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Important Art by Emil Nolde
One of Nolde's most commercially successful postcards, The Matterhorn Smiles anthropomorphizes that iconic Alpine mountain giving it human facial features. This photomechanical reproduction from an original lithograph, demonstrates that Nolde was already exploring ways to use the medium in less realistic and representational ways.
As Nolde discovered upon his arrival in Paris, this kind of image was related to the art of the Symbolists. Typically identified by emerging "eerie, phantasmagorical creatures," according to art historian Karl Ruhrberg, Nolde's postcards openly demonstrate an engagement with the same idea, turning mountains into grotesque, human-like figures (much like Odilon Redon did earlier).
The other, more abstract strain of Symbolism, represented by Paul Gauguin, combined color and Christian iconography in a new, expressive way that Nolde later made his own. Gauguin and his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, who might be considered the forerunners of Expressionism, were both important influences upon Nolde. Like them, he does not use color to precisely render a photorealistic image, but rather to create a wistful look at an imagined scene. In his Matterhorn image, he uses an impressionistic approach to render the mountain but presents it as a face imbued with human emotion. By freeing the mountain from its grounding in nature, Nolde has established the basic premise for Expressionism as he later practiced it.
Although Nolde was living in Berlin at the time this print was created, it is reminiscent of Matisse's fauve painting of the same year in both title and spirit. He produced Joy In Life shortly before joining the Die Brücke group after having been in conversation with its members during this period. Their influence can be seen most notably in the subject matter. The etching represents two exuberant figures, a man and woman, in the foreground dancing. The background recalls Nolde's earlier Symbolist influences in the row of mountains with human faces.
Dance was an art form that heavily interested Die Brücke artists. In many ways, it embodied important ideas about self-expression for the group. Its ability to be spontaneous, abstract and expressive without necessary concern for formalized technique fit with what the group was hoping to accomplish with their artworks. The accessibility of dance was also important; almost everyone can dance and use it as a form of self-expression, and the group was interested in finding new ways to relate to the masses.
As an etching, Joy In Life exemplifies how Nolde engaged with the medium in a new and dynamic way. Although he saw Dürer's masterful prints during his travels the previous decade, by this point, he was no longer interested in making prints from his etchings as exact reproductions. Influenced by the lithographs and prints of Honoré Daumier and Édouard Manet that he saw in Paris, he treated each print as a unique work. He experimented with technical aspects of the medium such as the amount of ink and paper types and pushed the medium to act beyond its original intention of easily duplicating an image with drawing-like precision. In doing so, and through teaching other artists his ideas and techniques, the nearly obsolete medium of printmaking, for which German art was known, saw a resurgence, and grew to become one of the most popular ways of proliferating art in early-20th-century Germany.
Religious subject matter appeared in Nolde's oeuvre shortly after recovering from a bout with food poisoning that nearly killed him. These works are widely considered to be his most powerful. The gaunt appearance of Christ in the piece has led some to speculate that Nolde identified with Him, having just recovered from a near death experience. The choice of subject matter may be attributed to Nolde's early travels that included a trip to Milan where he viewed Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Its influence remained with him for years afterward. However, this painting is starkly different from traditional representations of the religious scene. There is no depth or spatial context to the space, no sprawling table, just 13 men mostly surrounding the central figure. The light source seems to come from Christ himself at the center of the canvas. Painted in bright yellows, reds, oranges, and white, Christ is almost crowded by darker figures, looking on as he holds a chalice in his hands. Nolde's concern with this piece was not to illustrate a scene from the New Testament, but rather to capture the emotion and experience of the event. The colors, composition, and loose brushstrokes, all hallmarks of the style of Die Brücke, work together to express how Nolde imagined that moment to be.
Painted just after leaving Die Brücke, The Last Supper met with great success. In 1912, it was acquired by the museum in Halle. It was not, however, without strong objection. Dr. William von Boden, a leading authority of the time, who had himself curated a collection of old master paintings in Berlin, strongly objected to its acquisition because of its non-traditional presentation.