Summary of Emil Nolde
Like the movement with which he was associated, Die Brücke, Emil Nolde's art creates a bridge from Germany's distant visual past to its more radical future. From medieval times until the onset of Romanticism in the early 19th century, the northern tradition, particularly in Christian religious images, was distinguished by an emotional quality that later, under the influence of Protestantism, was tempered by didactic characteristics. Under the influence of Romantic artists, traditional sacred iconography eroded into secular images that have been interpreted as imbued with mystical, spiritual overtones. Nolde, who was raised in the Protestant faith and grounded in readings from the Bible, turned away from these romantic depictions and back to biblical texts for visual inspiration. This restoration of specific, Christian imagery, whether executed as a painting or print, in a new, colorful style was not only a hallmark of his oeuvre but an important contribution to Expressionism and the northern visual arts tradition
- Nolde reintroduced religious subject matter, which had been a typical mainstay of northern art for hundreds of years. His interpretation retained the German predilection for expressive images but they were not rendered in a realistic style. Although based on biblical incidents from both the Old and New Testaments, his compositions abstracted and exaggerated forms to delineate figures in a compressed space, bypassing the use of traditional linear perspective to relate the story.
- In addition to rethinking the use of these basic elements of art, Nolde seized upon color and used it in a bold, symbolic way that was new to the northern style of painting. He carried these ideas over into his watercolor paintings and injected them with a vitality that was previously not associated with the medium.
- Emil Nolde is often viewed as an isolated figure in modern art, which would seem to mitigate his influence. Perhaps this is because of his self-imposed distance from organized art groups and his support for and later condemnation by the Nazi party. Nevertheless, his work is invariably included in discussions of German Expressionism and northern painting.
- Nolde's well-honed skill as a wood-cutter allowed him to apply the principles of expressionism and abstraction marked particularly by strong contrast to the print medium as well, thus distinguishing him in another genre — printmaking - as well as painting.
Important Art by Emil Nolde
The Matterhorn Smiles
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.
Photomechanical print in color on coated cream b-wove card, with inscriptions in pen and blue ink (recto) and pen and brown ink (verso); with postal stamps (verso) - The Art Institute of Chicago
Joy In Life (Lebensfreude)
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.
Etching (ink on paper) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Last Supper
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.
Oil on canvas - Staten Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark)
Meer Bei Alsen (Sea Off Alsen)
From the spring of 1903 until 1916, Nolde spent the warmer weather in a remote cottage on the island of Alsen in the Baltic Sea. His isolated location allowed for few distractions and he increasingly used color to respond to the natural world around him. Seascapes characterized by constantly moving clouds and water were a favorite subject. They held an energy and expression that fascinated him, much like dance.
Meer Bei Alsen (Sea Off Alsen) is one of Nolde's earliest representations of the sea, showing waves crashing and clouds moving across the sky. His use of color moves away from that found in the natural world to the symbolic, where red, traditionally a hue associated with aggression and violence, suggests the force of an angry sea. Its unusual use in the foreground not only gives the sea movement but also a sense of foreboding in an otherwise serene composition consisting of complementary hues.
The broad brushstrokes, reminiscent of Van Gogh's Post-Impressionist style, convey the restless movements of the clouds while the complementary yellows and purples describe the ever-changing light and colors in a marine environment. While not an exact description of the natural world, the expressive use of color reflects it in this unique interpretation. Of his seascapes, art historian Max Sauerlandt writes that Nolde painted the sea, "eternally in motion, ever changing, living out its life in and for itself: a divine, self-consuming, primal force that, in its untrammelled freedom, has existed unchanged since the very first day of creation."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Dance Around the Golden Calf
Dance Around the Golden Calf reflects Nolde's strong religious background and echoes Fauvism in its bold use of color and subject matter. In its depiction of naked or near naked women it suggests a nascent interest in Primitivism and offers a rationale for his later travels in the South Pacific where native societies had previously inspired the work of Gauguin.
The story that inspired the image is taken from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. It was feared that Moses, who had left the Israelites for forty days to journey up Mt. Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments, might not return. The golden calf was crafted in his absence to fulfill the spiritual needs of these unsophisticated people. The exuberant figures in the foreground dance with wanton excess before the false idol. They may be seen as symbols of the paganism and decadence that the commandments would rectify. In his use of bright colors, slashing brush strokes and uninhibited, rhythmic movement, Nolde uses the vocabulary of Expressionism to condemn the dancers without being explicitly didactic.
Oil on canvas - Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich, Germany
Mask Still Life III
Mask Still Life III depicts five masks with various grotesque expressions. Although the painting is classified as a still life, it is anything but still. Masks, with their ability to convey a range of emotions, held a unique place in Europe, particularly in the north and were readily available for sale. James Ensor's Post-Impressionist piece, Portrait of the Artist Surrounded by Masks (1899), to which Nolde's painting is a clear response, shows Ensor surrounded by masks of a similar nature and may have been inspired by those hanging in his father's souvenir shop. Karl Ruhrberg writes that Ensor's piece is, "suffused by deep skepticism in the face of a materialistic world," and that this left him with, "his mistrust of the real world around him, and with an anxiety that causes him to see nothing but death and decay everywhere." Nolde's piece takes these motifs and pushes them farther - there is no human figure in his masks to ground the piece in the familiar or with whom viewers can identify.
Nolde's brushstrokes in this piece are as expressive as the masks; they have a wild, ominous urgency to them. The dark, greenish blue background provides a strong contrast to the rich yellow, red, and orange colors of the masks. With their frozen yet clearly conveyed emotion, masks as subject matter encapsulate the driving force behind German Expressionism.
Oil on canvas - The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
An example of Nolde's watercolor works, Tulips shows a brilliant bouquet of the flowers against an indeterminate background. In a medium that is notoriously difficult to control, Nolde skillfully establishes the individual blooms with their subtle color and form variations without losing their individuality to back runs and blooms caused by using too much water. The bright, colorful composition with its subject matter of abstracted flowers becomes a completed composition in the Expressionist style itself and not a study for a larger painting. It is also a reminder of Nolde's interest in Van Gogh, who did many flower paintings, and also Wassily Kandinsky, his fellow member of the Blaue Reiter, who also worked in watercolor.
In his use of more unusual, darker colors for the flowers, it suggests the ominous period that was about to unfold both historically and personally for Nolde's. His watercolor paintings came to be regarded as a symbol of resistance to the Nazi regime. Ordered to stop painting after being identified as a degenerate artist, his decision to continue to paint using watercolors so the smell of oil would not alert officials is seen as an act of civil disobedience. Nolde also holds the dubious distinction of being the artist whose work was most confiscated by the third Reich.
Watercolor on Japanese tissue paper - Private Collection
Biography of Emil Nolde
Childhood, Education and Early Period
Emil Nolde (née Hansen) was born in Nolde, Denmark in 1867 to Protestant peasant farmers. As a child he felt that he had little in common with his three brothers, who took well to farm life. His first exposure to the arts came through a four-year apprenticeship as a woodcarver and furniture designer starting in 1884. He spent his early years as a young adult working in furniture factories and traveling through Germany, visiting cities like Munich and Berlin.
Nolde's studies continued at the Karlsruhe School of Applied Arts from 1889 to 1890. He took a position at St. Gallen in Switzerland, teaching industrial design and ornamental drawing from 1892 to 1897. It was during this time that he created his first commercially successful body of work, postcards depicting the Swiss Alps as grotesque characters. They sold widely and offered Nolde financial support for several years, spurring him to leave his teaching post to pursue additional schooling in 1898 with painter Friedrich Fehr, and subsequently under painter Adolf Hölzel at the Neu Dachau School in Munich. The following year, he traveled to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. He continued to travel until 1901, when he met Ada Vilstrup; they married in 1902, and he changed his name to Nolde, after his hometown.
Nolde's fine art only flourished in the early 1900s, after his association with several avant-garde groups. The first of these was the Die Brücke group in Dresden, founded by four former architecture students in 1905. Nolde joined the group in 1906, and soon began to teach the group how to make etchings with his experimental approach to the medium; his intention was to highlight its specific characteristics rather than create a print with the likeness in tonality and lines of a drawing that could be precisely reproduced. This focus is aptly demonstrated in the prints he produced during this time. He, in turn, was encouraged to use his skills to make woodcuts, an art form that in the past was particularly associated with the art of Germany.
Although Nolde left the Die Brücke group in 1907 after just one year, its influence permeates his work during the next several years. After recovering from a serious illness caused by drinking poisoned water in 1909, there was a noticeable shift in subject matter towards religious iconography. Additionally, dance was a revered form of raw expression to Die Brücke artists. Art historian Starr Figura writes that for Nolde, this manifested in paintings of "unbridled dancers in primeval settings [that] were inspired by the wild movements…as well as his related fascination with exotic cultures."
After leaving the Die Brücke artists, Nolde became a member of the Berlin Secession, a group started by artists who rejected the traditional aesthetics of the state-run Association of Berlin Artists in favor of Post-Impressionism. He worked with them from 1908 through 1910, until he and other Expressionists were excluded from exhibiting with the Secession. He bitterly fought with Berlin Secession leader, Max Liebermann. Subsequently, he joined Wassily Kandinsky's and Franz Marc's Der Blaue Reiter group in 1911. For reasons that are obscure, Nolde was invited to join a German expedition to the South Pacific in 1913 to study racial characteristics in German New Guinea. This trip solidified his interest in the work of Paul Gauguin and Primitivism, a style he continued to incorporate in his own painting from this time into the 1930s.
Nolde moved to Seebüll, near the Danish border in Northern Germany in 1927. He designed a house (surrounded by self-made ceramics and textiles, and garden) that he and his wife would live in for the remainder of his life. It now houses the Nolde Museum, endowed by the artist and committed to exhibition, research, and scholarship of Nolde's life and works.
Given Nolde's early interest in working with themes that were traditionally Teutonic, his mid-career altercation with Max Liebermann, and his studying of racial characteristics, it is not surprising that the artist expressed sympathies towards the Nazi party as early as the 1920s. There is research that points to his active involvement with the Nazis as he was a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party. He also argued that Expressionism was a purely Germanic form of self-expression, to the agreement of some others in the Nazi party. However, the Nazi policy towards art was firm; almost all modern art was considered degenerate. Nolde's art was a prime example and was included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937. Yet according to recent research by historian Bernhard Fulda and the Nolde museum, the artist "in cooperation with exhibition organizers, publishers, journalists, art historians and art dealers, Nolde largely succeeded in keeping his Nazi past out of the public view, and separating it completely from his artistic work." Evidence points to him being sympathetic to the party all the way until the end of WWII.
Despite his ties, he was served with an order by the Nazis that prohibited him from continuing to buy canvas and paint in 1941. He refused to comply and continued to paint using watercolor, a subtler, more portable medium that was often used for studies instead of oil paint whose scent could be easily detected by neighbors or soldiers. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh, Nolde's watercolors would be predominantly of flowers and landscapes, which would comprise the majority of his late work until his death in 1956.
The Legacy of Emil Nolde
Nolde's short affiliation with Die Brücke and tempestuous relationship with the Berlin Secession along with his long periods of isolation and travel tend to define him as a somewhat isolated figure in the art world of his time. Nevertheless, his influence was felt there for much of his long career. His commitment to printmaking revitalized a dwindling medium. Some of those who benefitted from his teaching of the medium include Otto Mueller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Eckstein. The re-popularization of printmaking not only as an art form, but as a way of proliferating images and ideas (as practiced by the Die Brücke artists with their catalogues and members-only pamphlets), draws a clear line towards the use of prints and art as propaganda in World War II.
Despite being a member of the Nazi party, Nolde is ironically known as the artist most confiscated by them, with over 1000 works taken from across Germany. His flower paintings, now known collectively as his Unpainted Pictures, are seen as a symbol of resistance against the party and its policies towards modernism.
The Nolde Museum, located in his Seebüll home and studio, continue to exhibit his works and those of his friends and contemporaneous Expressionists.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Emil Nolde
- Emil Nolde: RetrospectiveOur PickBy Felix Kramer, Max Hollein, Christian Ring, and Aya Soika
- Emil Nolde: Artist of the ElementsBy Averil King
- German Expressionism: The Graphic ImpulseOur PickBy Starr Figura, Peter Jelavich, Heather Hess, Iris Schmeisser
- Lives of the Great 20th Century ArtistsBy Edward Lucie Smith