Emil Nolde: A Clouded Vision

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In his autobiographical writings, the German artist Emil Nolde (1867–1956) refers to the land where he was born the flat, near-featureless border area between Germany and Denmark that lies between the Baltic and the North Sea – as ‘a wonderland from sea to sea’ and ‘a fairy tale’. He reflects that ‘despite many travels to many places…my art remains deeply rooted in my native soil’.1 Indeed, his creative imagination was inextricably rooted in his homeland. He was not alone in choosing to work in scenically unremarkable surround-ings: Jean-François Millet (1814–75) gently commemorated the drab plains of Barbizon in northern France, while the Impressionists frequently painted in farmland. Others had taken continual inspiration from the countryside where they spent their formative years, such as John Constable (1776–1837), who, brought up by the River Stour in Suffolk, looked back to his childhood with lasting affection.

As a farmer’s son, Nolde’s view of the landscape was in one way highly pragmatic: familiar with its every small landmark, he knew, for instance, how many cattle a given area could support, and just how the meagre soil could be cajoled into crop production. Yet his later, almost mystical representations of these lands, in which any shreds of realism are cast aside, could be seen as quintessentially expressionist, aligning him, too, with the Romanticism of the 18th century. Among the greatest Romantic artists was his fellow German, Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), born at Greifswald on the Baltic coast, whom Nolde considered to be a ‘silent artist’ who had been unjustly forgotten. Friedrich, like Nolde, often portrayed the bleak coastal landscape where he grew up, his poetic, evocative compositions being among the first to treat it in a Romantic way, and to imbue the natural world with symbolic, spiritual and emotional overtones.

In 1899, disappointed at failing to gain admission to Franz von Stuck’s highly regarded classes at the Munich Academy, Nolde studied for a while at the private art school of Friedrich Fehr, and then with Adolf Hölzel in the artists’ colony of Neu-Dachau, near Munich. Hölzel was probably most important to Nolde for his expertise with colour, rendering the small, winding rivers crossing the misty Dachau heathland – with their graceful riverside birches, willows and poplars – in a number of gentle, atmospheric moorland views. Several of Nolde’s early landscapes achieved a similarly tranquil effect from the use of muted, subtly blended colours. These included Homeland (1901) and Moonlit Night (1903; Fig. 2). In Heath Farm (1902), a scene showing a farm with moorland rising behind it is also painted in soft, persuasive tones – albeit with slightly more jagged brushwork than Hölzel used – to indicate slivers of light through the grey cloud mass above the low farmhouse and its outbuilding. Similarly, the appeal of some of Nolde’s early seascapes – including Light Sea-mood (1901), which combined soft aquamarine tones with light, sandy browns, and Fishing Harbour (1901), painted in pale blues and turquoise – came from their gentle, shimmering tonality.

From around 1905, Nolde began experimenting with much stronger tones, gradually becoming proficient at marshalling bold, strident colours that would assume a fantastical dimension. Although he categorically denied the influence of others, his more dramatic approach to landscape painting from this juncture surely reflects his discovery of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). If, in works such as Nolde’s Spring in the Room (1904), the intensity of his palette and his increasingly emphatic and expressive brushwork with strokes more elongated than those of the Impressionists – looked to the former, it seems his employment of increasingly brilliant colours was sparked by his admiration for Gauguin.

Several works painted between this time and 1910 reveal Nolde’s awareness of Van Gogh. These include House by the Wood and the attractive Young Firs (both 1908), where young trees stand on a hillside of green-gold beneath a rich blue sky. The brushwork of both comprises emphatic, directional applications of paint right across the picture plane. The exceptionally bold brushstrokes and brightly coloured palette of Lake (1910) reveal a similar indebtedness. Nolde’s acknowledgement of the earlier artist’s mastery would seem to culminate in two other paintings made that year, Bridge and Marsh Bridge (1910; Fig. 1), both incorporating bold brushwork and strong colours and directly echoing the Dutchman’s representation of bridges in the countryside near Arles.

With Gauguin it was a different story. Nolde was hugely impressed by a show of 36 Gauguin paintings at the Grand Ducal Palace in Weimar in July 1905. He wrote to his wife, Ada, about ‘the magnificent exhibition’, in which ‘the sumptuous colours’ of Gauguin’s pictures had ‘ravished’ him, exceeding even those of Van Gogh, whose work was also exhibited in Weimar. The latter, he wrote,‘also uses beautiful colours, but he impresses one more by his turbulent temperament and his great sensitivity and liveliness’.3 From an early age, Nolde had been interested in the properties of colours. He was unusually conscious of them, recalling once that, on hearing a rabbit screeching in a trap, the sound seemed to him to represent a bright yellow, whereas the haunting call of an owl appeared as a deep, dark violet. Already capable of great subtlety in his use of tone to create mood, the long series of landscapes he would paint throughout his life now began to depend for their effect on an increasingly powerful tonality.

In 1909, at Ruttebüll on the North Sea coast, recently recovered from an illness caused by drinking poisoned water, Nolde began to paint the biblical scenes that would earn him both notoriety and recognition. Among these, his Last Supper and Pentecost (both 1909) were peopled with simple, work-worn Frisian farmers sitting at table with Jesus. In 1910, Pentecost was among the works famously rejected by Max Lieber-mann and Paul Cassirer of the Berlin Secess-ion, with whom Nolde had previously been on friendly terms. Deeply disturbed by this volte-face, Nolde threw himself into other work, including a group of night-time scenes painted in Berlin that winter, and a long series of landscapes.

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