In 1937, 1,052 of his works were removed from German museums by the Nazis, more than by any other artist. 29 choice canvases were selected for the infamous exhibition of Degenerate Art; and no doubt many others were destroyed. In 1941 he was expelled from the Reichskunstkammer, the German Artists’ Association, and forbidden not just to exhibit or sell his work, but even to paint. However he continued creating art in secret, stockpiling hundreds of little watercolours, his “Unpainted Pictures”, which sing with vibrant colour.
So he must be a hero, right?
If only it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that this persecuted artist was also a keen, fully paid-up member of the Nazi party. He only joined the party in 1934, after Hitler had been elected Chancellor, and it may have been that this was a pragmatic, opportunistic move. Or perhaps he was seduced by Nazi dreams of a renewal of pure German folk culture. Or maybe he was an out-and-out fascist, who had supported the Nazis since the early 1920s. I’ve seen all three arguments put forward.
His name was Emil Hansen, and he was born in a village on the German-Danish border. That village is now in fact in Denmark, and its name is famous because in 1902 Emil Hansen took it as his own, choosing to call himself Emil Nolde.
Emil Nolde, Untitled woodcut, 1927
Nolde was a prominent member of four ground-breaking artist’s groups—Die Brücke, the Berlin Secession, the New Secession, and Der Blaue Reiter. He seems, though, to have been essentially a loner—a difficult, introspective character, who suffered fits of self-doubt in which he did the Nazis’ work for them by impetuously cutting up and destroying much of his own work. He wrote wistfully in his autobiography, “There are some pictures I destroyed which I sometimes remember like lost moments of happiness.”
Emil Nolde must equally have regretted his support for Hitler, which earned him no favours from the Nazi regime, and has permanently tarnished his reputation. Many sources seek to defuse the fizzing firecracker of Nolde’s party membership by blanketing it in excuses, or simply overlooking it. Dietmar Elger’s excellent book Expressionism, for instance, says merely that, “When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Nolde fell victim to a misunderstanding.”
The urge to excuse is strong, because Nolde’s art is so powerful, so full of life force—in fact, so expressive. Perhaps we have simply to accept that, great artistic spirit as he was, Emil Nolde was in the end the architect of his own suffering, and the instigator of his own everlasting shame.