Artistic License With Emil Nolde


PENNY McCORMICK talks to SEAN RAINBIRD, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland about 20th-century artist EMIL NOLDE‘s work …


A painter, printmaker and watercolourist, Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was one of the pre-eminent German Expressionist artists of the first half of the twentieth century. A powerful painter, particularly in his use of strong colours, he was an extravagantly gifted artist on paper. His watercolours are highly distinctive and he mastered various print techniques, creating some of the most significant etchings, lithographs and woodcuts of the Expressionist era. Collaborating with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Emil Nolde: Colour is Life opens at the National Gallery of Ireland today. Sean Rainbird, Director of National Gallery of Ireland and co-curator of the exhibition tells us about this fascinating artist.

Photograph by Fennell Photography

For those unfamiliar with Emil Nolde, his background and subsequent rather isolated life as an artist is quite interesting…

Nolde was briefly a member of Die Brücke (The Bridge), one of the two major Expressionist groups but remained one of the most independent artists in Germany. Throughout his career he returned to the essence of the landscape he grew up in and made his permanent home in Seebüll, in Schleswig-Holstein, on the border region between Germany and Denmark. In 1902 he married Danish actress, Ada Vilstrup, and took the name of his birthplace, Nolde. The flat, windswept fields, prominent skies and nearby turbulent seas of the North Sea were as central to his experience of landscape as the extensive garden he cultivated at his studio and home. While rooted there, he also spent months of each year in Berlin, observing the performers and audiences in the theatres and cabarets. His observation of people embraced the farmers of his homeland, the indigenous peoples of German New Guinea, which he visited in 1913-14, and his depictions of biblical stories. Although an early and committed member of the National Socialist party, the regime’s cultural policies as determined by Goebbels during the mid-1930s led to his art being declared “degenerate”. Forbidden to exhibit and work, he nonetheless painted a celebrated group of ‘unpainted paintings’ rich in colour and fantastical figures. Nolde’s complexity as an artist living through turbulent times, supporting the Party ideology but rejected by the government as a ‘degenerate’ modern artist, makes his career as problematic as it is also celebrated. Following the death of his first wife, Ada, in 1946, he remarried to Jolanthe Erdmann. He died in Seebüll in 1956 having set up the Nolde Foundation that cares for a large number of his works.

He is often associated with the Die Brucke movement – what was that exactly?

It is impossible to understand Nolde without taking his northern homeland into account. He and his art were imbued through and through with a deep knowledge and love of the land- and seascapes and the ordinary people, the farmers and fishing folk, of this region. Billowing cloudscapes rising over a region where long vistas over flat, windswept, distant fields and the proximity to the seas depicted in all atmospheric conditions, are a central feature in his paintings and watercolours. Nolde was, however, decidedly not a provincial artist or of only regional significance. He knew and cared deeply about the latest developments in modern art, whether they were happening in Paris, Dresden or Berlin. His art is unthinkable without a knowledge of van Gogh’s colour dynamics. Or without the lessons he learnt about woodblock printing from the young artists of Brücke. Die Brücke (Bridge) was one of the major German Expressionist groups working in Dresden, which Emil Nolde joined briefly in 1906.

The way the exhibition is presented is in various groupings – including the Unpainted Pictures – paintings of flowers and gardens – could you explain a little about these two groupings in particular please.

This exhibition presents a broad, inclusive overview of Nolde’s work, doing justice not only to his paintings of his north German homeland (including his justly famous flower and garden paintings, such as the Gallery’s own Two Women in a Garden, 1915), but to his paintings, drawings and prints capturing the bustle of the tug boats and choppy waters of the port of Hamburg, the frenetic life of Berlin’s cafes and cabarets, the trip to the South Seas, the militaristic build-up to the First World War and ensuing revolutions (paintings rarely seen outside Germany) and his extraordinary religious paintings, with their strange mixture of spirituality and eroticism. The show includes a substantial group of his so-called “unpainted pictures”: small intensely coloured watercolours produced during the National Socialist period, when Nolde was declared ‘degenerate’ by the regime and forbidden to practise as a professional artist. If he had been able to buy oil and canvas, these would have been the works that he would have liked to paint on a larger scale.

Is there one artwork that appeals to you especially, and if so, what is it and why?

Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red), 1912, is one of the many striking works in the exhibition, and an excellent example of his flower paintings, inspired by his garden at his home in Seebüll.

Need to Know: Emil Nolde: Colour is Life opens February 14 until June 10 at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Penny McCormick

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