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Posts Tagged ‘Emil Nolde’

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The art of an artist must be his own art. It is… always a continuous chain of little inventions, little technical discoveries of one’s own, in one’s relation to the tool, the material and the colors.

–Emil Nolde

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I totally agree with the words above from Emil Nolde, the German Expressionist painter who lived from 1867 to 1956. The artist’s personal relationship with their materials defines their creative voice, giving it distinguishing characteristics that allow it to hopefully stand clear of the work of other artists.  The way one handles and choose their paint, the way they treat their surfaces, how they define space and form in the picture plane, how traditional methods are altered and adapted to their own way of seeing and thinking– all of these and so many other elements make that creative voice unique. It is these things that make an individual artist’ work distinctly recognizable.

That’s the truth part of this post. Below is the deception.

Now, there’s nothing controversial in this sentiment but I was hesitant in using the words of Emil Nolde, who has been the subject of much scrutiny lately as his past associations with the Nazi party in Germany have come to light.

Nolde’s situation was an unusual one. He was a well established Expressionist painter in his 60’s when the Nazi’s came to power in Germany in the 1930’s. While he was an ardent supporter of the party and a fervent anti-Semite who flew a swastika flag above his home, Nolde’s work was deemed degenerate by the Nazis and was very much disliked by Hitler. I am not sure but he may well have been the only party member to have his work shown in the sweeping Nazi exhibit of  degenerate art.

During the war, Nolde was forbidden from selling his work without the permission of the Nazi party. But Nolde took that caveat and portrayed it as a complete prohibition of his work and himself, which it was not. He was still able to work and he was not persecuted in any way. Nolde created a series of small watercolors which he claimed were ideas for paintings that he was forbidden from painting. It became the basis for a celebrated show, Unpainted Pictures. This idea of a persecuted artist creating a body of forbidden work in his head became a symbol of artistic resistance that sustained his legacy for many years after the war, a story pushed by the foundation he had formed to manage an archive and museum of his work.

But it was a false story.

Nolde and his foundation hid his Nazi past and his anti-Semitism for decades. Passages from his memoirs that spoke of his complicity with the Nazis and his anti-Semitic leanings were excised and stories that portrayed him as a victim were embellished.  This went on until 2013 when the foundation’s new leadership, sensing that the previous administrators had laundered a dirty past, pushed for transparency and released the entire archives, previously under wraps, to the public.

I am not sure how Nolde will be portrayed or judged going forward, whether it will be on his paintings or on his actions before and during WW II. There was a good article recently on this story in the New York Times. I urge you to take a look as it tells the story much better than I can here.

 

 

 

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