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).
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
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.
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.”*
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.