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Emil Nolde

See also: Expressionism


Emil Nolde added a special, mystical dimension to German Expressionism, and his career illustrates a number of the moral dilemmas which faced German Modernists of the first generation, since his instincts were nationalist and conservative even though his art was regarded as experimental.

His real name was not Nolde but Hansen; his parents were Frisian peasants. He was born in 1867 and grew up on the farm which had belonged to his mother's family for nine generations. Even as a boy Nolde was different from his three brothers: he drew, modelled and painted, and covered boards and barn doors with drawings in chalk. Some aspects of the family background, however, affected him deeply. The family were Protestants, steeped in religion, and in his youth Nolde read the Bible a great deal - its images were to return to him later in life.

It was clear that Nolde was unsuited for farm work, and in 1884 he took a job as an apprentice carver in a furniture factory in Flensburg. Here he stayed for four years, drawing and painting in his spare time. In 1888 he went to Munich, to see an exhibition of industrial arts, and managed to stay on by finding a job in a furniture factory. After only a few weeks he moved to Karlsruhe, where he found a similar job and attended classes in a school of industrial arts in the evenings. Eventually he gave up his job and enrolled in day classes at the same school, drawing from plaster casts and studying perspective and anatomy. He was unable to stay more than two semesters, as his savings ran out. In the autumn of 1889 he moved to Berlin, where he took a job as a furniture designer and spent his leisure time studying Old Master paintings in the magnificent Berlin museums; he also had his first encounters with Ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art in the archaeological collections there. In 1890 he fell ill, and spent the summer on his parents' farm.

The autumn of 1891 marked a change of direction, when Nolde saw an advertisement for a teaching post at the Museum of Industrial Arts at St Gallen in Switzerland. He applied for the job and was accepted, moving to St Gallen in January 1892. His duties were to teach industrial and ornamental drawing. The job was demanding, and he could paint only in the vacations; nevertheless, the fact that Switzerland was at the crossroads of Europe enabled him to travel. He went to Milan and saw Leonardo's Last Supper, some aspects of which were to haunt him for long afterwards, and to Vienna, where he saw Durer's prints in the Albertina. Though he was a reluctant reader, his intellectual horizons were expanding. He discovered the Symbolists and Nietzsche, and he was deeply impressed by a performance of Ibsen's The Wild Duck. Like many half-educated men, he started to feel that he was alone, misunderstood and persecuted - he was to suffer from these feelings for the rest of his life, latterly with some reason.

In 1893 Nolde embarked on an artistic enterprise which he at first treated only half seriously. He made a series of humorous postcards in which he represented the most famous of the Swiss mountains in semi-human form as a race of giants. The periodical Jugend reproduced two of these in 1896, and the proprietor of the magazine was sufficiently impressed to invite the artist to his home in Munich. Thus encouraged, Nolde borrowed enough money to issue a large edition of the postcards. They appealed to popular taste, and 100,000 copies were sold within ten days. Nolde made 25,000 gold francs, and, freed from financial worries for the time being, gave up his job and went to live in Munich. He wanted to study at the Munich Academy under the most celebrated painter in the city, Frans von Stuck, but was not accepted, and instead attended two private academies. In the autumn of 1899 he moved to Paris for nine months where he worked on and off at the Acad6mie Julian, but spent most of his time in the museums and studying the special exhibitions put on for the Paris World's Fair of 1900. He was already an admirer of Daumier's lithographs and was now impressed by Manet, but not by the other, younger Impressionists. Nolde returned to northern Germany in 1900, and embarked on a tormented search to discover his own artistic personality:

I had an infinite number of visions at this time, for wherever I turned my eyes nature, the sky, the clouds were alive, in each stone and in the branches of each tree, everywhere, my figures stirred and lived their still or wildly animated life, and they aroused my enthusiasm as well as tormented me with demands that I paint them.
Despite these feelings, Nolde painted very few visionary pictures during this period - they were to come later - but instead painted mainly landscapes and portraits. In 1900 he moved to Copenhagen, where he met and married Ada Vilstrup. They soon began to be dogged by financial problems, and in addition Ada was repeatedly ill. In the spring of 1903 the couple moved to the remote island of Alsen. In 1904 they went to Berlin, where Ada made an ill-fated attempt to make some money by singing in nightclubs. This led to a serious breakdown, so Nolde took her to Taormina in Italy to convalesce, moving afterwards to Ischia. The Italian scene, for all its beauty, did not move him as his native Germany did, and in 1905 they returned. Ada was in and out of one sanatorium after another; Nolde based himself in his lonely fisherman's cottage in Alsen. His visionary feelings were stronger than ever, the calls of animals at night had the power of suggesting colours: 'The cries appeared as shrill yellows, the hooting of owls in deep violet tones.'

He was rescued from his isolation by the young artists of Die Brücke, who recognized in him a kindred spirit. Schmidt-Rottluff saw some paintings Nolde was exhibiting in Dresden, and wrote inviting him to become a member of their group. He followed up his letter with a visit to Alsen, and in 1907 Nolde moved to Dresden, putting Ada into yet another sanatorium there. His official membership of Die Brücke did not last long - Nolde was essentially not gregarious and soon withdrew, though he maintained friendly relations with individual members. His young colleagues had an important influence on his work: in particular, he followed their example in making woodcut prints, and in addition they encouraged him to return to lithography, which he had tried in Munich.

Nolde's art became much freer: he began to see that 'dexterity is also an enemy' and he allowed himself to create fantastic paintings 'without any prototype or model, without any well defined idea ... a vague idea of glow and colour was enough. The paintings took shape as I worked.' The fantasies and the Biblical paintings he created at this time are generally considered his greatest works.

He was becoming a well known and controversial figure in the German art world of the time. In December 1910 he wrote a violently critical letter, with nationalist and racist overtones, to Max Liebermann, the greatly respected President of the Berlin Sezession, who happened to be a Jew. As a result he was expelled from the Sezession. When Max Pechstein and other Expressionists formed the Neue Sezession in the following year, Nolde duly joined, and helped to give the new organization much of its aggressive character. He was invited to take part in the second Blaue Reiter show in Munich, and also in the 1912 Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, which brought together all the avant garde painters in Germany. In the same year the museum in Halle acquired his painting of The Last Supper despite the violent opposition of Dr Wilhelm von Bode, the great savant who had been largely responsible for building up the magnificent collection of Old Masters in Berlin.

In 1913, for reasons which remain somewhat mysterious, Nolde was offered a unique opportunity to expand his horizons. The German Colonial Office invited him to take part in an expedition to the German territories in the South Pacific. Its main purpose was medical - to study health conditions among the natives - but Nolde, who had no professional qualifications for the task, was asked to research the racial characteristics of the population. He and Ada travelled via Moscow, Mukden, Seoul, Tokyo, Peking, Nanking, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and the Palau Islands to Rabaul, in German New Guinea. In 1914 he made trips to Neu Mecklenburg (now New Ireland) and the Admiralty Islands, before setting off again for home, travelling via the Celebes, Java and Aden. When Nolde and his wife arrived at Port Said they found that the First World War had broken out, and were only able to make their way home by obtaining Danish passports. On this journey Nolde noted the damage done by Europeans, even in China, which possessed such an ancient civilization of its own. 'We live in an evil era,' he said, 'in which the white man brings the whole earth into servitude.'

On his return he resumed what had now become a customary pattern, which was to spend the spring, summer and autumn in the countryside, and the winter in Berlin, where he drew rather than painted. He gave up his house on Alsen in 1916, and returned to his native Schleswig, living first at Utenwarf, which became Danish after the war. In the immediate post war years he travelled quite widely, going to England, France and Spain in 1921, and to Italy in 1924. In 1927 he settled on the German side of the frontier, building a house to his own design on the site of a disused wharf which he named 'Seebull'. His reputation now stood very high in Germany. In 1927 his sixtieth birthday was celebrated with an official exhibition in Dresden; in 1931 he became a member of the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1933 he was offered the presidency of the State Academy of Arts in Berlin.

The Nazi takeover did not effect Nolde immediately, but he had other troubles to think about. In 1934 it was discovered that he was suffering from stomach cancer. He had a successful operation in Hamburg in 1935 which was followed by a long convalescence in Switzerland, during which he met Paul Klee, who was also in poor health. The two men genuinely admired one another. Nolde once described Klee as 'a falcon soaring in the starry cosmos', and Klee reciprocated by calling him 'the mysterious hand of the lower region'.

Despite ominous signs to the contrary, Nolde had assumed that he would be immune from the Nazi campaign against Expressionism and other forms of modern art. In a certain sense the Nazi philosophy resembled his own, which continued to owe a debt to Nietzsche. He was stripped of his illusions by the events of 1937, when his work was included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich (his protests to the authorities went unheeded); when more than a thousand of his works were removed from German museums; and when the official celebrations for his seventieth birthday were cancelled. Worse was to follow. In 1941, the Reichskammer der Bildenden Kunste demanded that he send in his entire production for the past two years. Fifty four of the works he sent were confiscated, and he was forbidden to practise his vocation as an artist. Later Nolde went to Vienna to appeal personally to the Nazi gauleiter Baldur von Schirach - in vain.

He had already given up his apartment in Berlin, and had begun to produce what he called his 'unpainted pictures' - hundreds of small watercolours which he hid in a secret cache in his isolated house. He was very much alone. His wife became ill again in 1942 and was taken to hospital in Hamburg. The opportunity to leave Germany was long past - at one stage Nolde could have done so easily, by crossing the nearby Danish frontier, but apparently he never entertained the idea.

He survived the war, as did his invalid wife, who died in November 1946. As the grand old man of German art, Nolde now enjoyed a new lease of life. In 1947 there were exhibitions in Kiel and Lubeck to celebrate his eightieth birthday. In 1948 he married a twenty eight year old woman, the daughter of a friend. In 1952 he was awarded the German Order of Merit, his country's highest civilian decoration. He continued to work with tremendous energy, producing oils based on the watercolours he had created during the years of persecution. His last oil painting was done in 1951, and he was able to make watercolours late in 1955. Nolde died in April 1956, aged eighty eight.

From Edward Lucie-Smith, "Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists"

Further reading on Emil Nolde:

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  Emil Nolde Images
1909 Wildly Dancing Children
1910 Autumn Sea VII
1910 Dance Around the Golden Calf
1911 Mask Still Life III
1912 Candle Dancers
1912 Child and Large Bird
1912 Crucifixion
1912 Legend: Saint Mary of Egypt - Death in the Desert
1913 Excited People
1917 Women and a Pierrot

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