Emil Nolde: In search of the lost Primitivism

Emil Nolde was born Emil Hansen. His attachment to the land of the northern German countryside, and especially to the sea, was given philosophical meaning and a kind of portentousness through the filter of the völkisch ideas he gleaned from writers such as Julius Langbehn. Nolde often spoke of the struggle for what he called “das Heimische” (roughly translated, the “native regional”) in art. However, he also knew and loved his northern region from first-hand experience. His paintings of the sea and landscapes of Schleswig-Holstein therefore emerged from close familiarity as well as the vividness of Nolde’s imagination. An early work, Freigeist (Free Spirit) in luminous colours, shows, however, four figures in an indefinite location, suggestive of universal symbolic meaning.

Free Spirit, 1906. Oil on canvas, 69 x 89cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll , Germany

Some of Nolde’s most spectacular paintings are seascapes. The sea, especially at times and seasons on the cusp of change – sunset, sunrise, autumn – was an enduring, yet endlessly changing subject. It has been argued that only Turner before him had ever painted such dramatic and sensitive evocations of the sea. Nolde created a series of thirteen autumn seascapes in 1910 alone – the series continued the following year. In Herbstmeer VII (Autumn Sea VII), the sea and the sky are almost indistinguishable.

Autumn Sea VII, 1910. Oil on canvas, 73 x 89 cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll , Germany

In 1911 and 1912, in Alsen, Nolde worked on a new series of scenes from the life of Christ. They were finally assembled into the monumental polyptych, Das Leben Christi (The Life of Christ.) It consists of a large central Crucifixion, with a haggard, yellow Christ, and eight smaller panels, flanking it on either side in the manner of an altarpiece.

Crucifixion, 1912. Oil on canvas, 220.5 x 193.5 cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll , Germany

In 1913, Nolde was offered the chance to join an official expedition organized by the German colonial office to New Guinea. In spite of the fact that they had to finance their own trip, he and his wife did not hesitate to go. This is not surprising given Nolde’s intense interest in the art and culture of so-called “Urvölker” (“primitive peoples”). They left Germany in the autumn of 1913 and were away for nearly a year. The expedition travelled across Siberia, Korea, Japan, China and the Palau Islands, stopping at numerous other islands and German colonies on the way. In the course of the trip, Nolde made several hundred colour drawings, he painted large watercolours on Chinese rice paper and he was even able to produce nineteen oil paintings. One of these was Papuajünglinge (Young Men from Papua). Nolde felt a particular affinity with the peasants and natives of the South Sea Islands, believing that they too had a special bond with their own land.

In spite of his völkisch-nationalist political sympathies, Nolde was forbidden to paint by the Nazis. His work was declared “degenerate”. A massive total of 1,057 works by Nolde were confiscated from German museums – more than by any other artist. Thirty-one paintings and many graphics and watercolours were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937.

A centrepiece of the exhibition’s first room, which the Nazi organizers devoted to Expressionist religious imagery, supposedly the product of “psychopathic graffitists” sold by “Jewish businessmen”, was Nolde’s Life of Christ. Many of his works were burned in 1939. Others were sold abroad. In spite of this, the seventy year-old Nolde refused to leave his home in Seebüll. Made in secret with leftovers, recycled and smuggled materials, facing the threat of discovery by the Gestapo’s investigations, the small watercolours Nolde managed to produce during this time he called his “ungemalte Bilder” (“unpainted pictures”). Der große Gärtner (The Great Gardener) is an example.

The Great Gardener, 1940. Oil on canvas, 71 x 56.5 cm. Sprengel Museum ,Germany

It is an image of a benevolent green-fingered God, tending life in the garden of his creation. Nolde died in Seebüll in 1956. His will left instructions for the foundation of the Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde, where many of his most important works are kept today.

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