Emil Nolde: The primacy of colour

Emil Nolde is a curious and paradoxical artist: a supporter of the Nazis, who in turn proscribed his pictures as “degenerate art”

Michael Prodger

Emil Nolde (1867-1956) is a curious and paradoxical figure in the story of early 20th-century art. He was a Danish-German painter and printmaker who joined several important groups, including the Berlin Secession and Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter, yet never fully committed to them; from the early 1930s a supporter of the Nazis, who in turn proscribed his pictures as “degenerate art”, yet he nevertheless continued to support them; he painted nature at its most joyous, the dancing human figure at its most abandoned, and Christian themes at their most personal and mystical. Despite his Protestantism and his National Socialism Nolde still believed that “Art is exalted above religion and race. Not a single solitary soul these days believes in the religions of the Assyrians, the Egyptians and the Greeks. Only their art, whenever it was beautiful, stands proud and exalted, rising above all time.”

There was a certain logic to his contradictions. Nolde was a patriot who thought that Expressionism — based on colour that could be emotional and symbolic and handling that was vigorous and textured — was an authentically German style through which the religious flavour of northern Renaissance painters such as Matthias Grünewald and Dürer could be recaptured. His own faith meanwhile was sensory to the point of erotic: he recalled as a boy lying in a cornfield “my back flat on the ground, my eyes closed, my arms outstretched, and then I thought: this is just how my Saviour, Jesus Christ, lay after men and women had taken him down from the cross, and then I turned over, with a vague belief that the whole, wide, round, wonderful Earth was my beloved”.

“Self-portrait”, 1917, by Emil Nolde (© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll)

“Skater”, one of Nolde’s “unpainted pictures” made while he was forbidden to work by the Nazis ( © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.)

A major exhibition, just opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, highlights the different elements of his career, among them the pictures inspired by a trip to the South Seas, his chromatically intense garden and flower paintings, and some of his “unpainted paintings” — the watercolours he made despite being forbidden to work by the Nazis. What runs through them all is Nolde’s belief in the primacy of colour: “Colours, the painter’s basic materials: colours that have a life of their own, crying and laughing, dream and joy, hot and holy, like love songs and sex, like hymns and chorales!”

Although deeply invested in this idea, he understood that not everyone had the capacity to experience colour in this way; too many of his fellows were hamstrung by reason. But this extra sense, he believed, is what makes artists different and why he was content to be an outsider.

 “Women in the Garden”, 1915, by Emil Nolde (© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll)

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