To start a discussion of the German artist Emil Nolde, I think we could all use a simile. I expect many of you organize your dresser drawers into categories. And if you do, I bet you also have one item that defies classification. For me it’s my one belt. “Thematically,” I’ll think to myself in a fit of organization, “this should go in the trouser drawer!” But then a few days later it’ll end up in the sock drawer with a pair of gloves (“maybe I should make this my accessory drawer!”). Eventually, it just lies on top of the dresser stubbornly without category.
If you think about art historians as professional drawer organizers, Emil Nolde (1867-1956) would be their belt: difficult and stubborn in his defiance of classification.
You may not have heard of Nolde, and you’re in good company. Up until this month there was no comprehensive study of the artist published in the English language.
Now, Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements, a beautiful, full-color study of the artist by British writer Averil King, gives us a look at the life and work of Nolde. Nolde’s list of works includes oil paintings, prints and watercolors, produced from the turn of the 20th century till after the Second World War.
But despite an impressive and varied output, a strong list of opinions and passing similarities to various other artists, he remains belt-like in his resistance to categorization.
This was true even in his day. Nolde resisted association with artists of his time, as well as those of the past, writing that creative people should be inspired rather than educated.
But his sources of inspiration were impressively various, often contrasting, and could even conflict directly with his personality. For instance, he loved the dramatic skies and fields of his rural hometown, but would also etch scenes of gritty industrialism in Hamburg.
He wrote vitriolic criticisms of the nightlife of Berlin yet spent a season taking himself and his wife around various cafes and dance clubs to observe and paint.
He was drawn to the living beauty of flowers and the twisted distortions of masks.
He enthused over the modern and the familiar, but was drawn to the art of distant cultures, which he viewed as primitive.
Still, he is elusive. It’s possible to align him with the Die Brücke group. This knot of German artists were in Berlin at the same time as Nolde and shared his enjoyment of pseudo-primitive art forms to provide inspiration for fresh, modern lines. But, though he initially joined the group, he quickly left, preferring working alone to following the tides of the group’s opinions.
In Artist of the Elements King goes stoutly about the task of situating him in the history of art. She goes seriously and systematically about the process of relating him to artists from the past. The influence of Vincent van Gogh is one of the most commonly cited – Nolde’s use of color echoed that of the earlier artist.
And he also admired the works of Hans Holbein and Matthias Grunewald. This was in part for their compositional skill, and also for their expressiveness. But what was really important for him was their German-ness.
Ultimately, it is Nolde’s pride in his country that King addresses most effectively.
Throughout her measured and engaging narrative of his life, the deep love for the artist’s country comes up again and again. Love for the moody sweep of the countryside; love for the enchanting legends peculiar to its culture; love of its development and fear for its loss of identity with its growing industrial scene.
And for a while, Nolde enjoyed great success in Germany. But then, almost suddenly it vanished. With the rise of the Nazi party, the twisted features of the faces he painted, the interest in the primitive and jagged, the interest in the geometric as a means to emotion became politically unpopular. Nolde’s work ended up in Hitler’s 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art, condemned.
Even though Nolde had been politically sympathetic to the Nazi party for the years leading up to the exhibition – and some of the leaders of the party had actually liked his works – over 1,000 of them were confiscated. More works of his were taken than of any other artist.
So still more contradictions.
Ultimately, King cannot, for all her organizing, tell her readers where Nolde fits. He remains an artist of his own variety. Instead, she paints a clear picture of an individual with strongly personal responses to common inspiration. The resulting works are more important than his complex personality or membership of any group.
So, much like a stray belt, even if he doesn’t fit with the others, Nolde is an artist of his own importance, no matter which drawer he ends up in. And it’s worth a bit of your time standing before the art, making up your own mind on this artist of contradiction, emotion and color.