Emil Nolde - Biography and Legacy
German-Danish Painter, Printmaker, Watercolorist
Seebüll, Neukirchen, Germany
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.