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Emil Nolde: 'Colour is Life' National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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Emil Nolde: Colour is Life National Gallery of Modern Art in Scotland, Edinburgh

I prepared myself for this exhibition by reading an introductory art-text (one with lots of background, plenty of large-scale reproductions) on German expressionism. Why, I ask myself? I think it is to clear myself from any interest in Nolde himself – who remained constant to the ideology of National Socialism and the kind of ‘heimat’ structure of feeling that based itself on virulent anti-Semitism even up to the very end of the Nazi period and the absorption of his own ‘heimat’ into Denmark. This even though Hitler himself appears to have seen Nolde as the prime example of ‘degenerate art’ (a category that could include multiple ideologies and not only those of natural enemies of Nazism).

When you see this exhibition, you must look away (whilst remembering why, in disgust, you do so) from the central painting of his Christian epic, Martyrdom (1921), in which the lower-half of Christ is sandwiched between the most anti-Semitic caricatures you can possibly have ever seen – so much so that the Gallery’s introductory film, avoids showing the bottom half of Martyrdom II. But this apart, the fear of Nolde’s almost certainly sincere Nazism seems much less important than the potential meanings of most of his other art, such as the more mature take on South-Sea island resistance to colonisation that makes Gauguin seem the more racist because the latter is more unable to see the ‘other’ as anything but his possession. There is too Nolde’s very fine and absolutely horrifying anti-war work in the First World War, especially Battlefield (1913).

He great paintings have a kind of restlessness and dynamism, produced by energetic impasto brushwork and the fusion (especially at their supposed boundaries) of colours) such that they speak energy and make Matisse seem tame (perhaps over-civilized). The greatest of all of these are the seascapes, especially the ecstatically sublime and destructive The Sea B (1930).

The Sea B (1930)

Standing in front of this painting inevitably releases a kind of feeling of danger and instability (the very opposite of the homely stability associated with heimat and nationalist self-satisfaction). Indeed, the other great picture in my view is that very early one inspired by Ensor, Still Life of Masks (1911). Here the use of very thick red impasto for the lips of the masks (Nolde’s lips fascinate throughout – there is a dissertation there somewhere) allow the background pale blues to shine through in a more frightening view of the post-Nietzsche ‘void’ than anything even in his Nolde’s highly paranoiac Christian paintings. Where there is not restlessness and fear of dissolution, I sense there is only the void in this great painter.

One might not want to think of that looking at his equally great flower and garden paintings (especially Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red) (1942) which are almost a discussion on the meanings of ‘red’ that it will take Rothko to challenge in quality. Of course, this exhibition will be remembered for featuring the great ‘unpainted paintings’ of the 1930s and 40s. I feel there was not enough time in my day to take these as seriously as they should be taken (even an apparently simple single example such as Skater).

His society paintings are as good as Kirchner, perhaps (I think) better and his Cabaret set take us into and beyond the world of Sally Bowles.

This must be seen. No reproduction does Nolde justice – what we see is paint in action (paint as embodied motion) but only in these originals.

All the best


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