Review: Emil Nolde at the National Gallery of Ireland

14 Jul

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By Rhea H. Boyden

I am sitting in a Dublin cafe on a date with a man I met on Tinder. He is polite and well-mannered. He asked me out for a coffee so here I am. There is no real chemistry between us and I am sure I will never see him again, but it is pleasant, nonetheless, to meet him for an hour and chat about our lives. He is a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds a degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence. He tells me a bit about his work, which is fascinating. On the table between us lies the book I have with me; the exhibition catalogue of the Emil Nolde exhibit at the National Gallery of Ireland. He asks me about the book. I tell him that one of my passions is reviewing art. He looks at me curiously and asks: ‘How and why do you review art? That must be so difficult. How do you understand the emotions and intention of the artist?’ There is a pause between us. Here is a man who holds an advanced degree from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world and he genuinely does not understand or have a subtle appreciation for the wonderful creative process that is interpreting, analysing and reviewing art.

I have thought a lot about his questions the past few weeks and have been asking myself why and how I review art with the Emil Nolde exhibit as a focus point to aid me in answering these questions. I have been reading and rereading the exhibit catalogue and, because it is summer, and I am feeling a little isolated I have also been on a few more dates with various men in the hopes of finding some intellectual and emotional connection. The dating experiment has failed and so I have given up on it, once again. I have found no connection and so reviewing art becomes even more relevant and significant to me. When one man I was chatting with started being extremely sexually explicit with me I ended the conversation and realised that one of the main reasons I review art is because it presents erotica in a far more enticing and subtle manner. I would rather spend a whole day in a museum spotting subtle hints of erotica than partake in what seems to be the norm these days: brazenly exposing yourself sexually online in an unsolicited manner. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned? I will stick to my principles.

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Emil Nolde – Rain over a Marsh -Copyright -Nolde Stiftung Seebuell (NGI)

There is a lot of subtle erotica in the work of German expressionist painter, printer and watercolourist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). In his autobiography ‘Das eigene Leben: Die Zeit der Jugend-(My own life: the time of youth) he describes the following religious/erotic experience that he had as a boy in his windswept Northern German home of Schleswig Holstein: ‘After school was over, work on the farm began. Sometimes, however, I walked alone over the fields, driven by thoughts and indistinct feelings. In a cornfield, unseen by anyone, I lay down, my back flat on the ground, my eyes closed, my arms outstretched, and then I thought: this is just how my saviour Jesus Christ lay down after men and women had taken him down from the cross, and then I turned over, with a vague belief that the whole wide, round, wonderful Earth was my beloved.’

Emil Nolde grew up in religious Northern Germany and practically the only book in his house was the Bible which he read and studied regularly. His paintings bear many religious and spiritual messages and this is another reason I review art: because as an atheist who never attends church, museums and galleries have become the spiritual halls where I find solace and hope, inspiration and joy. Art galleries to me are landscapes of pleasure and reflection. They help me understand my inner emotional landscape and make peace with myself or solve life’s dilemmas. Keith Hartley, curator of the Scottish National Gallery writes the following on Emil Nolde: ‘Creating an art from within lies at the heart of Nolde’s art: whether it comes from an inner spirituality, from deeply felt emotions, from a powerful self-identification with nature or from a self-abandonment to it.’ I see my own life reflected in Nolde’s work. His spectacular painting ‘Large poppies (Red, Red, Red)’ 1942, are an ode to colour and life and, of course, sex. Red flowers are a pretty cliched and not so subtle metaphor for sex and the female genitalia, but in an age when people send unsolicited photos of their genitalia to shocked recipients on online dating platforms, I like to think that the red flower metaphor has, in comparison, regained its position of being a subtle erotic metaphor. The darker flowers in this painting that are hanging low on their stalks remind me of how I hang my head in dismay when I am unable to make sense of some of the perils of modern sexual expression online.

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Emil Nolde – Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red) 1942 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

In their collaborative book ‘Art as Therapy’ Alain de Botton and John Armstrong lay out the potential uses of art in modern society and how we could re curate our museums to better serve human emotional and psychological frailties. They identify and discuss seven functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. They argue, for instance, that museums are a wonderful place to help us grieve with dignity. Sorrow and mourning are a natural part of life that we all have to deal with. And while I have pondered some of Nolde’s ideas that deal with sex, Botton and Armstrong discuss methods of helping us deal with that other eternally confusing mystery: death. They analyse a large black rectangle sculpture by artist Richard Serra. ‘The sculpture is encouraging a profound engagement with sadness.’ they write. It grants you permission to grieve. I find this comforting, for as I write this essay I am aware of a looming anniversary. My mother died one year ago this week and so naturally I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about death and grief. And while the Nolde exhibit is alive with colour, last summer the National Gallery of Ireland held an exhibit of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer’s work and I went to the exhibit a few weeks after my mother died. It was a much darker exhibit than the Nolde exhibit and I, naturally, was in a pretty dark and confused place in my head and heart. But I drew what solace I could from the exhibition, nonetheless. I recall standing in front of Vermeer’s painting ‘The Astronomer’ and feeling profoundly sad. My mother loved astronomy and I remembered clear starry nights as a child in the States when we would go out stargazing with my mother and she would pull out her glow-in-the-dark star wheel and teach me and my siblings the names of planets and constellations.

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Emil Nolde – Light Breaking Through, 1950 – Copyright Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another reason I review art is because it constantly inspires discussion about politics, the environment and the natural world. Art gives us space to reflect on scientific and environmental discoveries without having to be an expert in scientific fields. Last year I worked as a panel discussion moderator at the Cuirt International Literature Festival in Galway. After hosting my own panel discussion I attended another fascinating panel of environmental writers and they entered into quite a heated debate about how we are still attempting to portray our planet as this wonderful pristine specimen in our well-curated Instagram and Facebook posts. It simply portrays some fantasy of what we wished our planet still looked like. A friend of mine recently posted a photo on Instagram of plastic bottles and bags floating down a river amongst swans and ducks and I liked it and commented saying ‘Thanks for expressing the truth.’ I thought again about this when I read what Emil Nolde had to write about his spectacular paintings of the North Sea: ‘The wide tempestuous sea is still in its original state; it is the same today as it was fifty thousand years ago.’ If Nolde only knew the pitiful state of the oceans today with their shocking level of plastic pollution. Last year President Trump cancelled an Obama era plan on the sale of disposable plastic bottles. I am also writing this essay in the middle of an ongoing and unprecedented heatwave in Ireland. How can art inspire us further to action to battle climate change? Lest we sink into depression at the inaction of our political leaders?

Emil Nolde died decades before witnessing our oceans filling up with plastic, but he did witness the destructive effects of Western Civilisation on native peoples during his trip to the Southern Seas and New Guinea in 1913-14. He took a huge interest in ethnological studies and frequently took trips when in Berlin to the ethnological museum to study, sketch and paint Germany’s exotic new artifacts that were being brought back there from the Southern Seas.

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Emil Nolde – Exotic Figures II, 1911 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another piece by Nolde that really struck me was his oil on canvas piece entitled ‘Party’ (1911). He and his wife spent a lot of time in Berlin at cabarets and dances and Nolde was fascinated with colour, dance and music. But in this painting you are made aware that Nolde is merely an observer and not actually participating in the party. Botton and Armstrong talk about the huge importance of art in helping us remember the important and impactful events of our past, so naturally this painting makes me think both of the many years I spent partying in decadent Berlin and then also, when I quit drinking and partying and merely became and still remain a distant observer of the party. I still love music and dancing of course, and I become very excited at any comparison between music and art and the parallels between the two. Nolde writes in his autobiography that ‘Colours vibrating with the sound of silver and bells ringing of bronze’ are what herald ‘passion and love, blood and death.’ Curator Keith Hartley elaborates: ‘The musical analogies that Nolde uses in talking about colour were common parlance by the mid 1930s. Kandinsky made it a central argument in his theoretical writings.’ To enjoy art I simply need to be open and receptive to music, painting, song and dance. But to answer HOW I review art? It takes a lot of reading and searching for connections. And since I quit the decadent party life I spend way more time reading. It is work, but it is enjoyable work because of the spectacularly sophisticated levels that art curation keeps striving for as well as exquisitely and brilliantly written exhibition catalogues that are being published these days to accompany shows all over the world.

Woodcut by Emil Nolde – Prophet – 1912 – copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Nolde was also very talented at woodcuts and carving and he was fiercely proud of his peasant roots. He likened the tools used and the physical labour applied to creating a woodcut to the hard labour and tools used by the peasants. Art History lecturer Christian Weikop writes the following: ‘The sense of primitive authenticity in the hand-printed woodcut, where no two impressions were ever entirely the same, was for Nolde, a way of proclaiming his kinship with old rural artisan and peasant cultures against the standardising technologies of industrialisation.’ It is the abundance of connections and metaphors that spring up constantly in discussing art that make it a joy to review.

I cannot with good conscience, write a review about Emil Nolde without discussing the fact that he supported the National Socialists and wanted to please them with his art. Hitler despised modern art, however and Nolde’s work was deemed ‘degenerate art’ much of it being confiscated by the Nazis and he was subsequently banned from painting but continued working underground. Can we enjoy the wonderful work of artists who support political regimes that are abhorrent and corrupt or is this hypocritical? I am thinking long and hard about the moral implications of this because Nolde was a hugely talented artist and his work continues to be displayed today. Can we forgive him his political sentiments? These are big questions to ponder.

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Emil Nolde – Young Couple 1913 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

There is a lot to consider but I will conclude this review where I began; pondering relations between men and women. One of Nolde’s much loved works is a lithograph of a young couple which he reproduced 86 times in different colours. It depicts the tension between the sexes. We can draw any conclusion we want from this piece but naturally I think about the relationships I have had to date, how they have ended, and what my hopes are for the future. I will continue my communication of subtle erotica with people I hope understand it. And in the meantime, I think about and review art and I live in hope. Hope, according to de Botton and Armstrong in ‘Art as Therapy’ is something that will never die as long as we keep an open mind and keep engaging with art.

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland Press Office

Featured Image – Emil Nolde – Party (Gesellschaft) 1911 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Emil Nolde ‘Colour is Life’ will move to the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh where it will be on show from July 14th – October 21st 2018

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