The National Gallery of Denmark sets sail in the name of decolonisation with an exhibition about Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner as gentle and critical as the catalogue is problematic.

Emil Nolde, Tänzerin, 1913. Städel Museum © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Photo: bpk / Städel Museum.

It takes quite a sturdy ship to embark on a journey of decolonisation that involves some of the biggest names in Western art history. Here, meanings suddenly become fluid, landmarks become mirages, traumas run deep, and established self-images dissolve. The National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) has set out on precisely such a journey with the exhibition Kirchner and Nolde – up for discussion, a collaborative project involving SMK, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Brücke Museum in Berlin. The exhibition will be shown in all three places over the course of the next year.

Kirchner and Nolde – up for discussion
Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

The project is ambitious in scope, striving to provide an overview of the history of Imperial Germany and the culture in which Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde lived, including the colonial and racist logics that gained momentum in the late 1800s. The exhibition traces the ways in which, during the period 1908 to 1918, Kirchner and Nolde benefited from colonialism in creating what has since been classified as Expressionism.

The labyrinthine, overwhelming, but also captivating exhibition takes us through a succession of themed galleries where different fields meet in special “contact zones,” as the curators, Dorthe Aagesen (National Gallery) and Beatrice von Borman (Stedelijk Museum) call them.

The first gallery addresses the space of museums: it deals with the fundamentally racist collection strategies on which the collections of ethnological and anthropological museums are based – collections that Kirchner and Nolde engaged. Both found inspiration in modes of expression from other cultures, including colonised countries. Nolde’s works, ranging from small pencil sketches on paper to larger painted still lifes depicting artefacts from such collections are placed side by side with an array of exhibits that includes two Benin bronzes now part of the collection at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden.

The Benin bronzes were stolen by British colonisers in an extremely violent attack on Benin City in 1897 and subsequently sold to museums throughout the West. In a brief video interview placed next to the bronzes, artist Enotie Ogbebor emphatically argues that it is important for a people to have access to its historical artefacts, because signs from the past are part of what enables us to qualify the future. His mission is to have the Benin Bronzes repatriated to present-day Nigeria, a request that resonates not only within the global discussion of statues in public space, but also, I think, with the question of how to approach works of art or artists one does not sympathise with. We must have the opportunity and the courage to look at ourselves and each other in agreement and disagreement – under constructive circumstances. To my mind, this is very much what the exhibition at the National Gallery offers.

Another gallery features examples from German popular culture that showcase the pronounced exoticism and racism of the time, including posters advertising the popular Völkerschauen, human zoos, of which Kirchner in particular was an avid spectator. Here people from other cultures were exhibited – and exhibited themselves. The same gallery contains Kirchner’s painting Bauchtanz (Belly Dance, 1909), which depicts a naked brown woman looking over her shoulder in a backwards contrapposto, gazing directly at the painter, the viewer, me. In the next gallery, which deals with the studio space, Kirchner’s use of Black models is addressed and unpacked. Interiors from Kirchner’s studio and the artefacts with which he surrounded himself are exhibited alongside his drawings and graphic portraits of Black models. Photographs and various other presentation material illustrate how little we know about who the models really were. Who is given a personality, voice, and place in history? Who is written out and anonymised?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sitzende Frau mit Holzplastik, 1912. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 84.80. Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 

Interspersed among the works, visitors will find brief video interviews with anthropologists, historians, and artists, each in their own way helping to shed light on Kirchner and Nolde’s production. I was introduced to how both artists can be said to have worked from a basis of inequality, namely the white male’s sense of entitlement rooted in patriarchal, racist and colonialist structures. At the same time, it pushes back at ingrained patriarchal ideas about the genius and autonomy of the artist subject. In doing so, it lifts something of the burden that is also imposed on men in the patriarchy, one to which Kirchner in particular was subject: the idea of having to be an (artistically) self-reliant lone wolf, impenetrable and far above such worldly things as being influenced by others. In this way, the exhibition manages to bring the decolonial outlook ​​into the very substance of the National Gallery’s collection in a remarkably constructive way.

Overall, the exhibition strikes an excellent balance between criticism and understanding. Nowhere does it feel as if the works of Kirchner and Nolde are condemned. Rather, their sources of inspiration are highlighted and presented as works of art and persons of equal worth in themselves, full of history, meaning, and impact. The point is physically emphasised by the exhibition choreography, in which each artefact has a place to itself. Even though the exhibition unpacks violent and sensitive subjects, it still offers space for seeing, sensing and feeling the works. I especially enjoy Kirchner’s beautiful etchings, Nolde’s quirky drawings and a small West African Eshu figure: “Eshu is a powerful deity whose dual nature flickers with the nuances of day and night, light and dark, cruelty and kindness, creation and destruction – the Divine Trickster,” I read in the catalogue.

Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors are funnelled into a small gallery featuring Nolde’s watercolour portraits of Papuans from an expedition to Papua New Guinea in 1913–14. It feels like a visual explosion! Really, I ought not to have been so startled and surprised, for the galleries leading up to this one had duly prepared me with a detailed and well-executed narration of the trip and its purpose. The expedition’s aims were medical, prompted by ideas about declining birth rates among the colonised population. Nolde took on the “free and special task” of documenting the “racial characteristics” of the population – a troubling agenda. Still, the works instantly give me goosebumps and set my heart racing; they are amazingly beautiful. The way Nolde manages to evoke a vibrant and tremblingly intense painterlypresence extends beyond portraiture as a discipline, reaching into a body and an emotional space that resides beyond time and language.

At the same time, there is something distinctly European about them, as Lisa Hilli, an artist with Papuan roots, points out in a brief video interview presented in the small gallery in a manner that is both discreet and insistent. I have to ask myself if my initial thought is true: Is there anything beyond time and language? Probably. But there are also cultural signs, codes, and values ​​that have become so internalised and naturalised that one can easily mistake one for the other. Goosebumps? A racing heart? I suddenly feel a chill down my spine. What am I really looking at – and what am I seeing with? Kirchner and Nolde – up for discussion confronts me critically and effectively in an exemplary way.

Emil Nolde, Shivering Russians, 1914. SMK. © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. 

The openness and complexity I find in the exhibition is, however, nowhere to be found in the catalogue, which was edited by the two curators alongside Mette Houlberg Rung, Laetitia Lai, Sophie Tates, and Anna Vestergaard Jørgensen. The title no longer contains any invitation to take things ‘up for discussion’, but is in line with the title of the Stedelijk exhibition version: Expressionism and Colonialism. While most of the articles are factual and fair, there are too many examples of a starkly reduced space of perception and understanding.

In her article ‘The Social Context of Art: Black Bodies as Seismographs of Colonial (Dis-)Order’, PhD in communication studies and sociology Natasha A. Kelly points out that our present-day lack of knowledge and research into Kirchner’s use of Black models signifies in itself the continued existence of colonial societal structures. This, of course, raises many open questions. All the more reason, then, that I would like to have seen greater theoretical precision, perceptiveness, and understanding in Kelly. In particular, her interpretation of a photo Kirchner took of two Black people, Milly and Sam, who often modelled for him, is based on ideas of power relations and violations which are valid enough in theory, but which appear extremely speculative in relation to the concrete photo. Indeed, in relation to photographic ontology as such. I believe she is doing the exact thing she is supposedly working against when she reduces and adapts the source material to her own agenda and worldview.

Another example appears in the article ‘Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his Studios in Dresden and Berlin’. Written by professor of art history Aya Soika, the article contains an analysis of a painting found on the verso of another painting. Kirchner cropped and reused the canvas, with the result that only a fragment of the original subject remains on what is now the back of the work. This initial painting depicts a woman’s body which, as a result of Kirchner’s recycling of the canvas, has been cropped off at chest level, causing it to appear headless. Soika perceives the woman’s headlessness as proof that Kirchner objectified his model because, as a viewer, one is directed to focus exclusively on the woman’s body and gender. The point seems belaboured – too sharply honed, so to speak – both in terms of the dynamics of objectification and in view of how Kirchner’s other double-sided works and oeuvre display no particular interest in the codes of the fragmented or cropped.

Emil Nolde, Mann, Frau und Katze, 1912. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Photo: Fotowerkstatt Elke Walford und Dirk Dunkelberg.

These are just a few examples. Several texts and analyses are highly prejudiced towards the artists, or demand that they attest to specific communicative intentions in their works. But what if the artists, based on the same sources of inspiration, worked in a completely non-figurative way? After all, Nolde and Kirchner tried in their own ways to expand the realm of painting from the representative to the expressive, to twist their motifs out of truth, out of themselves. Because of their artistic modes of expression, both oeuvres were later judged entartete, that is, “degenerate,” and confiscated by the Nazis, who demanded that all art should reflect their values ​​– in their preferred neoclassical style.

The last article in the catalogue was written by co-curator Beatrice von Bormann from the Stedelijk Museum. It deals with Kirchner’s use of the child model Lina Franziska Fehrmann (called Fränzi), whose portrait also appears in the exhibition. Von Bormann raises the question of whether Fränzi was sexually assaulted. The ‘naturalness’ that women and children represented for these white male artists is exoticising in scope, clearly linking the issue to colonialism. However, von Bormann employs manipulative language to place Kirchner within a parade of sinners, as it were, embroiling him alongside other artists of the age in an un-nuanced guilty-by-association logic in which artistic and personal differences are left out of the equation. This seems highly ironic when she at the same time – as is borne out by the exhibition’s overall approach – insists on the victims of the colonial era’s right to nuanced and respectful treatment.

Furthermore, von Bormann states that the lack of evidence does not mean that Fränzi was not sexually assaulted. When the burden of proof is dismissed and a logic of presumed guilt is applied, no one can ever be acquitted. It may seem harmless, but it is not. Symptomatically, the curator ends by declaring evidence of no importance: the very act of letting children from poor families pose naked must be considered an abuse of power. Is von Bormann’s real critique actually about economic power structures? In any case, the article falls outside the scope of the colonialist critique that otherwise pervades the entire exhibition project. The article’s position makes it the last word in the catalogue, a status emphasised by having been authored by a co-curator. To my mind, it outlines an overdetermined agenda to undermine the artists involved.

The sense of equality, the respect for the complexity and humanity of everyone involved that I saw in the exhibition itself dissipates and vanishes among the pages of the catalogue. Its loss leaves me foundering. However, I shall use this as an excuse and opportunity to visit the poignantly powerful exhibition again. In the name of decolonisation, embark!

Emil Nolde, Palm Trees by the Sea, 1914. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Photo: Fotowerkstatt Elke Walford und Dirk Dunkelberg.