Emil Nolde (1867-1956)

Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, from 25 September 2008 to 19 January 2009 and Montpellier, Musée Fabre from 7 February to 24 May 2009.

1. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
La Cima della Pala and la Vezzana, 1897
Post card n° 28
Chromolithography - 9 x 14 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

Although German expression, even according to the organisers of this exhibition “is still a new subject in France”, what should be said about Emil Nolde, who is no doubt its most flamboyant representative, as we have had to wait until 2008 to see a retrospective devoted to him in France, more than fifty years after his death. One couldn’t speak of negligence or ostracism, but more of the reticence of the French eye, characterised by precision and moderation, when faced with this tormented, violent art whose force continues to surprise. Emil Nolde did not like being described as Expressionist, and what will seduce the visitor to this impressive assembly (90 paintings, 70 watercolours) is precisely the freedom and authenticity of an oeuvre that in the end cannot be categorised. A personality of the avant garde, master of modern Art, Nolde was not a theoretician, neither was he a militant protestor nor the defender of a peremptory or a teleological formalism, but a true artist communicating immediately with his vision, his impulses and his influences. Out of this spontaneous and irrepressible vocation flows a multiform art, both in terms of subject and handling, in which the idea and the form do not deliver themselves to a sterile combat, but which feed each other perpetually. Thus, it is difficult to sketch a developmental logic that is both coherent and definitive, and of which art historians are so fond : although the exhibition, as is appropriate, attempts an approach that is in part chronological, balanced by thematic sections (places, subjects, times/moments in life, voyages), one quickly notices the limits of any reasoned organisation. The artist practiced very different manners concurrently and during all his periods, was inspired by subjects ranging from “realism” to the fantastical, in a word, he remained free to the end.

2. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Harvest Day, 1905
Oil on canvas - 73 x 92 cm
Geneva, Private Collection

Born in small village whose name he took as his own in 1902, Emil Hansen came from a family of peasants. This simple and rural origin at the extreme north of Germany close to the Danish border, is doubtless crucial to understanding the artist’s personality. The connection between Nolde and the land, his rooting in a form of popular culture that was half pagan half protestant, imbued with old Germanic legends does not form a contradiction and more than any other formal or theoretical type of claim, the painter never ceases to refer to his origins and to Germany. The exhibition’s introductory room shows the artist’s first canvas and the watercolours which the mountains inspired when he taught at the Musée de l’Artisanat de Saint-Gall in Switzerland. One can find a certain number of characteristics that endure in his work in one form or another. Harsh handling, a telluric conception of nature, feeling for the grotesque at the same time as a taste for a type of magic. These images of the mountains personified by fantastical beings (whose iconography is linked to place names) brought Nolde a certain notoriety and were published as postcards (ill. 1) even though the oil The Mountain Giants was refused by the Munich salon in 1895. After various periods spent in France and Denmark, Nolde, recently married, adopted his artist’s name and settled in Germany. The second room of the exhibition groups works from the beginning of the century to 1906. This intermediate period is marked by various influences under which he came, despite later denials, during his Danish and Parisian sojourns. Very beautiful landscapes show a northern post-symbolist aesthetic while humble rural scenes obviously recall the work of Van Gogh (ill. 2). Of his trip to Paris, where he visited the Centennale and the Décennale during the Universal Exhibition of 1900, Nolde certainly did not retain impressionism which he said he didn’t like, but rather the thick impasto and violence of colour of Van Gogh. At the same time, the artist continued to paint, using a rough manner, groups of brigands, red-faced peasants and strongly shadowed “grimy” interiors which reveal a feeling for excess that serves expressionism. The Portrait of Ada of 1904, in which the young woman’s head is barely held on her shoulders and breaks up into violently brushed strokes, reveals a horrific apparition more than a tender testimony. The dawn of an entirely personal art is close.

3. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
The Painter Schmidt-Rottluff, 1906
Oil on canvas - 52 x 37 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada
und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

4. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Bedevilled Dancing, 1909
Oil on Canvas - 71 x 87 cm
Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel
Photo : D. R.

In 1906, Nolde was invited to Dresden by the leaders of the Die Brücke group. This experience, which was to last only a year and a half nevertheless gave him his full artistic breadth. The companionship with Schmidt-Rottluff (ill. 3), Kirchner and Heckel ended, not without its disagreements, but it was to act as a catalyst on Nolde’s production and gave the painter the stature of a master. The particularly appealing room devoted to this period shows a dozen striking oils. The touch has become broader, the colours explode, and the composition frees itself completely from depth to return to the plane. Moreover the persistence of the subject which gives these truly expressionist works a dimension that is at times metaphysical must be emphasized : if Nolde here has begun to paint views of gardens, a new theme for him and which he was to continue to paint from then on, although he gave ordinary scenes (Woman Smoking) a disturbing presence, he also treated subjects whose connotation was spiritualist such as the Magic of Light, or of a vitalistic pantheism : the Bedevilled Dance (ill. 4) thus recalls Germanic sentiment for nature allied to themes that one finds in the canvases of Böcklin or Franz von Stück. With regard to the lasting nature of a meaning beyond even a purely plastic logic, it is significant that the painter tried to create a group that would have united, Munch and Hodler amongst others… The room which presents these works, all with black frames in accordance with the artist’s wishes, is preceded and followed by rooms showing graphic art. These very rich spaces show Nolde’s interest in the techniques of wood engraving first, which by its roughness and “primitive” aspect corresponds to his taste for “popular” art. Associated with these prints, winter watercolours, which show the marks of storms, show the experimental nature of Nolde’s practice, which allowed these works on paper to endure rain or snow.

5. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Hamburg, boat in the port, 1910
Engraving - 31 x 41 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

6. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Macabre Dance, 1918
Engraving on copper - 21 x 26 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

7. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Children of the Woods, 1911
Impression in black on “Büttenpapier” - 25 x 30 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

Subsequently the techniques of aquaforte and drypoint attracted the artist. It is striking to note the multiplicity of forms thanks to the variety of techniques. These prints are not engraved transcriptions of pictorial motifs. Very beautiful views of the Port of Hamburg (ill. 5) are evidence of the artist’s thorough knowledge of acid and biting ; other sheets (for example the Self Portrait) play on extreme sobriety. But the Young Woman of 1906, by its keen and meticulous draughtsmanship could almost come from an illustration of Zola’s Dream by Carlos Schwabe, while the Nude seen in diagonal recalls Munch’s prints. Fantastical or poetic subjects come from yet another aesthetic : the Macabre Dance (ill. 6) reminiscent of Rops, the Children of the Woods (ill. 7) whose strokes are reminiscent of Matisse (whom Nolde admired) or the Two Devils which extend the familiar grotesque inspiration by the artist at the beginning of his career. One senses in this variety the abundant inspiration of the artist and the predominance of a vision of what could be a deliberate aesthetic.

8. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Pentecost, 1909
Oil on Canvas
Berlin, Staatliche Museen, National Galerie

9. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
The Life of Christ, 1911-1912
Polyptic, oil on canvases - 220 x 579 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

10. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
The Entombment, 1915
Oil on Canvas - 86 x 117 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

The heart of the exhibition is occupied by a room devoted to the painter’s religious work. It is known that Nolde devoted 55 paintings to sacred themes from 1909 to 1951, thus bearing witness to his religious convictions, although in practice they were very personal. The first oil of this group, included in the show, is dated 1909. This Last Supper, followed shortly afterwards by a Pentecost, was painted in a state of great exaltation “I was obeying an irresistible need to represent a deep spirituality” wrote Nolde. With a technique that is even more influenced by van Gogh, the Last Supper in fact radiates with its blood reds, its violently constructed faces that recall Ensor and bursts through the canvas. The Pentecost ( ill . 8) with its yellow masks and purple flames which are reminiscent of Henri de Groux’s paintings could always shock a public unprepared for such violence. This painting was of course refused at the Berlin Secession in 1910. The core of this room and star attraction of the exhibition is naturally the large polyptic of the Life of Christ (ill 9), exceptionally lent by the Nolde Stiftung. This monumental work throws you ; not that the expressive force of an inspired artist is not found again, and certainly the obvious sincerity of spiritual sentiment. It is no doubt the co-existence between the “strong” manner of the artist and the traditional organisation of the work that makes one wonder. The polyptic form, which juxtaposes nine canvases each of which has an undeniable power, provokes an extraordinary feeling. It is known in addition, that the first works of this cycle to be painted were not executed with this aim ; the idea of an ensemble came to the painter while he was in progress. A rather gesticulatory type of explosion, which takes effect to the detriment of a global vision ; certain canvases are painted thickly while others prefer flatter areas. The canvases visibly have not been conceived from the point of view of form, nor in terms of colour, taking into account the differences, and if the “naïve” aspect of the polyptic adds to his “popular” nature, there again in quotation marks, one is still convinced of a flagrant discrepancy between the specificities of Nolde’s art and his ambition to be placed in the tradition of great religious painting and of its forms and iconographic programmes. Thus a canvas like the Entombment (ill. 10) of 1915 turns out to be much more convincing and poignant, in the intimacy of its format, than the monumentality of a cycle in which each section seems to struggle with the others.

11. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Spectators at the Cabaret, 1911
Oil on Canvas - 86 x 99 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Adaund Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

The following room forms a sort of pagan, or even moralist, pair to Nolde’s great religious production : during the winter of 1911, the painter and his wife assiduously frequented Berlin night life, a “decadent” spectacle of the demi-monde, the dregs of society, music halls and streetwalkers with their pale makeup. The painter, unused to the city life, threw himself into this world of the artifice, illuminated by electricity, an uncompromising light. The figures are decomposing, dragging the paint with them, as in the Spectators at the Cabaret (ill. 11), it’s impossible to tell who, the singer on the stage or the guests, appears the most artificial in this decrepit universe where representation becomes farce.

12. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Exotic Figures II, 1911
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 78 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

13. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Native Woman wearing a Necklace, 1914
Watercolour, India ink - 50 x 36 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

A room entitled Welt groups a number of works bearing witness to Nolde’s interest in non-European civilizations. It is known that the artist was a great traveller, after becoming interested in primitive arts, like many of the painters of his time. Works inspired by Nolde’s visits to the Berlin Ethnological Museum are presented in this room, as well as paintings and watercolours showing, among others, native inhabitants of German New Guinea (following the artist’s participation in the Külz-Leber expedition of 1913). If an oil like Exotic Figures II of 1911 (ill. 12) copies tribal objects in a very stylised and “modern art” manner in an arrangement that is essentially decorative (and there we touch on a stylistic exercise), the artist, once confronted with the reality of so-called primitive peoples, changed his manner entirely. The series of watercolours from New Guinea abandons the affectations of decorative modernity, and even the expressive power of an aggressive pictorial quality, to depict the humanity of indigenous peoples with a remarkable sobriety. These watercolour portraits do not seem to owe their relatively “calm” manner to documentary requirements as these productions were not really a commission. It is more the untouched simplicity and the intact way of life of these natives that seem to have provoked a sentiment of modesty and respect in Nolde (Native Woman wearing a Necklace, ill. 13), pushing the expressive requirements to the background : an additional testimony of the painter’s authenticity and the nobility of his personality.

14. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Twilight, 1916
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 100 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum

15. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Ripe Sunflowers, 1932
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 88 cm
Detroit, Institute of Arts

Nolde’s fondness for Germany and his homeland are well known. The painter however was always in a particular situation, his northern region of Schleswig-Holstein having been given to Denmark at the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, born German, Nolde acquired Danish nationality while remaining in his “homeland” and defending its identity against the Danish authorities, despite his wife having been born Danish. This region and its inhabitants continually inspired him : portraits of peasants and glorious landscapes, such as the Twilight of 1916 (ill. 14) recall this rooting in the land. Nolde was also attached to the motif of Sunflowers (ill. 15) planted in his garden and to scenes that are close to popular fantasy, such as the Child with a Large Bird (ill. 16).

16. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Child with a Big Bird, 1912
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 88 cm
Copenhagen, Statens Museum für Kunst

17. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Animal and Woman, 1931-1935
Watercolour - 45.2 x 60.6 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

The room devoted to these works tries to define the painter’s identity with his land, an ontological connection demonstrated by the artist’s adoption of the name of his village as his own. Under the title “Phantasien and Unpainted Images”, the following room shows watercolours covering a vast period, from 1908 to the 1940s. These intimate works show a free and dreamlike manner, as well as fantastical works that confirm the artist’s visionary personality. This technique was to be favoured by the artist, as one could say, by the painter being prohibited from painting, a fact of which he was informed in 1941 by the Nazi authorities. The artist’s rather ambiguous situation must be recalled. He became a member of the Nazi party in 1934, but was rejected as a “degenerate” artist at the time of the famous exhibition of 1937 (moreover, the Life of Christ was the star attraction of that exhibition). Despite his leaning towards this regime, and his late and opportunist membership of the party, the painter, who never benefited from any position or commission from Germany during this period, was quickly considered to be unacceptable by Hitler who considered his works to be “impossible” (in the rotunda of the staircase an educational section devoted to these sensitive questions hides nothing while not falling into the trap of bring too emotional). Relations that were ultimately rather close with Goebbels, which are nevertheless an undeniable stain in the history of Nolde, did not save him from condemnation by the Nazis The painting prohibition consequently pushed him to produce, in a clandestine manner, small format works, graphic or with watercolour, incandescent landscapes, dreamlike visions and strange figures (ill. 17) which constitute, seemingly a withdrawal into himself, during this troubled time.

18. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
The See III, 1913
Oil on canvas - 87 x 100 cm
Neukirchen, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde
Photo : Nolde Stiftung-Seebüll

As if to sweep away the miasmas of theses dark years, the exhibition closes with a non-chronological section devoted to the sea. During the 1910s, Nolde painted marine landscapes some of which evoke impressionism which would have become more powerful but also almost abstract canvases, violently coloured and thickly painted (ill.18) Returning “to this side” of these visions in which the liquid element is totally identified with the pictorial matter, in the 1930s and 1940s the artist turned towards poetics that are more figurative and its breaking wave, like an image of destiny, recalls the presence of a symbolic meaning that inhabits this work right the way through. Like Stravinsky, capable of eructating the very revolutionary in The Rite of Spring in 1913, before composing his neo-classical masterpieces, Nolde definitely did not restrain his genius on the basis of an aesthetic progression. Free, as the man who, according to Baudelaire, always “cherished the sea”, he entrusted the brush with the care of throwing light like a mirror of the soul in which a thousand and one facets of his creative powers are reflected. Presented on two levels, in vast strongly coloured rooms, the exhibition benefits from a sober scenography without artifice, thus allowing the oeuvre to be the star, a production, as we now understand, is worth a visit.

Sylvain Amic (ed.), Emil Nolde 1867-1956, Réunion des Musées nationaux, 2008, 340 p., 45 €. ISBN : 978-2-7118-5402-8.

Visitor Information : Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 3, avenue du Général-Eisenhower 75008 Paris. Phone : + 33 (0)1 44 13 17 17. Open daily except Tuesday from 10.00 to 20.00. Monday and Thursday through 22.00 (except 24 and 31 December). Rates : 10 and 8 €.

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, mardi 11 novembre 2008

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