A continuous chain of little inventions; art in Edinburgh summer 2018


Probably as much as I love any art movement, I love German Expressionism; most of all the artists of Die Brücke (I wrote at length about them here) and their (initially) optimistic quest to forge a new, forward-looking art which was distinctively German, drawing on native traditions (woodcuts, landscape etc), but also attempted to peel away the layers of staleness built up by decades, or even centuries of academicism, to reveal living art beneath. The art of Paula Modersohn-Becker, too, who was doing something similar in Worpeswede, is important to me too, but I also love the more anguished, personal kind of Expressionism that was reflected in the famous Expressionism of German silent cinema (see also Kirchner’s later works, and – not “German Expressionism” per se, but still German and expressionistic, early Dix and Grosz, Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollwitz).

Emil Nolde – Bay (1914)

So, even though Emil Nolde (1867-1956) is perhaps my least favourite of the major German Expressionist painters, and even though I had lots of qualms about it (see here), I was excited to see the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition Colour Is Life. And it really is good.


In comparison with the much younger artists of Die Brücke, which he joined for a year in 1906* Nolde’s art is just as vivid, but less vibrant (if that makes sense); his colours tend towards the bilious and acidic and his style, though ‘free’, often seems – even in landscapes – more frenzied and less harmonious than the works of the rest of the group. His deeply felt religious paintings, especially – and there is a really remarkable group of them in the exhibition – have an intense, anguished, alienated quality that is more like Munch atmospherically than it is his German contemporaries. It’s among his figurative (but not religious) works that my favourite painting of the exhibition, an enigmatic and slightly double portrait (that I can’t find online), which is smoother in surface texture than the religious pictures and imbued with an oddly menacing atmosphere.

*at which point Nolde was 39 and the group’s founders were in their early to mid twenties

Emil Nolde – Paradise Lost (1921)

I’m glad to say that although I felt like the information at the exhibition tended to downplay his vociferous Nazism a little, it at least acknowledged it – and although it is nowhere explicit in his art, there are some uncomfortably anti-Semitic-caricature-like faces in his paintings of people, including in some of the religious works. But whether I would think that if I didn’t know he was (extremely) anti-Semitic, I can’t say. Interestingly, for an exhibition called Colour Is Life, by far the most powerful works to me were Nolde’s woodcuts (including arguably his most famous work, The Prophet of 1912), where his compositions are remarkable for their economy and stark intensity.

Emil Nolde – The Prophet (1912)

Interestingly (perhaps not coincidentally?) the majority of Nolde’s most impressive work seems to have been done by the mid-1920s, but there is also a selection of his ‘unpainted pictures’ in the exhibition. These are little watercolours, incredibly vivid in their colours, which were made in secret during the period when his work was condemned/forbidden by the Nazi government which Nolde had, however, not only welcomed, but effectively campaigned for since the early 30s. Incidentally, around the time that Nolde was signing the Aufrufs der Kulturscha (1934) which supported Hitler as Fuhrer and joining the National Socialist Association of Northern Schleswig, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the founders of Die Brücke, was writing “Here we have been hearing terrible rumours about torture of the Jews, but it’s all surely untrue…There is a war in the air. In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why we founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me.”*

Head of a South Seas Islands woman (1914)

This was more than just the symptom of a generation gap between different artists; it’s at the heart of why Nolde’s art is, despite surface similarities, so different from that of the artists of Die Brücke; Expressionism is (obviously) about expressing; and yes, Kirchner and co expressed their anxieties, but their vision – at least at the time the group was at its most cohesive – was an optimistic one, accepting other influences as much as it rejected the status quo. To the 21st century, the way they were influenced by the art of other cultures, to simplify and brighten their own work can be uncomfortable; it has something of the ‘noble savage’ myth about it and their assumptions about the freedom and ‘naturalness’ of the tribal cultures whose work they studied in ethnographic museums were made from a viewpoint that now seems colonial and ignorant. But – the point of their own work is that it uses these forms and elements to describe something that is whole, natural and above all universal – the ‘otherness’ of the figures Nolde drew and painted on his trip to the South Seas (and even of his incredibly bold landscapes) just before WW1 is inescapable. His drawings of the people he encountered aren’t caricatures; they are brilliantly observed, but they are themselves ‘ethnographic’ in a way that Kirchner and co’s art strove not to be; Nolde is seeing and recording, not absorbing.

* Kirchner, quoted in Kirchner Museum Davos Biography Ernst Ludwig Kirchner by EW Kornfield, & CE Stauffer (1992)

Still; the Nazi government didn’t care about this distinction, and the exhibition text tells us that Nolde had more paintings shown in the condemnatory Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) exhibition than any other artist, which would be a cause for some schadenfreude if not for the fact that, after petitioning the government (he was on civil if not familiar terms with charming people like Goebbels and Baldur von Schirach) he was informed in late 1941 that any work he undertook should be presented before government officials before any kind of public showing, which is of course harsh and limiting by any normal standards, but surprisingly mild compared to what they were doing to other artists. But, as Nolde must surely have realised, for all their cultural protectionism and promotion of what they considered to be artistically wholesome and correct ideas, the Nazis really weren’t interested in art as art at all.

Julie Wolfthorn – Witch of the Woods (1899)

For some not very pleasant perspective, since I can; Nolde was prevented from making a living from his art for a few years, and had works confiscated (which he did eventually get back however), meanwhile his contemporary, Julie Wolfthorn (only three years older than he was), whose figurative, traditional, slightly folkloric art has at least an equal right to be seen as definitively German (or, far more right, to the anti-modernist authorities of the time), was, as a Jew, too dangerous to exist, and was murdered in 1942, at the age of 78, by the regime which Nolde did his best to be accepted by.


So yes, a beautifully curated and mounted exhibition; but one which leaves a slightly bitter taste.

Toyen – Message of the Forest (1936)

So,  that’s what I paid to see (and it is absolutely worth the price of admission), but in fact the bitterness faded quickly; aside from owning a Kirchner painting that is for me everything that Nolde’s work isn’t, the National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) hosts a permanent (and free) exhibition Surrealism and the Marvellous, which was already great, but has been enhanced hugely by the acquisition of Toyen’s superbly enigmatic The Message of the Forest (1939) and Leonora Carrington’s diminutive but haunting (and at the same time kind of funny) 1939 portrait of Max Ernst, Bird Superior (1939).


Leonora Carrington – Bird Superior (Portrait of Max Ernst), 1939

I could spend (and I think have spent) hours in this room; even longer now, as the archive adjoining it is hosting Club Dada: Berlin and Beyond, a really exciting collection of books, pamphlets, photos etc (and a small Max Ernst painting) that focuses mainly on Berlin Dada but also has some great items from the original Zurich group. Much as one wants to pore over these artefacts, I don’t even mind too much that the books etc are in glass cases since my German is minimal and I can’t read French at all.




Raqib Shaw – The Adoration (after Jan Gossaert), 2015/6 © the artist

Over in Modern One, I nearly didn’t look at the (also free) exhibition Raqib Shaw: Reinventing the Old Masters, partly because part of me doesn’t really want them to be reinvented, and because I didn’t know Shaw’s work, and also because it was up the stairs and I’d been walking around for hours. But I’m glad I did; what a fantastic show! I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed by Shaw’s work, even if it’s not their cup of tea. The paintings (too simple a description; his huge panels are painted in shimmering enamels, but embellished with a kind of cloisonné effect, incorporating jewels, glitter, all kinds of things) are brilliantly drawn and dazzling in their richness and detail (and a bit over the top, which is part of the charm). Although the compositions of the pictures in this exhibition are inspired by ‘old master’ paintings (one of which is one of my all-time favourite pictures, Lucas Cranach’s enigmatic Allegory of Melancholy (1528), displayed alongside Shaw’s painting), the familiarity only makes the extravagant fantasy of Shaw’s works all the more dreamlike and affecting.

Jan Gossart – The Adoration of the Kings (1510/15)

I think we (no, I don’t know who I mean by ‘we’) are used to seeing and accepting things like Biblical scenes or Greek myths presented through the filter of the Italian (or Northern) renaissance, and this is similar but different. With the old masters we (them again) see familiar (or what were once familiar) scenes  presented in a kind of fancy dress of anachronistic costumes/settings etc which were initially intended to heighten the relatable-to realism of the works, but which now add another layer of meaning and cultural baggage. With Shaw’s work, the ghosts of both the original meaning and the original treatment are seen as if through the eyes of someone from another, much more effervescent dimension. The dislocating, hallucinatory blend of familiar (and it isn’t just the source material that’s familiar; Shaw’s use of dazzling, opulent colours and ornate textures is, despite the fantastical elements, quintessentially Indian, to my western eyes anyway) and strange is exhilarating and strangely poignant.* To take my favourite picture; neither Cranach’s or Shaw’s Allegory of Melancholy is sombre exactly; but despite the centuries and world views that separate them, the same delicately wistful atmosphere pervades both pictures. It’s an impressive exhibition.

So, the moral of this is; go to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh if you get the chance. Oh, and the National Gallery of non-modern art too – aside from having an incredible permanent collection, they currently have a Rembrandt – who doesn’t like Rembrandt? – exhibition and have put a fantastic Jenny Saville painting (Aleppo) among the old masters in a way that works amazingly well and was gathering crowds of (especially young) people when I was there.

*Perhaps an obscure (and certainly a geeky) comparison; looking at Raqib Shaw’s pictures reminded me of reading Brendan McCarthy & Pete Milligan’s similarly post modern/immersive/multicultural/hallucinogenic comic strip Rogan Gosh in the 2000AD spinoff Revolver.

Brendan McCarthy & Peter Milligan, Rogan Gosh (1990)


It’s not real if you don’t feel it – but what is ‘it’ and what is ‘real’ and who’s to say anyway?


A wise woman once sang “It’s not real if you don’t feel it”* and as far as the arts are concerned it’s as good a measure of quality as anything. But what is “it” that you are feeling? Is everyone feeling the same thing? Clearly not. Even the opinions of people who do like the same song, the same book, the same film, the same painting, are likely to diverge when it comes to the detail of what they like and how it feels.

*The Goonies “R” Good Enough, (Cyndi Lauper, Stephen Broughton Lunt, Arthur Stead, 1985

Part of the mission of modernism in the early 20th century was to free art from associations; from sentimentality, from tradition, culture, religion, politics and define it for itself. That was necessary, in order to break the endless repetitive staleness of academicism and/or lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and because photography and recorded sound and near-universal literacy had all become significant factors in western society. Looking at the visual arts; if all that art does is to repeat what is already popular, to record and represent and recreate the visual and the actual, then how can it compare or compete with something like the camera which captures that external reality? And if that external reality, in the form of contemporary society, is something the artist rejects or objects to, then why use its tools and its language at all?

It’s hard to imagine, a century after the modernist explosion (say 1900-1939), the extent to which the arts were in thrall to academicism, presumably because, having fought first for freedom from the world of manual labour and craftsmanship, artists were keen to stress their respectability, their links to nobility, aristocracy and wealth. But access to that world came, not surprisingly, with rules, manners and forms of behaviour which settled, over the course of a couple of centuries, into its own rigid traditions. Therefore, the artists of the modernist era were, like any revolutionaries, especially concerned with making their own manifestos and statements. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is a nineteenth century, essentially romantic/bohemian idea which feels remote from the milieu of modernism, but at the same time a theory of pure art is found even more clearly in something like Kazimir Malevich’s The Non-Objective World (1926) than in anything written by Théophile Gautier or Edgar Allen Poe;

“Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without “things”.’

Kazimir Malevich – Black Square (1915)

Though formulated later, this is the kind of theorising that helps partially to explain works like Malevich’s Black Square (1st version 1915). Un-controversially considered a masterpiece – and one that I myself like a lot – it nevertheless seems to me a work that gains enormously from some kind of context, even if all that context is, is the knowledge that it is in fact a painting by an artist.  ‘Left to itself’, without any associations, if encountered ‘cold’, especially outside of a gallery, it might just as easily not be ‘art’ at all. And while that isn’t a bad thing, a random black square encountered in one’s daily life doesn’t – depending of course on the individual who encounters it – have the intensity or pregnant quality that one can (repeat of previous caveat) feel standing in front of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’. But what Malevich does in his statement is to take the artist out of the art and anthropomorphise the art itself (“…it wants to have…”). This seems to me to negate – not unintentionally – what is meant by art at all. For myself, I prefer the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s statement which, while it doesn’t even slightly contradict the idea of purely abstract art, puts the artist at its centre, rather than treating art as a kind of self-creating phenomenon:

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Landscape (1910)

“I know of no new ‘programme’…. Only that art is forever manifesting itself in new forms, since there are forever new personalities – its essence can never alter, I believe. Perhaps I am wrong. But, speaking for myself, I know that I have no programme, only the unaccountable longing to grasp what I see and feel, and to find the purest means of expression for it.”

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in Kunst und Kunstler (1914) quoted Wolf-Dieter Dube, The Expressionists, p.21 (T&H 1972, transl. Mary Whittall)


If a painting hangs in a forest…

The three key factors here (for me) then are creator-work-recipient. If the artists (Schmidt-Rottluff’s ‘personalities’) are trying to communicate something specific to the recipient with their work, then they either succeed or they don’t. If the artist doesn’t succeed in communicating what they intended to communicate – or if they aren’t thinking of the ‘end user’ at all, and are expressing their own feelings/ideas purely for their own reasons – they may (and probably will) still transmit something of themselves; a personality, an emotion or group of emotions, a mood or idea. But although in either case the work may be imbued with that power, it only becomes power when someone is there to experience and/or interact with it. In material terms, the great masterpieces of painting, be it the Mona Lisa (oil paint on wood), or the Black Square (oil paint on linen) have little more intrinsic ‘value’ than a few tubes of oil paint or a piece of wood or linen; after the lights go out and the visitors go home, they basically cease to exist as art.  The alchemy that takes place when art finds an audience is what makes it art; at least, so it seems to me.

Malevich’s paintings at the 0,10 exhibition, Petrograd 1915. Black Square hangs where traditionally a religious icon would be displayed

So can there be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art? Short answer; intuition says yes, but experience says no. Alongside the disintegration of traditional academic rules, there has been the growth and persistence of the myth that, in order to break the rules of art, you must first understand and adhere to the rules. This idea has been strengthened by the fact that some of the iconic figures of modern art, like Picasso and Dali, have been immensely talented by the traditional, renaissance standards of art and could easily have made a career in academic painting; but so what? Would Guernica, looking exactly as it does, be a lesser work if it was the only painting Picasso had ever done, or if his immature works had been unimpressive?

Top: Pablo Picasso – Science & Charity (1897)
Bottom – Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1937)

Separating personal, aesthetic judgements of good and bad from objective judgements is almost impossible; a strong argument could be made for either of the above images being ‘better’ especially since the emotional impact is as subjective as anything else. And separating these kind of aesthetic judgements from moral ones can become even more complicated – can a work of art that is an expression of something ‘bad’ be good? If for example we discovered that Picasso was celebrating rather than mourning the slaughter and destruction at Guernica, would the painting be as good? And what does good even mean in that sentence anyway? The idea that (for instance) a painting, or a song is “bad” is essentially meaningless, despite the fact that millions of paintings and songs are clearly very bad. They can never be demonstrably bad because, as Hamlet says, and even the relatively short history of pop music proves, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Even the most derivative, tuneless, unimaginative, moronic or amateurish song can and will be loved by someone, or many someones. And beyond people liking it, how can the quality of something like art truly be gauged? Yes, ‘Liking’ can be a complex thing and is not the same as ‘admiring’ and yes, there are people with knowledge and expertise and highly developed critical faculties and so forth; but their opinion can no more prove a work of art is good than a restaurant critic can prove that a Michelin-starred chef’s finest creation tastes better than a Big Mac.

Despite the ‘golden ratio’ of the ancients, Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’ and the Turner Prize, despite Grammys and Brits and Eurovision Song Contests, there is no logical ‘2 + 2 = 4’ type equation which can prove that “4” = a good work of art. In architecture at least, a building either works as a building (ie stands up and people can go inside) or it doesn’t, but even then, it would probably be easier to ‘prove’ that your local supermarket is logically ‘better’ as a building than Chartres Cathedral, rather than vice versa. But it obviously isn’t (unless you are very lucky) better than Chartres Cathedral. It feels too trite and easy to say ‘art is only as good or bad as an individual’s opinion of it’, but I can’t really do any better than that. You can’t make someone like something by telling them it’s good, however convincing your argument may be to you.

I also don’t think (though I am less convinced about this) there are good or bad reasons for liking a work of art, a song or a book, although there are certainly different levels of engagement, which are still however subjective; I like Citizen Kane but I love Robocop. Do I think Robocop is therefore the better film? Absolutely not. In the western world there is a kind of agreed pantheon of ‘great art’, encapsulated in the ‘high art’ end of the scale by the way in which art history, English literature, cinema et al are taught in institutions and, at the lower end of the scale in books and websites of the ‘1000 albums/films you must hear/see before you die’ type, but in practice everyone constructs their own pantheon, with the importance of the ‘official’ ones being little more than a guide. I know Robocop wouldn’t exist in the same form as it does without the innovations of Citizen Kane, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about either film. In reality, the only way to gauge (for example) the “greatest album ever recorded” is to have a public vote without offering a list of previously selected albums to choose from and then see who ‘wins’ – and I am sure I still wouldn’t agree with it.

Hans Holbein the Younger; Henry VIII (c.1537)

Over the years, it has often been considered that the correct critical attitude is to remove sentimentality from judgements on the arts, and although it is one way – judging pictures on their composition, harmony etc, ignoring subject altogether, evaluating music on its structure, technical skill etc – it is sometimes almost impossible to do, and really, thinking again of both the emotional satisfaction people get from songs, films, pictures they love, and the example of Malevich’s Black Square, is it even desirable? Thinking of Black Square, to judge a work which has so much context; theoretical, spiritual, cultural and emotional – by the sum of its basic physical attributes is reductive, as well as boring. Likewise, a great portrait in no way relies on the viewer knowing anything about the sitter, but – is Holbein’s great Henry VIII (1537) more interesting/engaging as flat masses of colour laid out in a particular, intricate design on a two-dimensional surface, or as the impression and interpretation of one human being through the eyes, mind and skill of another? The answer for me is the latter, which is really both, since the technical aspects of the first option are anyway incorporated in the second.

Pogo and the Black Square

A debate that rears its head fairly often – and I guess will increasingly do so as information about everything becomes more readily available – is whether ‘bad’ people (or just bad people) can make good art. Unlike art, and despite the murkiness of morality (influenced as it is by essentially amoral and anyway changeable concepts like tradition, religion and culture) there are some people that we can agree are bad, or at the very least, ‘not good’. Here’s an uncontroversial opinion; John Wayne Gacy, the ‘killer clown’, rapist and murderer of around 33 young people, was – even if he was at the mercy of his own personality disorder – a bad person. He also made something that is as close to being ‘bad art’ as anything I can think of. The fact that his paintings are collected by people and have sold for serious sums of money has nothing to do with their quality and everything to do with their associations. You could of course say much the same about the Black Square. And if the imaginary passerby who unpreparedly encountered the Black Square also encountered one of Gacy’s paintings, how would the experience differ?

John Wayne Gacy – Pogo the Clown

Firstly, they would know immediately that it was a painting made by a human being, and, if from a western background, they would probably recognise the subject matter. Because of this, Gacy is both at an advantage and disadvantage; advantage because, no matter how the viewer feels about clowns, they have immediate ‘access’ to the painting – ‘I know what that is’. Disadvantage, because while the black square is a black square and therefore looks like a black square, Gacy’s clowns, portraits, skulls etc are – by the standards that most people judge art by – pretty amateurish. He wasn’t an accomplished enough artist (I don’t mean just in a technical way) to communicate anything very deliberately (he wanted his paintings to bring joy into peoples’ lives; which seems unlikely, unless said people are serial killer fetishists), so what the viewer is left with are his obsessions – or at least the ones he could express to his own satisfaction through his paintings.

Going back to my highly dubious creator-work-recipient idea of art, the creator, Gacy was (or said he was) trying to do something specific – to create bright and happy pictures to bring joy to the recipient. Whether he succeeded in this aim, regardless of who he was, depends on how one responds to childlike but sometimes enigmatic pictures of clowns. What he definitely did do was to transmit something of himself; a clear-cut but deeply alienated/alienating vision of the world; actually, without a world. Not, as one might expect, a simplified Norman Rockwell America, with the sun in the sky and a clown in the garden, but essentially just the clown; mostly in fact Pogo the clown, Gacy’s own alter ego, sometimes with an extremely cursory, but telling hint of a setting. Not a circus, or the suburbia of the childrens’ parties he haunted, but a hint of a dark, fairytale (the seven dwarfs appear in a particularly odd picture) forest. These are clowns in the wild. The term ‘outsider art’ could have been coined for Gacy’s paintings. The other often-used term, ‘naïve art’ seems fleetingly appropriate, until one considers pictures like his paintings of Charles Manson, or even more so, of Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. Gacy may not have been a good painter, he may have been to all intents and purposes insane, but he was not naïve; he knew that he belonged to a pantheon of famous murderers, that he was the original killer clown and he was flattered by the association.

John Wayne Gacy – Pennywise the Clown (1993)

But Gacy was chosen as an intentionally extreme example; even more extreme would be Hitler, whose serviceable but bland and slightly lifeless paintings are also highly collectable, despite lacking even the visceral ‘disturbed’ quality of Gacy’s. Whereas the innocent buyer might just be attracted to Gacy’s clowns for their kitsch, weird, outsider quality, Hitler’s works are best suited for what they were meant to be – postcards, unambitious souvenirs, illustrations. The lack of frisson they have as images is an indicator that the reasons people have for buying them have little to do with the pictures themselves. For, hopefully, a variety of reasons, these people are not buying ‘art’ at all, they are buying history.


The art didn’t abuse…

 The world of actual art also has its fair share of murderers, rapists and so forth, and the question of whether their lives and actions invalidates their work is never really answerable. Apart from anything else, what about the legions of artists, musicians, writers whose private lives and opinions we know little or nothing about? Or artists like Andrea del Castagno, known for centuries as a murderer because of a mistake (whether malicious or not we cannot know) in Giorgio Vasari’s biography of him? At this distance of time it isn’t really an issue, even when talking about a definite murderer like Caravaggio. We don’t expect historical figures to have views, opinions and beliefs that we would find acceptable in the 21st century, although people of the 16th century certainly felt at least as strongly about murder as we do now. When we get closer to our own time, things become more complicated. For me, it’s easy to disregard the achievements of, say Eric Gill*, because even without the knowledge of his child (and animal) abuse, his work is not really my cup of tea; graceful and stylish yes, but, given that he was a contemporary of people like Jacob Epstein and Constantin Brâncuși, also a bit un-dynamic, insipidly faux-modern and backwards-looking. And then, adding the context, knowing about Gill’s religious beliefs, a bit churchy, and then, knowing about his abuse of his daughters, hypocritically pious too; it leaves a bad taste. Which doesn’t stop people from loving it, and nor should it; the art didn’t abuse anyone.  (This short article by Waldemar Januszczak is very good on Gill I think).

Left:Jacob Epstein – Rock Drill (1913)
Right: Eric Gill – Stations of the Cross (1913-18)

But one of the points about Gill is that even his apologists probably wouldn’t, these days, hold an exhibition of Gill the artist without at least acknowledging the problems with Gill the man. More my cup of tea, and more relevant to now, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art will be hosting an exhibition of Emil Nolde’s work this summer. German Expressionism (or in Nolde’s case, German-Danish Expressionism) is one of the areas of art I love the most and, although Nolde is not one of my favourite artists I will be excited to see his work. But. Emil Nolde was a member of the Nazi Party. That of course doesn’t change his paintings, but it makes them – and the exhibition – problematic for several reasons. The main reason for me, is that, in its pre-exhibition publicity at least, the NGS makes no mention of his Nazism whatsoever. That might still be okay, I suppose, if they didn’t include this little snippet in their bio:

“This exhibition…covers Nolde’s complete career, from his early atmospheric paintings of his homeland right through to the intensely coloured, so-called ‘unpainted paintings’, works done on small pieces of paper during the Third Reich, when Nolde was branded a ‘degenerate’ artist and forbidden to work as an artist.”

Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler – self portrait (c.1930)

There is a certain amount of schadenfreude in this detail. But there is also the ghost of fellow Expressionist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, murdered at Sonnenstein castle in 1940 as part of a government programme to eliminate the mentally ill, and of German-Jewish painters like Charlotte Salomon and the surrealist Felix Nussbaum, murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 and 44 respectively. As a member of the Nazi Party, Nolde was to an extent complicit in their deaths; for him, ‘entartete kunst’, a policy he didn’t necessarily oppose in general,  meant he had to paint unobtrusively, in private and couldn’t exhibit his work until after the war.  For those artists it meant a death sentence, for many others it meant harassment or exile. A more wide-ranging exhibition in which Nolde’s paintings bridge the gap between the work of his fellow ‘degenerates’ including perhaps some of Nussman’s Auschwitz paintings, and the art of Nazi-approved painters like Adolf Ziegler or Conrad Hommel would be a strange and indigestible (and chronologically back to front) thing perhaps, but I think that failing that kind of an overview we, at the very least, shouldn’t be encouraged to feel sorry for Nolde that he had to work in secret because of the actions of the government he supported.

Felix Nussbaum – Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card (1943)

Is Nolde’s art then ‘Nazi art’? No, or at least not in the same way that state-sponsored art under Hitler was. It isn’t didactic, realist or heroic. Nolde saw expressionism and therefore his own painting as definitively German, and was deeply moved by colour, which he equated with emotion. The works of his which I like best (which, by coincidence perhaps, long pre-date even the idea of the Third Reich and belong to the period when he had recently been in contact with the younger artists of Die Brücke) translate that emotion into intense and visionary land and seascapes. These pictures feel utterly free of the ideology of Nazism – but that said, even under Nazi rule, the German ideal of the nude Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) and ‘oneness with nature’ was respectable in a way that was unthinkable in the UK, so the apparent freedom of the painting need not be reflected in the kind

Emil Nolde – Autumn Sea (1911)

of egalitarian ideals that artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner expressed in their art. If expressionism can be seen as the ultimate kind of subjective painting; where the aim is ultimately to make the viewer feel what the artist feels by filtering a subject through the distorting lens of their individual perception, then Nolde’s paintings show the world as it was felt by someone who could write, in 1938;




For as long as I’ve worked as an artist I have publicly battled against the foreign infiltration of German art, against the dirty dealings on the art market and the disproportionately predominant Jewish influence everywhere in the arts. Now if that is the case, and I have been attacked and persecuted now for years by the side I championed and fought for, then there must be misunderstandings in need of clarification.”

Emil Nolde – Tropical Sun (1915)

As to the question of how easy it is to like Nolde’s ‘unpainted pictures’, I’ll have to wait for the exhibition.

How do you solve a problem like Morrissey (it solves itself)

The Nolde exhibition is only one reason that these issues have been on my mind recently; the other, more personal one is Morrissey. Morrissey is clearly not John Wayne Gacy, or Adolf Hitler, or even Emil Nolde. Nor is he, unlike Varg Vikernes, whose music I also like, a murderer. But I never felt let down by any of those people; with Varg I knew about him before I ever heard his music, I have no emotional investment in it, whereas Morrissey’s recent utterances seem completely at odds with the worldview of his earlier music; which is not his problem, or his fault, I simply interpreted what I wanted to from the art he created, just as it’s possible to look at Emil Nolde’s work and see beauty and freedom there, even if that freedom and beauty is diametrically opposed to the views he professed in his non-artistic life.

I first listened to The Smiths and Morrissey when I was 17, although I was aware of them/him years before. Of all the music I loved as a teenager I think Morrissey’s was the music I identified with the most. I liked The Cure and Joy Division and The Fall probably as much, but their music was – I suppose because it’s less lyrically straightforward – less personal to me. To this day, Morrissey’s lyrics (up to the mid 90s at least) are engraved on my memory and I certainly know more of his lyrics by heart than any other band or artist’s. It’s been very clear for a while now (and murkily apparent for much, much longer) what kind of person, politically, Morrissey is.  And that’s fair enough; he is entitled to his views, even if I think he’s wrong and don’t feel inclined to fund him any further (I still think he is more complex than his worst detractors would say, but so what?)

It’s no use really to say as some people do, that there are artists out there making great work who don’t have extreme right wing views. Obviously that’s true; but unless their art speaks to you why would you care? And most of the time, one has no idea what opinions or beliefs of an artist are anyway, unless they specifically say so. And (to me) art that is explicitly political/religious or politically/religiously-motivated rarely connects on a very deep level; and to paraphrase Cyndi again, it’s not real unless I feel it.

And I always felt The Smiths’ music, deeply, and much of Morrissey’s solo stuff too, though it is less critically acclaimed. His recent/latest statements in the press don’t seem like the words of someone who could write “It’s so easy to laugh/It’s so easy to hate/It takes strength to be gentle and kind”, but that’s people for you.

Initially, several controversies ago, I decided that although I wouldn’t actively avoid Morrissey and his works, I would just no longer buy them in a way which would benefit him directly; mean and possibly unfair I know, but that’s people for you too. I am not someone who is going to burn records, CDs and books, or even throw/give them away in disgust, if they have ever meant anything to me. But then came the latest and most crass Morrissey interview (so far) and I got to the point where I’d be kind of embarrassed to buy anything Morrissey-related at all. It’s not so much (as one example out of many) the factual inaccuracy of statements like “Hitler was left wing” – people have been saying moronic things like that (Hitler was a Zionist etc etc etc) for many years. It’s the fact that, as with those who claim the death toll in the holocaust has been exaggerated, people like Morrissey seem to think that his amazing revelation about Hitler is in any way relevant to the things his regime did and how one should feel about it. As with (ironically) people who taunt vegetarians with ‘Hitler was a vegetarian’, it spectacularly misses the point; Hitler is not famous because he’s a vegetarian, any more than he’s famous for his ‘left wing’ views. And you know that, so don’t be so stupid.

But anyway, in the end my fears that the soundtrack to my youth/life would be tainted only came half true. When Morrissey songs popped up in a shuffle I found that, without any feeling of revulsion, drama or anguish, I just didn’t want to hear them anymore. The connection seems to be gone, without regret and possibly with the relief that I was never – despite the fact that I even, unrepentantly,  like his autobiography – one of those Morrissey obsessives. Maybe one day my love of his music will come back, maybe not. It’s not real if you don’t feel it and, right now I just don’t, so it isn’t. Ho hum.


A Cure for Culture: Die Brücke at Moritzburg

bruckThere is a (completely valid) argument that originality in the arts is overrated; and clearly it is better to have something derivative or traditional that is good, than something completely original that is bad. But at the same time, to take conventional or traditional tools – be they guitars, words or paint & brushes – and to use them to create something new, is a challenge no less difficult – but less heralded – than being a true pioneer.liebermann 3
In the Germany of the early 20th Century, there was a lot to reject – not only centuries of rigid regional – Prussian, Saxon, Bavarian – tradition, but also the more recent social and moral repression of Kaiser Wilhelm’s conservative regime (more or less a militarised version of his British aunt’s “Victorianism”). On top of this, there was, in the art world, the relatively recent absorption of realism and impressionism, radical only a generation before, but already becoming a new kind of academicism a decade later.

When a group of young artists formed a group called Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’), late in the first decade of the century, one of their aims was to strip away the patina of suffocating ‘style’ and orthodox practice  that had grown up between subjects or themes and the viewing public. At the same time, they intended  to apply this philosophy to their own lives, freeing themselves from formalised German society and its stifling conventions during summer painting trips into the beautiful landscapes of rural Germany. kirchner-poster-1910Despite these radical aims, the artists were not wholly iconoclastic; rather than rejecting all that had gone before, they looked to art with the most primal, emotional impact, from both home and abroad; both the tribal, ‘primitive’ art of non-western cultures, and Germany’s own ‘barbaric’ Gothic past. In terms of this kind of visceral impact, the group’s most successful works are probably those combining those things over which society and its civilising influence had little control; the human body and the natural world it has inhabited since the dawn of humankind. These works retain their impact over a century later, but although (like all truly ‘successful’ visual art) they require no explanation in order to be understood, the story and context of their genesis is fascinating in itself and helps to illuminate the works and their still-poweful impact.

Despite the Victorianism mentioned above, there were currents of liberal thought in Wilhelmine Germany that were to influence the art of the Brücke. The artists were of that generation (roughly the same one as Hitler), who were inspired by the writings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1892), Nietzsche stressed the need to destroy the sterile values of decadent civilisation, and cast off history in order to create a positive, healthy art. In 1906’s posthumous The Will To Power, he stressed the point even more clearly – ‘The savage… is a return to nature – and in a certain sense his recovery, his cure from culture.’ This was to prove an inspirational doctrine to young artists, who were to find an escape from the stifling pressure of the stagnant past (and present) in the so-called ‘primitive’ art of non-western cultures. At the same time, the cult of nature was widespread and very respectable throughout Germany in this period and was manifested in groups such as the Wandervögel, which was devoted to exploring the German countryside, as well as in health and nudist groups which had grown up partly as a revolt against the effects of rapid industrialisation. Wandervogel2

Although the aspect of nudity seems, even in the 21st century, a symptom of liberalisation, in fact this was an element of the zeitgeist that influenced a whole generation regardless of its political beliefs; both the Communist and Nazi parties in Germany were involved in boy scout style activities with a naturist focus, and even at its height the Third Reich celebrated, rather than suppressed, nude (non-sexual) group activities, and the Hitler Youth had a strong outdoors element. Interestingly, one of the most important authors in this respect was not Nietzche but Jack London, with his stirring tales of (to be honest, fully clothed) adventures in the wilderness of America, such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang.


Although avowedly modern, the Brücke did not have a straightforward view of the recently industrialised, unified Germany. Until 1871 Germany consisted of twenty-five individual states, and regional identity – artistic as well as political – remained strong. This meant that Kaiser Wilhelm’s regime indulged in the kind of extreme nationalist propaganda later carried even further by the Nazi Party, using a semi-mythical German past to appeal to national, rather than local, feelings of patriotism. As in the UK, the speed with which the country became industrialised led to a nostalgic yearning for the rural past, in Germany defined by reference to the ‘Fatherland’ and the volk of Germany, whose traditional way of life was perceived by conservative observers to be threatened by the influx of foreign workers necessary to keep the country’s industrial heart beating. Nationalistic feeling was not however, only the preserve of the political right; one of the aims of Brücke founder member Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, even before the group came together, was ‘the renewal of German art’, although, unlike the statements of Joseph Goebbels and his ilk, this did not imply any denigration of non-German art. This reinforces the fact that, despite surface similarities, the work of The Brücke was entirely in opposition to the Romantic right-wing sentiments then emerging.

The Brücke, consisting of Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Mpechstein 1ax Pechstein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl
Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde among others, made excursions to the Moritzburg lakes outside of Dresden, and paintings like Pechstein’s Open Air (Moritzburg) (1910) and Erich Heckel’s series of Bathers attempt to express the communal freedom from convention which was one of the group’s main aims. In these pictures, the bold compositions and the use of vivid colour links the bathers to the landscape they inhabit, with flesh tones reflected in the colours of the trees and land. The two-dimensional quality of the paintings also integrates the figures within the landscape, giving a strong sense of surface deign, enhanced by the simplification of both figures and objects, all generalised to basic shapes and painted in intense saturated colour. The ‘primitive’, almost crude aspect of these paintings could itself be read as a straightforward criticism or rejection of modern urban society and its values, but the real situation was far more complex.

heckel 2Shortly after their founding in 1905, the Brücke issued a manifesto which stressed their desire to rebel against the ‘long established older forces’ at work in Germany and their commitment to modernity. What they didn’t mean was modernity as embodied in the Berlin Secession, then only seven or eight years old; a modernist movement (in some ways comparable to, although more formalised than, the Bloomsbury group in the UK) based on the belated acceptance of Impressionism in German art. German Impressionist Max Liebermann and his followers effectively sowed the seeds of their own destruction by exhibiting the works of artists far more advanced in modernism than themselves, including Munch, Van Gogh, Cezanne and the Fauves, inadvertently highlighting the inoffensive, pleasant mildness of their own work.For the Brücke artists however, it was the expressiveness of Munch and Van Gogh, and the Fauves’ intense use of colour that were to point the way forward.

Manifesto1Perhaps not surprisingly, given the sense of design and structure in their works, the four founders of the Brücke; Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff were architecture students with little or no training in painting. Being based in Dresden was important, as it not only gave them access to some of Germany’s most unspoiled countryside, but also the opportunity to study modern European painting (Van Gogh’s art was exhibited in the city as early as 1903) alongside the then-neglected mediaeval and Renaissance German art.

Van Gogh set a powerful example of how to imbue not only figures, but also landscape with personal, symbolic and emotional meaning, with colour used in an expressive rather than realistic way. At the same time, the Dresden Ethnographic Museum displayed many ‘primitive’ works from the South Seas and elsewhere. Particularly important for the group were some roof beams from the Palau islands in the South Seas, which had been taken by Germany as part of the Kaiser’s aggressive policy of Imperial expansion. While these influences were important for the group, it’s probably fair to say they helped liberate it from contemporary restrictions, rather than actually shaping the art that they produced.

ernst-ludwig-kirchner-three-nudes 4A case in point is Kirchner’s paintings from the group’s summer excursions, such as Bathers at Moritzburg and Three Nudes in A Forest (1909). These are not exercises in emulating primitive art and neither are they intended as purely decorative works, but instead they attempt to recreate the sense of freedom that the artist and his friends actually experienced at the time, without reference to the accepted conventions of nude or landscape painting. While fascinated by the art of tribal, non-European cultures, the Brücke artists were ignorant of its context and meaning, but this actually strengthened, rather than undermined its usefulness to the group. ‘Primitive’ art was resonant mainly for its position outside of the Western European art tradition; whether it was truly ‘untutored’ (unlikely) or sprang from cultures who were more in touch with the basic instincts and impulses obscured by centuries of religion and convention (questionable), this was the perception of the westerners encountering it for the first time. This meant that its features, such as the simplification and generalisation of the human figure and the lack of mathematical perspective were potent tools for artists trying to make art based on primal feeling rather than convention.

To tap into the desired raw creativity, the artists valued informality and impulsiveness, training themselves to capture the human figure as economically as possible by employing amateur models and having them pose for nude studies for a maximum of fifteen minutes per sitting. The nudes of Kirchner’s paintings owe as much to these studies as to any ‘primitive’ prototypes. Similarly, although there are parallels between the Brücke’s use of flat intense colour and that of the Fauves, an equally (or more) valid comparison is with the simplified use of colour created by woodblock printing, a major activity of the group from its inception onwards. Whereas the Fauves used colour boldly, but for harmonious and decorative purposes, the Brücke used it to reinforce the sense of vigour and life within the group’s dynamic compositions as well as for symbolic impact.

aryannudeAs previously mentioned, nudity in itself was not controversial in Germany; not only were liberal and conservative alike agreed on the healthiness of nudism and outdoor pursuits (an aspect of German society that would become even more dominant in the inter-war Weimar period and beyond),
but the academic tradition of German painting too, celebrated the nude in its romantic, Arcadian visions. The Brücke’s attitude to nudity is, however, possibly the most revolutionary aspect of their work. The teaching of art has usually stressed (and in general still does) the human figure as form rather than gender and structure rather than meaning.
The Fauves (notably in works like Matisse’s Joie de Vivre (1906) or The Dance (1909)) aimed at a mat dance 7satisfying decorative composition and a sense of harmony and peace, but the Brücke artists – and Kirchner in particular – imbued their figures with a positive and sexual energy, influenced as much by the writings of Nietzsche and Walt Whitman as by any artistic source. In this, they were influenced to an extent by Munch, but whereas the Norwegian’s haunting and bleak paintings expressed his anxieties about sex and relationships, the Brücke used the depiction of nudity to purge their work of the sexual repression and neuroses that was the darker side of Wilhelmine Germany’s obsession with nudity and hygiene. Two paintings by Kirchner highlight the importance the setting has in the meaning at atmosphere of the group’s treatment of the body. girl cat 11Girl With A Cat – Franzi (1910) is an ambiguous image; the modern interior and the ribbons in Franzi’s hair, combined with the viewpoint which forces the viewer to look down on the girl, creates an uneasy sense of vulnerability and tension, which, despite the painting’s vibrant colmunch 8our, makes it comparable in effect to Munch’s Puberty (1895). By removing the same model from an urban environment in Franzi With a Bow and Arrow (1909-11) the tension is replaced instead by a vibrant and carefree energy. The natural setting and dynamic pose (very much a standard image of German nudism) neutralise the troubled psychological aspects apparent in the urban setting.

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On the surface, this transformation would seem simply to conform to the spiritual regeneration of Germany as Heimat (homeland) as espoused by right-wing nudist groups with their obsession with cleanliness and sports, but in fact it is far more revolutionary. The carefree sexuality seen in a painting like Kirchner’s Striding Into the Sea (completed in 1912) was definitely not approved of by Kaiser Wilhelm’s establishment, and goes beyond the somewhat detached approach to the nude in contemporary French art. archer 13The Brücke were in a sense living (or at least trying to live) their philosophy; on their summer trips the group went beyond the regimented nudist groups to stay in secluded woodland spots where they could bathe alongside their female models in what Max Pechstein described as ‘perfect harmony’; just as in their paintings (of course this has its own troubling aspect, since the group was mostly male and the girls involved were, in some cases, paid to be there). There is in fact a noticeable change in tone in the group’s work after 1911 when they moved to Berlin, where Kirchner’s nude paintings tend to separate into urban studies of sexuality as the summer trips ended and they instead began to go on trips individually, with, not surprisingly, far less communal or social feeling in the paintings they completed there.

The idyllic nature of the Brücke’s Moritzburg paintings, does not, however, mean that the artists made the standard distinction between a healthy outdoor life and a decadent urban one. Many of the group’s images of the city, especially those painted before the relocation to Berlin, explore their sense of excitement they felt on the fringes of urban modern life, rather than a Munch-like sense of alienation. Also, whereas the Moritzburg paintings were essentially attempts to capture the mood and a philosophy of an enclosed, self-created world, their urban paintings were more self-consciously artistic; whereas German academic painting (like most 19th century academic painting) was essentially an amalgam of romanticism and the mathematical principles and idealising tendencies of the Italian renaissance, a painting like Kirchner’s Standing Nude With A Hat (1910) looks to the then neglected German ‘primitives’ such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose Venus and Cupid, like Kirchner’s nude, is almost certainly the portrait of a real court lady, her fashionable hat stressing the flimsiness of the mythical setting.hatty nudes

Following the move to Berlin, the Brücke became less close-knit as a group and the influence of art as opposed to lifestyle on their painting became more direct. The theme of the nude in nature remained important, but the works became less unified as Kirchner and Erich Heckel began to travel to the Baltic island of Fehmarn, while Max Pechstein painted at Nidden and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff visited Otto_Mueller_two girls in the wood (1920-25)Dangast, by the North Sea. Newer member Otto Müller, who joined the Brücke in 1910 had impressed his fellow artists with the woodcut-like flatness of his painting style and his paintings, such as Bathers (c.1912) and Reclining Nude in Dunes (c.1915) are far less dramatic and strident than the group’s earlier works, but reflect a similar interest in non-European (and especially ancient Egyptian) painting.mueller 18
Müller’s main interest was in simplicity and clarity and to this end he began to use distemper to gain a matt, two-dimensional effect. Despite its relatively conventional aspects, Müller’s delicate art was to influence Kirchner’s own painting.

In Fehmarn, Kirchner felt, like Gauguin in Tahiti, that he had found a place unspoiled by modern industrial society, but in reality it was this society (in Kirchner’s case the recently-built railway network) that made these trips possible. In works such as Five Bathers at the Lake (1911) and Two Bathers, Fehmarn (1913) Kirchner’s painting has become more tightly controlled than before, and the figures are based on ‘primitive’ sources, rather than simply being depicted with primitive energy. Even more than Kirchner’s had, Müller’s work shows the influence of the forms of African sculpture (and of Kirchner’s carved driftwood figures), rather than simply using them as models of simplicity and freedom from Western art conventions.

bathers fehmarn 21In this period Kirchner himself was influenced by John Griffiths’ book Paintings in the Buddhist Cave Temples of Ajanta (1896) and by comparison with the Moritzburg works, these paintings are calmer, more decorative and stylized and, crucially, feature no male figures; this is not an artist recording a world in which he plays an integral part, but is instead depicting and celebrating something which is ‘exotic’ and separate from the artist’s everyday experience; in fact a ‘primitive’ record, like Gauguin and Bernard’s depiction of rustic life in Pont Aven; not a new art for a new society.

kirchsculptGauguin was also an important influence on the works Karl Schmidt-Rottluff painted at Nidden, (Nidden being its German name; properly Nida, on the Lithuanian coast) in 1913. Pictures like Nudes in the Dunes and Three Nudes retain the intense saturated colour that marked the Brücke’s early style, and Schmidt-Rottluff also integrates figures and landscape more completely than Kirchner did in this period. The hot, complementary colours are clearly Fauve-influenced, and like Kirchner and Müller, the artist attempts to create images that are flat and decorative, rather than realistic or three-dimensional.

RottluffRedDune 24Schmidt-Rottluff ensured that there was little background/foreground or distancing effects by making horizon lines either high or non-existent and eliminating empty space from his pictures. At the same time, this, while definitively modern by the standards of its time, is idyllic and escapist, rather than rebellious or reforming in intent. Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel experimented with the cubist style then emerging in France, but  it was a short-lived phase for Schmidt-Rottluff. Heckel was more serious, becoming friendly with the members of the Expressionist group Der Blauer Reiter, whose works were indebted to both Cubism and Futurism. He was also influenced by William Worringer’s 1908 book Abstraction and Empathy, which argued that the artist could only reclining-nude-in-dunes 19escape the confusion of the chaotic modern world by depicting nature in a way which simplified the organic forms of nature into something abstract, crystalline and ‘imperishable’. Heckel’s 1913 painting Glassy Day shows the influence of this doctrine in its simplified, dynamic forms. The figure is generalised in the manner of the African sculpture the group had seen, but though there is the influence of the dynamic lines of Futurism, the jagged reflections do not disturb the calmness of the scene, but instead suggest an intense clarity of light and atmosphere. Again though, Glassy Day seems to represent escape, rather than rebellion.


When the Brücke disintegrated in 1913, it had achieved some of its aims; notably the renewal of a kind of German art which acknowledged developments elsewhere without abandoning the Germanic past. The aim to establish a new and harmonious way of living, outside of the constraints of society had worked for a while, in the kind of artistic commune dreamed of by Van Gogh and Gauguin, but it was ultimately doomed to failure, perhaps because carefree harmony as a way of life robbed the artists’ ambition of any sense of urgency. Even had the group remained true to this aim, it was unlikely to have survived the World War that was almost upon them.

As the  Brücke dissolved as a group, the artists went on to pursue their own personal visions, but from this point onwards they were to look at the landscape and the human figure in a detached way, as artists and intellectuals, and not as social revolutionaries; a shame perhaps, but their early work was to stand as a testament to their liberating, life-affirming ideals throughout the Nazi period (when it was, typically, classified as ‘degenerate’ by the authorities) and the freedom they created and recorded still retains its power today.


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