A prominent forerunner of German Expressionism, although he didn’t want himself to be called as such, was Emil Nolde. He ranked among the greatest modern artists known for depicting the German farm life in his paintings. He was a member of the leading Expressionist group of his generation, Die Brucke. However, he remained in constant isolation throughout his career due to his temperamental personality.
Nolde noticeably possessed traits of the avant garde, mastery of modern art and an artist who had the ability to communicate his vision and influences with the audience. This attitude is reflected in some of his distorted figures expressed with intense colors and vivid contours. Emil Nolde would become the center of attention of the French art market five decades after his death. However, only until recently, the Paris’ Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais did hold an art show for his works explaining that his German expression and subject is still relatively new in the said country.
Nolde’s art is often characterized by its logic, coherence and precision, especially in telling visual stories. The themes are balanced by his chronological organization from places, times and routines in life, subjects and adventures. In most cases, Nolde would paint as inspired by his impressions of the real-world and somehow transcend them into a fantastical setting. The pictures looked dream-like similar to impressionist paintings but the dominance of expressionism characteristics are still evident such as the radically distorted figures in order to affect an emotional appeal to the audience.
Emil Nolde’s was known to have painted both macabre images and picturesque landscapes and humans. Few examples of his major works include the Macabre Dance (1918), Pentecost (1909), Children of the Woods (1911), Harvest Day (1905), Bedevilled Dancing (1909), Twilight (1916), and The See III (1913).
Born on August 7, 1867, Emile Nolde grew up in the small village of Nolde, a part of Burkal municipality in Southern Jutland, Denmark. Although he was born near the Danish borders, his nationality was German. His parents were farmers so he was raised in the farm and grew accustomed to the Protestant teachings. He have come to terms with himself at a young age, thinking that his future was not with farming unlike what his three brothers would become later in life.
Nevertheless, the Danish border and its views are crucial to the development of Nolde’s artistic personality. He felt affinity with nature made him fall in love with his Germanic origins and culture even in his old age, which presumably served as a strong reason for him to become a painter. In 1884, he studied illustration and carving in Flensburg. He spent most his young adult years working as a furniture designer, which allowed him to travel to different cities such as Karlsruuhe, Munich and Berlin.
Emil Nolde received his formal art training from the School of Applied Arts in Karlsruhe in 1889. He steadily absorbed the influences he was taught with and easily became qualified to be a drawing teacher in Switzerland from 1892 to 1898. After his teaching stint, he applied for entrance at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich but it went unsuccessful. Alternatively he entered the studio of Adolf Holzel, an esteemed historian and painter, to study painting.
In 1899, Nolde went to Paris to pursue his studies at the Academie Julian. There he absorbed the influences of prominent Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, which was the dominant artistic movement at the time. After learning about the art as much as he could, he decided to become a full-time independent artist at the age of 30. Only ten years later when he attained the peak of his professional career.
Throughout his young adulthood, his paintings commonly show fantastical scenes framed in a landscape setting. La Cima della Pala and la Vezzana (1897) and Harvest Day (1905) are fine examples of this painting style. The former generally exhibit fantasy elements when he made a face of a human and a tiger out of the surface of the huge rock formation, while the latter looks dreamy and light hearted in tone and emotion with the use of blue and white shades.
In 1901, he settled in Berlin to work for a number of patrons. At the time he also met Gustav Schiefler a wealthy art collector and Karl Schmidt-Rtotluff an expressionist painter. These two artists would become his major supporters in the next few years. In 1902 Nolde married Ada Vilstrup, a Danish actress and together they moved to Berlin.
In 1906, Emil Nolde became a member of the prominent expressionist group, Die Brucke as well as the Berlin Sezession. Through these groups he presumably have known heard about Lovis Corinth, Hermann Struck, Georg Kolbe, and Max Beckmann. And as he joined Die Brucke which was formed in Dresden he met Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Otto Meuller, Fritz Bleyl, and Erich Heckel.
The expressionist group is said to be comparable to Fauvism in terms of their common interest in Primitive Art and in using extreme highs and lows of emotion as an inspiration for painting. One of the major differences between Fauvism and Expressionism was that the expressionist painters depicted subjective yet visually compelling scenes of the city and streets compared to the usually tamed depictions of the Fauves.
Meanwhile, Nolde’s expressionism art was expressed in drawing and etching most commonly. There he revealed his vast expanse of imagination by creating fantasy scenes of both the picturesque and the grotesque. Although it is worth noting that his raw source of emotional strength came from the influences of Impressionism, so he was able to produce really unique color schemes and brushstroke techniques that influenced his contemporaries. In return to his contribution, they taught him about lithography and woodcut techniques.
In 1906, Emile Nolde was invited to hold his first one-man art show. This was also when his attitude became temperamental that caused him to isolate himself from the rest of the group. He fell out of contact of the expressionist painters and left Die Brucke one year later. Anyhow, his growing reputation in the industry served him well and he was able to make a living out of his independent career.
Three years after leaving Die Brucke, Emil Nolde joined Berlin Sezession. The group had influenced him to execute religious paintings, which would be his first secular work. He painted a version of The Last Supper and the Life of St. Mary Aegyptiaca for the group. Another notable painting was the Pentecost of 1909, which the group President Max Liebermann refused to include in the 1910 exhibition.
The rejection angered Nolde. He wrote an essay attacking Liebermann which made him to step down from his position. During this period, he still continued doing secular paintings, some of which had been donated to the church but none were installed permanently. He took this lightly and instead became more focused on what he wanted to do next, to produce a series of paintings that would define the North German Art.
In 1910, he formed his own expressionist group called New Secession. It laid the foundations on the German avant-garde, which really made him an esteemed painter of his generation. Wassily Kandinsky’s own group, Der Blaue Reiter, displayed some of his paintings in their 1912 exhibition and that following year, he jumped on board to travel to New Guinea. There he studied the aborigine’s culture, art and life, an expedition that exposed him to Primitive Art. The influences he absorbed through these travels are seen in South Sea Islander of 1914.
Emil Nolde made use of his knowledge in lithography by producing woodcuts for The Prophet (1912). The face of the Prophet is painted hollow yet solemn and the sunken eyes are meant to show deep and intense emotion. Art historians believe that the story behind this work was the artist’s own spiritual transformation as he recovered from a chronic illness. This miraculous experience has since inspired him to paint secular themes and subjects.
It is said that printmakers Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin made an impact on the woodcut techniques of Nolde. The material’s grainy texture provided a great medium for his expressionist images. However, the real emotional and visual power of the print only comes to resurface if printed on Japanese paper, and at the time, such a medium was rare to find.
Emil Nolde had lived through the World War I. He was even thought to be a Nazi sympathizer during the early 1920’s because he was a member of the group’s Danish chapter. One possible reason for this to happen was his disdain toward the Jewish artists, believing that Expressionism was supposed to be originally Germanic. In 1931 he found employment at the Prussian Academy of Art as a professor.
However, in 1937, Hitler announced his rejection of all forms of degenerate art and anything that would be labeled as such must be confiscated. And by the nature of Nolde’s avant-garde works, there was no way for him to avoid the consequences. Thousands of his works were removed from the museums while some of those were included in the first exhibition of the state-run Degenerate Art of 1937.
After the Great War, Emil Nolde was recognized for his contributions to German art. He was awarded the German Order of Merit, during which his choice of subject changed. From macabre tales and religious paintings, he changed the subject to landscapes and still-life objects. Although at some point he would still paint grotesquely distorted figures of severed heads and masks.
Emil Nolde died on April 13, 1956 at the age of 88. He left Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebull as a legacy, wherein several of his works are on display.