19 September 2009

Emil Nolde: a troubling Expressionist

George Grosz, Emil Nol­de, Otto Dix, Max Beck­mann, Käthe Kollwitz, Egon Schiele, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Max Ernst etc were German ex­press­ionists, and these avant-garde artists were indeed branded as a threat to the German nation. Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were not German, but were equally reviled by the Nazi decision-makers. Sanct­ions against Degenerate Artists included being dismissed from teaching positions, being forbidden to exhibit or to sell their art, or being forbidden to produce art entirely. George Grosz's German citizenship was taken away while he was abroad; the Bauh­aus school was closed down; Käthe Kollwitz was expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts.

The Goldsmiths, 1919

Most at-risk artists worth their moral salt left Germany as soon as they could, at least for the duration of the war. Those who remained in Germany were forbidden to work at universities and were subject to Gestapo raids, to ensure that they were not producing artwork. Yet Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was one of the only artists who remained in Germany during the war volunt­ar­ily.

There are two ironies here. Firstly, as Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments blog wrote in Restitution: Settlement on Emil Nolde Work in Swedish Museum, Nolde in his lifetime was known for his anti-Semitic views. He disliked leading Jewish luminaries in Berlin and European art world, especially Max Lieberman, President of the Berlin Academy of Art, and Paul Cassirer, leading modern art dealer. A 7-year legal battle has finally been settled in Sweden where the Moderna Museet has agreed to return to a Nolde painting to the family of Otto Nathan Deutsch, a Jew who fled Germany just before World War Two broke out in 1939. Or to compensate the family for the loss.

Masks II, 1920

But more than that. Nolde was a supporter of the Nazi party from well before the 1930s, having been a member of its Danish section. He was born and raised in Schleswig-Holstein that was then on the Danish border. Nolde saw no conflict between his art and Nazism, since he believed Expres­s­­ion­ism was an intrinsicly German style of art.

When Nolde's work was officially condemned by the Nazi regime as deg­en­er­ate, his paintings were of course removed from public museums. Some were even included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, presumably because of his strong colours, primitivism and grotesque visions. Or because he helped found the New Secession in Berlin. Nolde was beside himself and wrote protest letter after protest letter, appealing the injustice of his fate. He did not want to be hung alongside the artists whose work repelled him. However nothing saved him – his endless protests fell on deaf Nazi ears.

After the war, bellebyrd blog noted, The Brücke group was quickly rehabilitated, and there was an attempt to stylise Emil Nolde as a resistance figure. Noted West German art historian Werner Haftmann (not Austrian art historian Werner Hofmann) celebrated Nolde, the artist of inner emigration, as an existential antifascist. Even more than those who were racially persecuted, Haftmann said, Nolde refused political strictures and intensified his own work. It must have worked because after the war, in 1952, Nolde was awarded the German Order of Merit.

Lost Paradis, 1921

Yet another art historical problem remains. I agree with the blog author who wrote that Emil NOLDE added a special, mystical dimension to German Expressionism. His career illustrated a number of the moral dilemmas which faced German modernists of the new century, since his instincts were nat­ionalist and conservative. In Germany, these were usually anti-Semitic values. So examine the blog HEIRS which makes a provocative ob­servation in NOLDE IN THE NEWS: Emil Nolde’s avant-garde modern work was coveted by many Jewish art coll­ectors during the 1920s and 30s in Europe, including the connoisseur collector Dr Fred Julius of Hamburg. With hindsight, one wonders why that was so.

Visit New York’s Neue Galerie, 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, which opened for business in 2001. One storey concentrates on early C20th Vienna: painters (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka etc), architects (Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner) and the decorative artists (Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Dagobert Peche etc).  And one storey for German art of the same time (August Macke, Franz Marc, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde); the Bauhaus (Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Vasily Kandinsky); the expressionists (Otto Dix, George Grosz); as well as applied artists (Peter Behrens, Marianne Brandt, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Wilhelm Wagenfeld etc). Art Blog by Bob discussed the Neue Galerie in relation to Otto Dix, but it is equally applicable to Emil Nolde. And to Ernst Kirchner, as displayed by Intelliblog.

Some good reading can be found at Lang, G and Lang, K "Banishing the past: The German avant-garde and Nazi Art" in Qualitative Sociology, 19, 3, 1996.

A new book called Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements has been written by Averil King and published by Philip Wilson Publishers in 2013. It is much more sympathetic to Nolde than I was, suggesting he was superb colourist who created beautiful paintings and was far more interesting than his contemporary Edvard Munch.

King said that Nolde had been on good terms with the (Jewish) president of the Berlin Secession Max Liebermann and with the (Jewish) gallery owner/art publisher Paul Cassirer who warmly promoted Nolde's art.  But when these two Jews refused to show Nolde's Pentacost in 1910, Nolde write a bitter letter to the Kunst and Kunstler journal, criticising the Secession for attacking modern German artists. Furthermore, when Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1934, he had no inkling of how Hitler's policies would unfold.


Gromak said...

In your opening paragraph, you cite as one of the artists Hannes Beckmann. Did you mean Max Beckmann?

Hels said...

Thanks Gromak. I am glad someone reads the material carefully :)

I meant to include Max Beckmann (1884 – 1950) who was the more important artist in this discussion.

Hannes Beckmann (1909 - 1976), a younger artist, was important to me largely because he was at The Bauhaus.

Hels said...

Art Blog By Bob wrote:

Among a few more modern yet traditional German artists, painter Hans Thoma, perhaps the most popular painter among the German people at the turn of the 20th century, suited Hitler’s taste.

Hans Thoma: “The German People’s Favorite Painter" runs until September 29th 2013 at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.


Hels said...

I have added a reference to the book Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements, written by Averil King and published in 2013.