Thursday, March 25, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Emil?

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.


Jane Librizzi said...

The only thing that solves the problem is time. How much time? In 1972, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who had studied and worked in France as a young man, was asked by a reporter what were the long-term effects of the French Revolution. His answer: "Too soon to tell."

Neil said...

That's a wonderful quote, Jane, and useful in so many circumstances! I suppose the real question here is how much an artist's personality, opinions, or actions affect the meaning of their work, or influence our reaction to it. I find it disconcerting that an artist I admire should have allied himself with the Nazis, though reassuring to note that they quickly spat him out like a piece of unwanted gristle.

Jane Librizzi said...

Neil,you are right that we struggle with moral considerations connected to objects. But, in time, the artifacts win out. That's the Olympian view, one that Zhou's experiences in the Cultural Revolution must have made a necessity for him.

Roxana said...

but they shouldn't affect the meaning of their work, should they? as long as he doesn't use that work as a 'vessel' for a particular ideology - i have always been uncomfortable with this kind of judgment based on extra-aesthetic ground. shouldn't we keep our personal dislike/disapproval of an author's moral choices or style of life etc. separate from the reception of his works?
(see Emil Cioran's recent 'execution' in France after his ties with a Romanian right-wing group in his youth have been brought to the public's attention).

anyway... a big discussion :-)

thank you for this post about an artist i have always liked...

Daniel Poeira said...

What a beautiful little blog you have here... I'll make sure I come back often... cheers!

Neil said...

Jane and Roxana, you're both right, the work is what matters. I suppose in literature one might look at Ezra Pound as a comparable case.

Daniel, thanks.

olivia said...

Thank you for introducing Emil Nold to a larger audience. I can only say that his work follows the paths forged by Picasso, Miro, Matisse and so many other artists producing modern art . He has cut art down to the most pure quotient. I can’t say that I like all his works, but some are rather nice. They retain the joyous color palette of Joan Miro, the deconstruction of Picasso and the simplicity of Matisse’s art work. It seems strange that the Nazi party would even be contentious with this artist. He was not the same caliber as some of the better known painters. I guess it took nothing to very little to upset Hitler’s party members and followers. Perhaps the variegated fantasy worlds that Nold painted were too far out for men interested in world domination and speech suppression. I looked at his sunflowers and sky scapes and I saw his kinship to Van Gogh’s style.

Belinda Del Pesco said...

Just found your blog via Katherine Tyrrell's Making a Mark. Will definitely be back to read more. Had no idea of Emil's plight, and thoroughly enjoyed this post.

Clive said...

It reminds me of Botticelli running out and throwing his canvases on the Bonfire of the Vanities, a very public display by both of them. The deal he made with Savonarola was that his life wouldn't be sacrificed, if he was willing to give up his decadent work. It was a similar deal that Nolde made with Nazis. The sad thing both of them share was that the things they were so willing to throw away, they forgot they would need again after the battles and wars were over. Not so much the art, but their reputation and integrity. It is the dark side of art.

Neil said...

What a brilliant analogy, Clive.

Belinda and Olivia, many thanks for your comments.

And sorry to everyone for maintaining such a long silence-life just made it impossible to keep up the pace, but I hope to do better in May!