While working on my novel When the Colors Sing, about The Blue Rider (Der blaue Reiter) movement, especially Kandinsky, Münter and Marc, I came across the work of Emil Nolde and his struggles with the development of his art. Readers of this blog will know I recently visited his house – now a museum – in Seebüll, North Frisia, to get a better feeling of his surroundings and the areas where he liked to work.
Having dipped a bit deeper in Nolde’s bio, I came back with more questions than I went with; which is something I appreciate. For instance, I kept thinking, how did Emil Nolde hold the tension between his art and his craft; between his personal, conservative philosophy and his experimental and liberating work; between his roots in the farming community and artistically, in a German tradition of painting, and freedom of expression in his own artistic explorations of landscape, nature and humans. In other words, how did Nolde carry his own, individual cross to produce such work of great depth, intensity, and appeal?
Interesting questions? There is no easy answer to them, of course. And no answer will be attempted here. Just a few facts I gathered about Nolde, and a few links that might spark some new lines of enquiry.
Coming from a family of farmers, Nolde, acting on his father’s wishes, trained and worked as a woodcarver and furniture designer. He also took drawing classes, and taught drawing in a variety of venues.
He came to painting later. Having been rejected by the Munich Art Academy, like Kandinsky, Nolde took private painting lessons and visited Paris and other European art centers. His rejection seems to have driven him to cast his net wider and to look at and absorb other styles and ideas. The Parisian Impressionism, the angular and extreme approach of the artists of Die Brücke, the work of the group The Berlin Secession, the spiritual expressionism of Der Blaue Reiter influenced the development of his work. Bright pigments, free brushstrokes, search for the essence/soul of the subject, mystical and symbolic preoccupations became his ongoing concerns and he found his own way of depicting them on canvas and paper.
While he exhibited with all these groups in the earlier part of the twentieth century, Nolde was an individualist at heart, happiest while painting, not in society or groups of artists. He cut links with all groups after a while.
Nolde became one of the most known and respected painters up to the 1930s even in the climate of racial hatred and divisive currents that were deepening within German society at that time. In part, this success may have to do with similarities between Nolde’s ideas and those of nationalist groups and even Nazi philosophy, as some have argued.
Nevertheless, his popularity and individualistic expressionist ideography did not sit well with some members of the National Socialist Party at least, and with Hitler in particular – another “painter” rejected by the Munich Art Academy – who saw Expressionism as “corrupting” and “degenerate art.” Nolde’s work was confiscated and exhibited with other expressionist paintings in the infamous Munich exhibition “Degenerate Art” – an exhibition meant to humiliate the artists and their work.
Nolde painted his Unpainted Pictures during this period, especially from 1941 onwards when he was officially prohibited to paint. While he meant to render these small-scale watercolors in oil one day, most of them remained unpainted. I wonder what this means. What it is these pictures represent. Might one say that they help, like free associations, lead to the not so obvious, not so known Nolde?
The novel Deutschstunde, The German Lesson, by Siegfried Lenz, published in 1968, was inspired by Nolde and the time of his being prohibited to paint. While the name of the painter, as well as of those in his immediate circle, has been changed (to Nansen, a paraphrase of Nolde’s family name: Hansen), there is an unmistakable line of character and biographical detail running through the novel. As a novel, it is original, well-thought out, extremely well-written and atmospheric. Even the landscape speaks!
Lenz, in this novel, contributes a major idea about Nolde and his work. By pitting him against someone (a policeman) deadened by his unthinking and unwavering dedication to duty and discipline (namely, to enforce the painting ban that Nansen/Nolde had been subjected to), Lenz shows Nolde’s individualism, dedication to his art, as well as conscience, and sense of moral responsibility.
Might this juxtaposition in Lenz’s novel serve as a clue to thinking about Nolde’s balancing of opposing elements? A clue to his ability to survive adversity and continue his artistic development without selling-out his soul? Certainly worth thinking about.
6 September 2010