The great German Expressionist, watercolorist, and printmaker Emil Nolde was born on August 7, 1867. His Mask Still Life III (above) emblemizes the life of this multidimensional, difficult artist. Nolde may be the most spiritual and religious of all the Expressionists, yet he also directed that spirituality into support for the Nazis and shared in their anti-Semitism. Nolde wore many masks in his life, some good and some evil, so seeing the real artist behind them is no easy task.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff invited Nolde to join Die Brucke, one of the two great Expressionist groups in pre-World War I Germany. Nolde later exhibited with the other group, Der Blaue Rieter. In works such as his 1912 Crucifixion (above), we see how Nolde adapts his deep Christian spirituality into the Expressionist idiom, much in the same colorful vein as Paul Gauguin. Unfortunately, Nolde’s spirituality became entangled with the German nationalism that paved the road to World War I and the anti-Semitism that had stained Germany’s soul for centuries. This same sad combination survived the war and Nolde soon added to the mix the fascist misreading of the works of Nietzsche, propagated by the philosopher’s Fascist–sympathizing sister after his death. (Please see Solomon and Higgins’ What Nietzsche Really Said for an enlightening and entertaining corrective to this persisting misperception.)
World War II and Hitler’s Germany soon turned Nolde’s life upside down. Despite his support of the Nazi regime, Nolde’s art was included in the “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937 and removed from all German museums. The authorities forbid Nolde to paint ever again, forcing him to secretly paint watercolors until war’s end. Painting under the penalty of death, Nolde felt the cruel taste of fascism’s double cross. Although Nolde created the woodcut The Prophet (above) in 1911, I’ve always seen it as capturing the torment of his realization of what he had done. Nolde stands as a strange contradiction to me. When he traveled to the South Seas in 1913 and witnessed the cruelty of colonialism, he wrote, “We live in an evil era in which the white man brings the whole earth into servitude.” Such admirable thoughts somehow coexisted with his faith in Nazi ideals for bringing “the whole earth into servitude.” Amazingly, Nolde survived World War II and became a celebrated elder statesman of German art until his death. Perhaps more than any other German artist, Nolde demonstrates the paradox of the coexistence of beauty and cruelty in the same soul.