Nazi Art in Many Colours

An exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof recasts Emil Nolde as a Nazi. But this makes no occasion to shame his art, but one for both correcting and complicating art history.

Emil Nolde, Reife Sonnenblumen, 1932. Oil on canvas, 73,5 × 89 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill, ©Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.

Emil Nolde was a Nazi. This has long been a kind of open secret. Still, years of research into the artist’s estate has uncovered “so much new material that the conventional Nolde narrative must be revised.” So reads the press release for Hamburger Bahnhof’s current exhibition Emil Nolde: Eine Deutsche Legende / Der Künstler im Nationalsocialismus (Emil Nolde: A German Legend The Artist in National Socialism).

Every exhibition contributes to – and, as such, changes – an artist’s historical reception. But an exhibition whose primary object is to actively interfere with it nonetheless strikes me as something unusual. Here, we are not only dealing with one of the 20th century’s most important German artists and one of the most prominent representatives of Expressionism, but also an artist who, after the war, styled himself a victim of Nazi cultural policy, and after his death in 1956 became the very emblem of resistance art through Sigfried Lenz’s novel German Lesson (1968). Throughout the opening weekend, people queued up in the rain, one-hundred metres from the road across the courtyard to the museum’s entrance.  

Two of Nolde’s paintings were recently removed from one of Angela Merkel’s offices. It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds. The inclusion of one of them, Brecher (Breaking Wave, 1936), in this exhibition provided an opportunity to exchange both pictures for those of a different artist. Still, it sparked much debate as to what the appropriate response to the newly unequivocal evidence ought to be. “That works by a national-socialist artist, even when the works in themselves are not national-socialist, make a dubious choice for a governmental setting is self-evident,” wrote Jürgen Klaube of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the paper’s feuilleton. “They clearly belong in a museum.” 

Brecher is seemingly pretty harmless. Dark green waves collapse into white foam, while the deep orange sky above matches the outline of the plunge. But Brecher, we are told, was painted in the artist’s most commercially successful year. We can read from his private letters that Nolde felt discriminated against in Berlin’s “Jewish-dominated” art scene of the 1910s and 20s. But during the Nazi years, evidently, he was hot property. That Hitler didn’t like Expressionism was a matter of taste – his colleagues in the party were happy to buy. Have Nolde’s fascist sympathies left a trace on the dark waves? Or in Reife Sonnenblumen (Ripe Sunflowers, 1932), an incredible work in which the sunflowers’ large heads hang burdened as if by illness, practically dripping from their black interiors? Does it make a difference? 

When Nolde’s paintings, as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, no longer belong in the Chancellery, but may still find a place in the museum, it is because art cannot in itself be wrong, but simply depends on context and dissemination. 

The exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof is one of several possible answers to the problem of the relation between an artist’s work and life, the subject of much discussion in the last few years. But whereas artworks have often been ordered removed, or equipped with a warning – banalising to the work, and condescending to the audience – this exhibition seems far more interesting and comprehensive: a serious attempt to educate and complicate rather than censor; a way for art institutions to assume a type of historical-political responsibility without compromising the level of discourse. 

Emil Nolde, Herrin und Fremdling, undated, possibly a sketch for Gemälde Nordische Menschen, 1938. Water colour, 17,1 × 22,5 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Photo: Dirk Dunkelberg, Berlin.

It should be said, however, that few artists have had their public image as severely mobilised as Nolde. Already in the late 1920s, the exhibition shows, a grand retrospective of his works played a big part in the promotion of German Expressionism as the successor to French Impressionism. The tassels and velvet aesthetic of the Wilhelminian era was out, and the nascent Weimar Republic, with Nolde as protagonist, was to be at the centre of the modern movement.  

It follows that modern art, precisely because the Nazis had made an enemy of it, became important to the re-establishment of Germany’s self-image and cultural life after the Second World War as well. Documenta is the obvious example, the Rhineland-New York axis another. It was in this context that Lenz’s German Lessonbecame mandatory reading, and popularised the image of Nolde, thinly veiled as Max Ludwig Nansen, as “degenerate artist” par excellence– a label his correspondence shows he did everything to rid himself of when his work featured in the first editions of the Entartete Kunst exhibition that opened in Munich in 1937. 

The aim of this exhibition, then, is not just to shame Nolde, but rather to increase awareness of the ways in which art acquires its significance, both culturally and politically. It wasn’t only Nolde who styled himself a hero; a whole country needed the story of which he became part. 

There was likely a period in Germany when it felt necessary to tolerate former Nazi sympathisers simply in order to have any politicians, civil servants, writers, or artists left at all. But today it seems most important that we understand Nazism and its nuances not as a tumour that was excised, but as something that continues to be deeply imbedded in the collective culture and history of Germany and of Europe. Both there and not there in saturated landscapes and withering flowers.

Emil Nolde, Kriegsschiff und brennender Dampfer, undated, ca. 1943. Water colour, 14,8 × 24,4 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll. Photo: Dirk Dunkelberg, Berlin.