero for themselves, they seized on the story of the painter condemned as degenerate and forbidden to paint. An exhibition within the exhibition aims to demolish this legend—to clear away the whitewash from his reputation. Since Nolde neither painted overtly Nazi subjects nor changed his style to suit the Führer’s taste, that’s easier to do by way of texts than artworks. In this second exhibition, even the paintings and watercolors are documents—exhibits in the legal sense of the term—and in this context, even paintings and watercolors function more as documentation than as aesthetic artifacts (and in some cases, the curators have used copies of destroyed or unavailable works helpful in making their case)..

If the exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof is two shows in one body, let’s try to look at each separately. First, the art show. Nolde was 38 by the time he had his first exhibition in 1905. This was the same year Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined with three fellow artists to form Die Brücke (the Bridge)—later understood as the first group of German Expressionist painters, though the word “expressionism” was not yet in use then. Kirchner and his friends were all in their early to mid-20s, determined, they said, “to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces.” Though not exactly young anymore, Nolde was still relatively new to artmaking and must have felt a similar urgency. He joined the group in 1906 but left it the following year.

Nolde’s early work is full of echoes of anti-realistic painters whose strident visions were prompts for the younger Expressionists, among them James Ensor, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch, who was only a few years older than Nolde but already famous. I suspect an equally strong influence, though, might have been Paul Gauguin, who in a work like The Yellow Christ (1889) attempted to portray, almost as though from within, the naive piety of the Breton peasants he met in Pont Aven, implying that this pure vision embodied a more authentic relation to life than could be experienced in Paris, from which he was always looking to distance himself. Likewise—and in contrast with the Berlin street scenes we associate with Kirschner or even with the landscapes, portraits, and contemporary countryside subjects cultivated by others among the Expressionists—Nolde became known for his harsh, almost grotesque depictions of biblical scenes. At the Hamburger Bahnhof, this vein is represented by Pentecost (1909), Paradise Lost (1921), and The Sinner (1926), which hardly seem to express any personal piety but rather convey a fascination with a blunt and primitive peasant religion redolent of the earthy and patriarchal past.

Nolde was not precisely a specialist in such subjects—his work up through the end of the Weimar Republic includes domestic scenes, plenty of landscapes, and his most powerful work, paintings of flowers—but they seem to set the tone for much of his other work and to set him off from his younger peers. But after the 1920s, the religious subjects disappear from Nolde’s repertoire. In the 1930s and into the ’40s, his narrative impulses were fulfilled by pictures of knights and Vikings—ancient Germanic warriors. Only at the chronological end of the show, with Jesus and the Scribes (1951) and a watercolor study for it, does Nolde’s former interest in New Testament subject matter return.

What’s strange about Nolde’s figure paintings, whether archaicizing or contemporary in subject, is how little his aggressive palette serves to save them from an ingrained sentimentality. The two figures in Blonde Girls (1918) seem practically chewed up by the harsh glare that surrounds them in a lush garden to which one seems entirely insensible while her companion, eyes lowered, bows her head in a kind of wordless reverence to it. In either case, all that really seems to matter is that their hair is the same glowing hue as the golden blossoms around them. Nolde’s later Viking-inspired imagery—here present mainly through numerous watercolors—feels generic and too self-consciously folksy, despite or perhaps even because of his luxuriant use of the watercolor medium. As for his landscapes, I have to confess to finding myself quite allergic to them. Their lumpy, overgeneralized forms and generic color are what allow one to sympathize with the response of the great art historian and critic Julius Meier-Graefe’s response to Nolde’s 60th-birthday retrospective in 1927. In the midst of all the celebration, Meier-Graefe confessed to feeling “like a fraud who sneaked into a club using a false pass. So that nobody notices, I also put on a festive face—earnest and daft” because the truth was, simply, “I do not like the paintings.” (Presumably Meier-Graefe knew that Nolde had caricatured him, along with five other critics, as one of the vampiric figures in the 1921 painting Six Gentlemen—originally titled Experts.)

And yet I don’t think the critic (a great proponent of the Impressionists, Paul Cézanne, and van Gogh) should have been quite so cut and dried in his judgment, for one subject seemed to draw something far more powerful and deep from Nolde than any other, pushing him to surpass himself. He excelled as a painter of flowers—sunflowers above all, which as a choice of subject he confesses, of course, his debt to van Gogh, and yet how different is his way of seeing them! Van Gogh’s sunflowers spread light everywhere, despite having been cut and placed in a vase indoors. Nolde’s sunflowers, by contrast, are voracious consumers of light, growing, almost ruthlessly pushed up by their élan vital, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas put it. The bright, wide-open blossom at the bottom left of Yellow and Brown-Red Sunflowers (1935) confronts the viewer like an all-seeing, ever-open eye, while the darker ones that are its companions brood over its fate. And if Nolde ever painted a masterpiece, it must be Ripe Sunflowers (1932): The two heavy heads, bowed down with age, their yellow ray florets looking ragged and threadbare, exude more vitality than a dozen of his helmeted puppets. The presence of a few such works outshining everything around them suggests that Nolde was one of those artists who had talents he never quite understood, who wasted most of his time and effort trying to be a painter of a sort that he was never meant to be.

The Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition leaves one with the picture of Nolde as a distinctly minor figure in modern art history—hardly the equal of Kirchner or Max Beckmann, another of his younger contemporaries. Both had harder fates after their condemnation as degenerate than Nolde did. Kirchner spent the Nazi years in Switzerland; long prey to mental illness, he died by suicide in 1938. Beckmann’s exile took him to Amsterdam, then the United States. He was just 66 when a heart attack felled him as he was walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a painting of his on view there in 1950. His grand mythographic fantasies, such as Departure (1932–35), make Nolde’s Viking fantasies look thin and underdeveloped by comparison.

But what about the exhibition within the exhibition, the documentary one summed up by the exhibition’s English subtitle, “The Artist During the Nazi Regime?” It’s not a pretty picture. The curators’ prosecutorial case is laid out clearly in the exhibition itself and in greater detail in the catalog. One good place to start the story is with Pentecost, the most blatantly Ensor-esque but also the most striking of the religious paintings in the show.

In 1910 Nolde submitted this work for exhibition at the Berlin Secession, an organization of independent artists that was set up a dozen years before in response to the conservatism of the academic establishment. Nolde joined the Secession just two years earlier. But Pentecost, along with works by other Expressionist artists, was turned down. The radicals of the 1890s were turning into the conservatives of the 1910s. But it was then, it seems, that Nolde conceived a personal grudge against the Secession’s president, Max Liebermann—a Jew. Later Nolde sent a vituperative letter to Liebermann, which resulted in Nolde’s ejection from the organization.

Was this the seed for the painter’s growing anti-Semitism? It certainly added fuel to his lifelong martyr complex. In any case, it is after this that his correspondence begins to contain the poisonous complaint that it was the Jews who were blocking his way to success, that “the leaders of the Secession…are Jews, the art dealers are all Jews, likewise the leading art historians and critics, the whole press is at their disposal and the art publishers, too, are Jews.” Perhaps, too, we find in this episode the desire to distance himself from the metropolis and return to the borderland where he grew up, as he finally did in 1927, for “only in Berlin is it like this, although the movement’s long tentacles are now uncoiling over the whole land just like the dry rot spreading under the red-painted floors of our little home.” Needless to say, Nolde also had critics, dealers, and patrons in his corner. He was starting to have success; in 1913 his work for the first time entered a museum collection, in Halle. When Nolde published two volumes of memoirs in the 1930s, the volume chronicling his life from 1902 to 1914 was titled, naturally, Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle).

Anti-Semitism aside, Nolde’s psychology will sound familiar to anyone who has ever spent much time around artists. There’s a certain significant minority among them whose arrogant certainty that they have never been properly recognized—and somehow no amount of recognition may ever be quite enough—tends to devolve into fantasies of persecution, the feeling that some cabal or mafia is arrayed against them. For Nolde, this was the Jews. In another time and place, this obsession might have remained a private affair, known only to a few intimates, but Nolde had the moral bad luck to be a contemporary of the Nazis, of whom he became an early and avid supporter.

His art became caught up in a wider controversy about how to understand Expressionism, too: Was it, as some supporters tried to claim, a quintessentially German or Nordic art, part of a current that stretches back through the Romantics to the Northern Gothic and beyond? Or on the contrary, did it represent an alien strain, an insult to the pure German ideal? There were strong voices in favor of the first position; the renowned scholar of Indian art and culture, Heinrich Zimmer, declared that it was only with Nolde “that German art first comes into its Germanic-Nordic inheritance.” The vitalist rhetoric employed in favor of Nolde’s art reeked of the Nazis’ blood and soil ideology. As one supporter put it, “The voice of blood bears witness so directly to true life, and it is this which speaks from Nolde’s pictures.”

But with the final verdict in the hands of Hitler, a failed painter who couldn’t bear Expressionism, it was a foregone conclusion that for all Nolde’s efforts to curry favor with the regime—and they were as assiduous as they were sincere—things would go against him. “Nolde, that swine!” fumed the Führer, sounding not unlike the hysterical Bruno Ganz character in Downfall. “Whatever he paints are nevertheless always piles of manure.” He was eventually banned from professional activity as an artist. While he had cast himself as the victim of a boycott by the Jewish-dominated Berlin art world, it was the Nazis who in fact ostracized him, and yet in their case, he seems never to have given up hope until the end. Even after that, he saw the German catastrophe only in terms of his art career. In a note dated May 6, 1945, just days after Hitler’s suicide, Nolde told himself, “He was my enemy. His cultural dilettantism brought my art and me much sorrow, persecution, and condemnation.”

What’s impressive, however, is how little Nolde changed his work to suit the times. Stylistically, he remained adamantly the Expressionist he’d been from the beginning. In his own way, he maintained his artistic integrity. Yes, he abandoned his biblical subjects for Nordic ones, but the change seems entirely superficial; a mere switch of titles could easily transform his vague Vikings into Old Testament patriarchs. Indeed, looking at Nolde’s figurative works of the 1930s, I couldn’t help reflecting how easily they would have fit into the aesthetic of the land-of-Israel modernism that flourished in Palestine at the same time—the art of Reuven Rubin or Sionah Tagger, for instance—and often resorted to biblical subjects alongside modern-day landscapes and genre scenes. Of course, the idea would have been repugnant to Nolde and his promoters.

After the war, Nolde did his best to scrub his reputation as clean as possible. Correspondence could be suppressed and unpublished manuscripts destroyed, but the public record could not be denied. Admiring critics and curators believed they had to save the great artist from the consequences of his worst tendencies, from what one writer called “the most dangerous understanding, his own interpretation of himself.” They helped solidify the myth of the “persecuted ‘pioneer of a new German art,’” as a wall text puts it—a victim of Nazi repression who intransigently bided his time during the worst of it. The effort was a success. Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was a great champion of Nolde’s, lamenting to Henry Kissinger the artist’s relative obscurity in the United States, and the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, was also an enthusiast.

The curators, and particularly Fulda in his catalog text, attribute much of the responsibility for this falsification of history to the novelist Siegfried Lenz, who in his 1968 novel The German Lesson (published in English to rapturous reviews in 1972) told the story of a painter, transparently based on Nolde, who staunchly resists the efforts of the narrator’s father, a village policeman, to enforce the regime’s ban on his activity as a painter. For Fulda, Lenz thereby made Nolde “the most famous martyred German artist of the twentieth century.” But here we should tread carefully. Yes, Lenz named his painter Nansen, clearly rhyming with Nolde’s original family name, Hansen, and many details in the book are taken from Nolde’s story. But Lenz was a novelist, not a historian. He took some of the raw materials of Nolde’s life and made something more of them than Nolde himself had. And because Lenz was a literary artist of the first rank, he was able to imagine in this Nolde-like character an artist far more interesting and more self-aware than the real Nolde ever was. “Embittered and stubborn, impelled by an almost obsessively high opinion of himself,” Nansen nonetheless accepts his disappointment as part of his character and incorporates it into his art, rather than projecting his internal limitations onto some cabal of competing artists and wrongheaded critics, as did Nolde, who never ceased lamenting that he endured “a thirty-year resistance to a degree that has never been seen before in art history.”

Fulda also highlights the role of what Nolde called his “unpainted pictures” in feeding his postwar legend. He long had a habit of making small but elaborately developed watercolor studies as the basis for his paintings; during the years when his professional activity was curtailed by Nazi order, they remained such, and after the war he began again to make paintings from them. Working thus without immediate thought of producing finished works, his admirers believed, “he preserved his inner freedom,” as the art historian Werner Haftmann put it. Lenz turned Nolde’s unpainted pictures into something a little more elusive: “invisible pictures.” In place of Nolde’s fully worked-out compositions, the fictional proxy Nansen makes sketches that are so indefinite that only he can foresee the painting that might come from them, and on one occasion he taunts the policeman bent on impounding his pictures with utterly blank sheets he claims show sunset landscapes, though still, he admits, “All much too decorative. Decoratively metaphorical”: an immaterial art that no authority can destroy and a challenge to the very act of looking—less like Expressionism than like the conceptual art that was just in its infancy when Lenz was writing, and never, of course, envisioned by Nolde.

Although Nolde might at first seem to represent an opportunity to rehash the perennial quandary of the great artist or thinker who throws his lot in with a vicious political idea—the quandary posed by a Pound, a Céline, or a Heidegger. Actually, it’s a different case altogether, and in a way, a much easier one, for it seems evident that the flaw in Nolde’s character, the arrogant lack of self-reflection that allowed him to imagine every setback as the result of a plot by the “others,” is probably also what prevented him from pushing his art more consistently into the depths he imagined himself fathoming.

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