PRINT July 1963

Emil Nolde: A Demon of the Lower Realm

THE GERMAN PAINTER AND PRINT-MAKER, Emil Nolde (1867–1956), whose work is currently touring several cities,* chronologically stands between Paul Gauguin, father of Symbolism, and Jean Dubuffet, inventor of “art brut,” to both of whom, in many respects, he has a significant affinity. Emil Hansen was born on his parents’ farm near the North Schleswig village of Nolde at the time when young Gauguin was about to join the French navy. By the time Gauguin had died at Atuana, Emil Hansen had become Emil Nolde and had achieved his own individual style. When Nolde passed away, as a very old man, Dubuffet who, like the aforementioned artists, had started painting rela­tively late, had become internationally renowned.

Nolde’s kinship to these two painters is emphasized because this chauvinist, who wanted to be appre­ciated as a “German artist” and nothing else, iron­ically appears to have been closer in attitude and esthetics to these Frenchmen––and he despised the French––than to any Germans, or even to the Nordic artists, Van Gogh and Munch, whom he did admire. On the other hand, perhaps Nolde was right in dis­associating himself from the “Expressionisten,” with whom he had been classified by “intellectuals and literati,” another group resented by this artist who read little, and whose own voluminous autobiograph­ical writings betray a grotesquely awkward style. It was to be expected that his association with the “Bruecke”––Kirchner and his friends––would be a brief one. The Expressionisten, all nearer to Van Gogh than he, were ardent pacifists and all at least flirted with Socialism. The sculptor Ernst Barlach character­ized the attitude of the group in a statement of his own philosophy: “What man can suffer and must suf­fer, the grandeur and the need of man: to that I am committed.”

Van Gogh had similar feelings, but neither Gauguin nor, for that matter, Dubuffet. With the last two, Nolde has much in common. Throughout his long life, he remained a misanthropic, prejudiced monster who, if he had feelings for humanity, managed to conceal them successfully. Van Gogh’s subjects all have strong personalities, and even a recluse like Cézanne gives expression to the soul of his faithful gardener, or to the card-playing Provencal rustics. In the work of Gauguin, Nolde, and of our contemporary, Dubuffet, all figures seem to have, instead of faces, impene­trable masks that are easily interchangeable. 

It is ironic, too, that Nolde, the only German artist of importance to have hailed the victory of Naziism, became the one to lead, with 1052 works, the list of “degenerates” whose creations were removed by the Nazis from public institutions (with 729 and 639 works, the Expressionists Heckel and Kirchner were second and third on what was meant to be a list of dishonor). Nolde, in full agreement with the Nazi tenets of “blood and soil,” naively believed he was producing truly “Nordic” art, only to find, to his dismay, that what Hitler wanted was the depiction of Elite Guard prototypes with the bodies of Greek athletes. The demonic aspects of Nolde’s art might appeal to a Mephistophelian character like Goebbels who, in­deed, tried to protect Nolde’s work, but there was no tolerance by little men suddenly come to power for a haughty megalomaniac like Nolde who felt himself a superman for whom God and Devil were engaged in an endless conflict, and who boldly asserted he saw more deeply than other men.

And yet it was his trouble with the Nazis that, out­side Germany, drew attention to Nolde’s work. Nolde was altogether a contradictory phenomenon. No one was less able to resolve inner dissensions through esthetic achievement, and no one was more in need of esthetic expression for emotional survival. To say that the work included in the U.S. exhibitions was highly uneven in quality is to comment only upon the purely superficial aspects in the man’s art. Actually, his seems the work of a completely divided person­ality. Was the author of the tender and delicate little pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors, who knowing­ly kept within the boundaries of his medium, identical with the maniac who seems to have applied the pig­ment with a trowel on wall-sized canvases? Could the man who gave significant form to the wind-swept marshes around him and the cloud-filled sky above him be the same artist who crudely slapped upon large areas of canvas the limbs and faces of grimac­ing men and women supposed to be personages from the New Testament?

Nolde was, indeed, two men. For here the world had the spectacle of a peasant become painter, who spent half his time in the Berlin he despised (but whose night life he visited and painted), and the other half in his almost inaccessible country home, Seebüll, close to the Danish frontier; who went to Paris, yet found there nothing to appeal to his “harsher Nordic senses”; who dwelt for months among the colored races of Asia and Oceania, yet rendered them as half­-animals, half-monsters, symbols of brutishness devoid of individual souls; who had mighty religious striv­ings of a sort, yet produced pictures that not only horrified believers as long as five decades ago, but that even today would not find acceptance in a church of any denomination.

Compared to Nolde’s wild, brutal, and sometimes ludicrous figures, the gypsies of Otto Mueller and the aborigines of Max Pechstein (who also undertook a painting trip to the South Seas) appear to be most gentle creatures. This is not to say that Mueller or Pechstein are greater artists. On the contrary, since the days of Matthias Gruenewald it would be hard to find any other German artist who used symbolic color as spontaneously, as imaginatively, as Nolde. At the same time, it must be stated that none of the artists of the Bruecke broke as completely, as abruptly, with the notions of “classical” beauty, and that none of the German artists were as little concerned as he with the personality of his “sitters.” His is, indeed, an art as de-personalized, as de-cerebralized as that of a Dubuffet or; among artists of our country, de Kooning. Looking at Nolde’s large canvases, one is reminded of the bloated faces, big mouths, crooked teeth and obese bodies in Dubuffet’s work, that radi­cal rejection of all so-called humanist values for the uttermost “barbarism.” In a Kirchner, one can see the influence of French art, from Seurat to Matisse, of its rational and even academic tenets and persuasions; Nolde––like Dubuffet decades later––seems to shout: “I do not care for your classical tradition, I do not like the idea of a professional artist, I do not look for psychological insights, I am glad I am not spoiled by too much contact with your ‘artistic culture,’ and I do not mind violating all your sacred ideas of beauty.” To Nolde, the picture evolved through the very act of painting, and, undoubtedly, he would have applauded Dubuffet’s pronunciamento: “I very much like things carried to their extreme possible limit . . .”

Because he had vitality rather than taste, force rather than an unerring feeling for form, there are, in his work, nearly as many misses as there are hits. Like some of the Action Painters who emerged about the time Nolde was completing his last pictures, he relied much too much on his instinct, which often let him down. Nolde’s notion that the quicker a painting was done the better it was, sometimes caused him to over-estimate his strength, so that formlessness, not really desired by the artist (who, as rude and wild as he was, was hardly an imbecile), began to set in as soon as fatigue began to overcome him, with the result that his often-admired “tempests of colors,” instead of being forces of liberation, tended to deteri­orate into petty nuisances without any elan.

A lack of interest in his fellow men was accompa­nied by an amazing lack of humor: Where he resorts to grotesques, he often becomes annoyingly cruel and crude. Clearly the best characterization of Nolde can be found in the writings of Paul Klee, a man of Ger­man origin diametrically opposed to everything Nolde believed in, who called him a “demon of the lower realm.” The German art historian, Werner Haftmann, who somehow managed to admire both Klee and Nolde, in his essays about the latter resorts to the adjective “chtonian” (“The poetic evocation is nearly always related to the chtonian element” . . .“The gnome-like chtonian features of the peasants” . . .“the chtonian power shines through”––all of this in the two and a half pages devoted to Nolde in Paint­ing in the Twentieth Century), referring to the gods or spirits of the underworld.

Yet the exhibition, staged by the Museum of Modern Art and its curator, Peter Selz, did not over-empha­size the aspects of Nolde’s work that make him ap­pear a forerunner of Dubuffet, and even of de Koon­ing and the late Jackson Pollock. Nolde, like Gauguin, was a Janus-faced artist. For within this “barbarian,” who either shunned people or assailed them with some arrogant or biased remark, also slumbered a romantic, who sought friendship, love, recognition, only to note that he could wrest response better from silent nature than from the noisy world of men.

Looking at the red poppies and blue irises, the dahlias and anemones, blown rather than painted, on paper not larger than a sheet of stationery, one cannot reconcile these warm, yet rather abstract, evocations of simple garden flowers with the grinning masks on the walls in the adjoining room. Turner comes to mind, or some of the earlier Chinese artists, as we view Nolde’s renderings of isolated farms, boats off the beach, or sunsets by the North Sea––could this modest 19th century regionalist be identical with the hater, the egotist, the color-maniac who often seems to have no other purpose than to mock what has been called “la belle peinture” and the people who cherished it?

I have seen the countryside in which Nolde grew up to manhood, and to which he returned time and again, eventually to die there, a well-to-do grand-seigneur, at the age of eighty-eight. Recalling Seebüll, on the rainy and fog-ridden flat Western coast of Schleswig that faces the unquiet, metallic grey sea, I began to understand why Nolde became the man that he was. Just as Chagall remained the painter of Vitebsk after all the years spent in Paris and New York, so neither Berlin, nor Dresden, Copenhagen, Paris, Taormina, or New Guinea could have a decisive influence upon the Emil Hansen of the village of Nolde who, between his experiments with Russians and Polynesians and the personages of Christian lore, returned to North Schleswig and its dark-green surging seas, its hard-faced peasants, its horses and cattle, and whose Bible was, in reality, not that of Western Christianity, but the conglomeration of near-pagan myths and legends that multiplied among the spectres and spooks of Germany’s Ultima Thule. He was once compared to a Druid priest who practices primordial spells and ritual, and expresses the savage sensuality of primi­tive worship, and, indeed, there is something pre-­Christian even in those of Nolde’s paintings and prints that, ostensibly, are pre-occupied with the Holy Scriptures.

If he seems to be stammering whenever he appears to be conscious of his duty, his mission to create “Nordic art,” he is no longer ill at ease vis-á-vis nature. The observer, however sympathetic he might be, finds it difficult to feel the artist’s heart, basic­ally shy and unsure, beneath the thick layers of blazing oil color, or to overlook, for the sincerity of his intentions, the melodramatic and even theatrical aspects in some of his more ambitious compositions. But only one devoid of feeling can remain unmoved by that part of Nolde’s oeuvre that will surely endure, particularly his watercolors––some transparent and light, others deeply opaque, some heavily outlined, and others quite fluid––with which a dreamer con­fronted God and the world, seeking collaboration with nature, yet knowing, on the whole, that his ultimate goal could never be complete resemblance to an ob­ject or a scene, but only “artistically free concepts that came wholly from within.”

Nolde was so unique that he could not have any followers, any pupils. He was, perhaps, more a strange phenomenon concocted by the spirits of his region than a human being whom we can feel, can touch, as we can grasp the man behind the pictures of Van Gogh. To his compatriots of the pre-Nazi era, he was a mystery even though he could be seen, from time to time, on the busy thoroughfares of cosmo­politan Berlin, in its cafes and, of course, its exhi­bition halls. The Memorial Exhibition, staged in this country seven years after Nolde’s death, did not make more plausible, more life-like Nolde the Man, who, in his attitudes to his fellow men, seems to have been as much of a monster as was Richard Wagner. But it has caused many to wish they could own some of his small, rather unpretentious creations, his flower pieces and, in particular, his Northern land­scapes and seascapes, in which, instead of submitting palette and brush to the dictates of Nature, as the Impressionists had done, this unusual man was able to persuade Nature into the role of collaborator, able to seize and transform the rhythms of reality to serve as a counter-point to his own fervent emotions.

––Alfred Werner



*“Emil Nolde,” organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York under the directorship of Peter Selz, Curator. Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art March 6–April 30, 1963, and at the San Francisco Museum of Art from May 23–June 23 and opening at the Pasadena Art Museum on July 27, 1963.