Emil Nolde as Limit Case
Once in a while an exhibition comes along that serves as a ‘limit case’ – an exhibition of visual art that crosses a threshold, that is – requiring that it be subjected to close scrutiny. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it seems to me that we have a duty to ask difficult questions, possibly even rethinking the ethical responsibilities that fall upon the institution that hosts it, and the organisers behind it.
In recent years, discussion of the German-Danish artist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) has increasingly included references to the artist’s relationship to Nazism or, to be more precise, Germany’s National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP): an organisation that, during the artist's later years, reached deep into the heart of the German psyche and, out of the chaos of factional infighting, a series of internal power grabs, a ruined economy, widespread fear, regional putsches (and not least, several lesser-known coups d'état in the wider provinces), in a relatively short period of time constructed a vast bureaucratic machine from which would ultimately emerge what came to be known, in the euphemistic rhetoric of Nazism, as ‘the Final Solution’ – the primary aspiration of which was the entire extermination of the Jews of Europe and the wider geo-political sphere.
Against this backdrop, Nolde is viewed as a man of contradictions with a 'conflicted' personality: a fervent supporter of Hitler, a sworn Party member, and a controversial anti-Semite. As an artist he also suffered extensive censorship, however, and his work was subjected to widespread confiscation and denounced as 'degenerate'; despite him believing that he had something to contribute to the developing vision for a new German art. For Nolde, his art offered precisely that essence of Nordic culture that could take Germany forward into the National Socialist era. For Adolf Hitler, he represented precisely the opposite, however. As Frederic Spotts has highlighted, he was one of a great many artists who Hitler believed had 'suddenly changed sides [to] enlist under the banner of the new state as if nothing had happened.' (p 156)
If you think that you have heard this all before, then read on, because all that you have encountered so far in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mediasphere might reflect only a partial record of the extent to which Nolde’s vicious anti-Semitism infected both his art and his life, eventually leading him to revisit his memoirs and revise his own record of a past that he felt required erasure following the collapse of what was to have been the 'Thousand Year Reich'.
2. EMIL NOLDE IN CONTEXT
That Nolde is currently the subject of a prominent survey exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) in the form of Emil Nolde: Colour Is Life (organised in collaboration with the Nolde Foundation Seebüll, and the National Gallery of Ireland) presents plenty of food for thought concerning his reception today, and not least how we might best understand this most complex of artists. Is it really possible to separate his art from his life, or has the time finally come to devise new ways of reading and viewing the work of artists such as Nolde?
From the outset I should state that I will not be addressing the art of Nolde's formative years, the development of his art as a key figure in what is referred to as German Expression, nor his much later works completed during his years of 'exile'. While Nolde's works from these periods are integral to the exhibition currently on show at Modern Two, they are also well known and are extensively represented in a plethora of surveys in book format on both Nolde himself, and German Expressionism generally; as well as exhibitions that are frequently staged, most recently in Frankfurt, Vienna, Oslo, and Madrid.
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To place Nolde at the core of a society that allowed itself to become complicit in the Nazi ambition to erase the Jews from the map of Europe is not just fitting, and appropriate, but absolutely essential if we are to read the man for what he was. Occasionally there comes along certain figures who serve as a ‘limit case’ for our understanding of the way they should be presented, and Emil Nolde was (and remains) just such a man. To merely explain the duality that exists in his becoming at once a ‘card-carrying member of the Nazi party’, and also an artist out of favour with the regime, is not enough. Something more is required. It is not just inappropriate to set aside his personal life and his views, much of which were expressed long before the rise of Nazism, I believe. Instead, we need to subject them to ever-closer scrutiny, understanding of the fact that they would come to infect his professional life, and in certain cases pose huge risks to his fellow artists. too.
In some ways it is encouraging to see some discussion unfolding already with regard to Nolde’s connections to Nazism during the later years of his life, for in the USA, museums such as The Museum of Modern Art still gloss over his enduring anti-Semitism, effectively sanitising the life of an artist who should be held accountable for playing a part (particularly in his writings but in his art, too) in the process that took Germany beyond what the American psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton has referred to, as the Threshold of Genocide (see: Charny, I. W. (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Genocide, Vol.2. p 472)
As the Museum of Modern Art’s sanitising entry on Nolde’s life in Hitler’s Third Reich reads:
Emil Nolde, German, 1867–1956 […] Initially sympathetic to National Socialism. Nazis nevertheless confiscated 1,052 works, more than from any other artist. Prohibited by Nazis from painting in 1941; worked secretly in watercolor. His studio in Berlin, with archive of his prints, was destroyed by bombs in 1944. (see: https://www.moma.org)
It is merely a précis, I know, but it presents a grossly warped view that is prevalent elsewhere – indeed, common. Sadly, however, it could be argued that it serves as a précis of Nolde as he is presented in the current exhibition to which I refer, too, but I will get to that later.
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That I began by addressing a little of the socio-political backstory to what became known to some as the Holocaust, or to others the Shoah, is not because I want to count myself among the many who have had a stab at summing up what is also a ‘limit case’ framed as Europe’s historic burden; it is because I believe it is important to first establish just how much words can often fail in our attempts to briefly describe that particular moment in history. How easy it is to trot out the apparent facts (to which figures can be added, too), but how much in doing so we enter what I have come to view as a form of 'linguistic void'. When it comes to some topics, language does sometimes fail us.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a considerable amount of literature surrounding the topic of Germany’s policies of eliminationist anti-Semitism during the early part of the twentieth century, however – of course there is. How much of it actually adds anything to what we think we already know, though? And how do we arrive at what we think we know? Because somebody tells us so, and that’s the way it is? One of the ways in which we have come to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust and the events that were part of the process which gave rise to it, is indeed through the quoting of figures in a banal reckoning of the balance sheet.
'Six million Jews' is right up there, but as you scan down 'the ledger of banal equivalence', you eventually run into the quoting of other figures – on the page relating to 'degenerate art', somewhere near the bottom, for example, you will find that Nolde was a victim of the seizure of some 1,052 of his works, as in the case of the Museum of Modern Art précis.
In the banality of assumed victimhood the seizure of 1,052 works of Nolde's counts for something, I guess, but as the writer Gore Vidal once noted, you quickly run into problems if you take that route, for the enormity of the Holocaust looms so large that it can simply cripple our understanding of other incomprehensible crimes. As Vidal put it, 'I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make [a] point to a young Jewish movie producer. "After all," said Isherwood, "Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals." The young man was not impressed. "But Hitler killed six million Jews".' Isherwood's reply was abrupt and to the point; "What are you? In real estate?" Whatever you think of this encounter (and do not presume to think that you can sum up my agenda from my quoting of Vidal's recollection) my point is that our fixation on the numbers can often blind us to the wider context, and particularly the much wider and more complex process of the crimes to which individuals were subjected during this darkest of times.
In recent years, works of literary testimony by some of the last survivors of the death camps have even been questioned concerning their authenticity – and not just by Holocaust deniers but other survivors, too – while artists such as Nolde are meanwhile celebrated for their art, despite the fact that it once functioned as part of the much wider cultural scene that fostered sufficient racial hatred that ‘the Final Solution’ was allowed to be carried out in plain sight (and make no mistake here, in many cases it was). Though Himmler may have addressed his SS with regard the fact that the annihilation of Jews would never be spoken of, it was not long before 'the Final Solution' was already an open secret in Germany, Austria, Poland, and beyond.
Nolde may have failed in his desire to play a prominent part in the workings of the National Socialist machine, but he had a damn good try, and we need to consider what his efforts in that regard actually amounted to, rather than (as has been the case in some of the media time given to the current exhibition to date), merely skimming the surface, trotting out the figures, and unwittingly, carelessly, annulling the facts of the much bigger picture that can be seen for what it is when, finally, we zoom out again to consider the extent of the processes of what led to the Holocaust, and the extent of those other interconnected crimes too.
Though words may often fail in our attempts to give voice to the ‘limit case’ of the Holocaust (and believe me, I struggle here too), this should not discourage us from trying to attempt to piece together the record concerning those who were complicit in the many mechanisms by which such a singular ‘event’ as the Holocaust came into being. Indeed Nolde, as that other ‘limit case’ can, and perhaps should, be held up as a notable example of a great many ‘ordinary Germans’ whose complicity seems impenetrable to our understanding now. Sure, he divides opinion, but is it not our duty to consider Nolde's complicity, too? To understand it, if we can; to recognise it for what it is; and to call it out when we see it reflected in our midst today? But where to start?
Put simply, the Holocaust and ‘the Final Solution’ was no unwitting socio-political aberration – the vast majority of citizens living within the what is generically referred to as The Third Reich, each played an integral part (although there were notable exceptions that extend well beyond those named as 'Righteous Among the Nations', and they are well documented). To diminish the part of anyone who contributed to a process that went beyond the Threshold of Genocide is to completely miss the point of what the Holocaust represents, as both a process in history and a moment still present. To omit from the record Nolde’s role in this regard would be near-reprehensible at a time when his work is being celebrated here in Scotland.
And yet, that is what seems to have been occurring in not just the reception of his work by the public since it went on display, but also in the way in which several critics and scholars have approached it and are interpreting it, too. What follows is therefore not a review of the work of Emil Nolde – Colour is Life in the conventional sense, but intended as a 'provocation' in response to an exhibition that is currently offering up (perhaps unwittingly) difficult questions concerning how Nolde's work should be dealt with by our culture industries in the future, as well.
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First let us consider very recent history, however. As if anyone might have missed the fact, we are currently living in rather strange times. At the start of her tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party in 2016, Theresa May was to deliver a keynote speech in Birmingham that marked out just how strange the times we are living in would become: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,’ announced May, while in our metropolitan centres attacks on European workers living in the UK rose sharply following the EU Referendum, the result of which had led to the Conservative Party electing May as their new leader.
As emeritus professor and senior research fellow at King’s College London, Jeremy Adler, was to subsequently respond to May’s announcement in a letter to The Observer, though (October 9, 2016); in her dictum, via which she sought to progress her antagonism to the ideology of world citizenship, May was, in effect, repudiating the values of the Enlightenment for which cosmopolitanism was: ‘the apex and indeed the glory of Enlightenment philosophy, encompassing liberty, equality, fraternity, and all our human rights.’
Invoking the spirit of Kant, whom Adler noted had ‘proposed the ideal of world citizenship as a means to achieve perpetual peace,’ he went on to highlight that cosmopolitanism, in the pejorative sense used by May, may be traced back to German anti-Semitic discourse of the 1920s and before – ‘the “rootless Jew” was seen as a “cosmopolitan” citizen from “nowhere” [and] subsequently, the prejudice was adopted by the Nazis, and used to justify the slaughter of the Jewish people as “non-citizens” and “non-persons”.
Of Adler’s intervention here, the first thing that should be noted is that he ascribed to the pejorative slur of the ‘rootless Jew’, a past tense context to illustrate the fact that it predated Nazism, and this will be relevant to my consideration of Nolde, both as artist and man, and the way that his work is currently being interpreted and received. The discussion of Nolde’s work from an art historical perspective is, for some, naturally relevant, but that is certainly not where I am heading with this.
3. OUR READING OF NOLDE & THE FAILURE OF ART CRITICISM
However hard we might try to see Nolde in the context of the role he played in the development of German Expressionism, or the wider maelstrom of a Northern Romantic tradition into which he was placed by the art historian Robert Rosenblum in 1975 (pp 132-8), the anti-Semitic propagandising elements of Nolde’s work as part of the process that led the German people to become complicit in the mass-killing of Jews remains my primary concern. I have already alluded to the fact that in discussion of what this means, we often enter what might be described as a linguistic void – a space that defies description in the sense that, however we might choose to name the processes(es) of the Holocaust, language simply breaks down, or just seems wholly inadequate.
If I am to try and name the anti-Semitism that was intrinsic to Nolde’s art in particular (as well as his writings that were the cornerstone of much art historical research in previous decades), even that can present itself as a complex exercise, partly due to the way in which the record of Nolde’s life has been tampered with (not least by the artist himself who revisited his four-volume memoir following the war, carefully erasing certain references to his lifelong anti-Semitism, his views on inter-racial mixing, as well as his multifarious connections to the Party machine). That is not the emphasis that the exhibition has been largely accorded by the British press however, and nor was it the emphasis when the current exhibition was previously on display at the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin.
Sure, the headlines have often mentioned that 'Nolde was a Nazi’, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Nolde the Nazi attempted to erase his Nazi past and his virulent anti-Semitism, too, but then he would, wouldn’t he? What goes around tends to come around, unless it is the wheels of a cattle truck that has just arrived at the unloading ramp of Auschwitz-Birkenau… then time stands still... or so survivors have testified. I do not speak as a witness, though. I wasn’t there. It is testimony that offers me some insight here, and that's how it should be. But how does testimony compete with the 'banality of the headline' in today's media saturated environment?
The truth of the matter here is that it is sadly the audience that now provides the context. I once attended a screening of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which is based upon the written testimony of the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, who was a Holocaust survivor. I’ll spare you the synopsis if you haven’t seen the film, or better still read Szpilman’s memoir, but you’ll catch the gist nonetheless. As the lights came up and the audience shuffled out, two women in front of me, leaving together, walked silently ahead. I took their pace for reverence at first, as though they were pondering what they had just seen on screen over the course of two and a half hours, attempting to take in the sheer gravity of what had unfolded during the course of the film. Then, one looked at the other and queried, at a volume loud enough for me to hear, ‘Do you think they were really that beastly to them?’ The Jews, she meant. She still couldn’t comprehend it. She didn’t know. She wasn’t there.
Many reviews that have appeared and been read in connection with the arrival of Nolde’s work in Scotland from Ireland were actually written during the period in which Emil Nolde – Colour is Life was installed in Dublin. John Burns, for example, an Irish critic writing for The Sunday Times last March 2018, noted Nolde’s connection to the Nazi machine and his membership of the Party and, as he stated it, Nolde was a supporter of the Nazis, and ‘joined a regional branch in the 1920s.’ The fact of Nolde’s provincial location in relation to the greater Germany has become one of the primary jumping off points for several other critics too, a number of whom indirectly imply a sense of Nolde not being in the thick of the engagé action taking place elsewhere in Germany at that time.
With little background knowledge of what geo-political consequences led to him to join the Party as a Danish citizen, and thus a member of the National Socialist Association of Northern Schleswig (an organisation whose constituency was made up of 'ethnic Germans' living in what was Denmark), it is easy to mistake this development for something lesser than what it represented. Nolde was no less committed to National Socialism than any other newly signed up member, and we should not underplay the fact that what we are considering here is an emerging regime which, in the slogan-saturated atmosphere of post-Weimer Germany, was to do very well out of its unofficial slogan, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (One People, One Nation, One Leader). But some do not know this, for they were not there.
'In 1941, [Nolde] was suspended from the Reich Chamber of Art and banned from being a painter. Of course, this does not exonerate him from his abhorrent political and racial views – and, for many people, knowledge of Nolde’s Nazi sympathies will forever tarnish the experience of looking at his art.'
– Alastair Sooke – The Telegraph
In the late-1920s and early-30s, according to Richard Grunberger, the idea of the Folk community was consistently used in Germany as a means to promise ‘a society no longer split into haves and have-nots.’ (p 36) Grunberger goes on to state, with regard social life in The Third Reich, that there was an ‘impression that the whole nation was finding itself through mutual aid. Even anti-Nazis proved to be impressionable: the resistance leader Carl Goerdeler [...] credited Nazism with having “taught Germany the lesson that people have to help one another”.’ (p 77) In yet another observation, Grunberger notes that Germany’s National Socialists, ‘exploited [a] craving for “folk community” and evolved their own synthesis of quasi-socialist promise and quasi-capitalist fulfilment. They used the slogan of revolution to divert attention from the realities of political continuity and slaked anti-capitalist yearnings with a diet of pseudo-social change.’ (p 68).
As Steve Hanson has additionally shown, to join the party in a localist backwater was certainly no indication of a lack of direct involvement; after all, the Völkisch movement in Germany thrived on the idea of ‘the local’ or one’s locale, which gradually became the Aryan meeting place where Jews didn’t go. (pp 4-5) Indeed, many of the reviews of Emil Nolde – Colour is Life that have appeared this year, highlight Nolde’s own thinking on his sense of locale, realised through what may be referred to as the German concept of Heimat.
In his review for The Sunday Times, Burns perhaps unwittingly points to the fact that the exhibition’s curator in Dublin, Sean Rainbird (who gave a lecture on the exhibition here in Scotland shortly after it opened) showed little political acumen or historical imagination in stating that one of Nolde’s most vehemently anti-Semitic works (Martyrdom II, 1921, that I will discuss below), ‘long predated the Second World War.’ The aligning of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the war, as one, is an inadequate defence of Nolde or his works that predate the war, however: anti-Semitism was not something merely stirred up in Germany upon Hitler’s becoming leader of the party (a common belief), nor upon his historic power grab in late February 1933. The breeding ground for anti-Semitic thinking and action has a long history in Europe, and pogrom, persecution, and genocide were certainly not recent phenomena. But how do we know this, if we were not there?
Our ‘historical imagination’ at least requires that we are sophisticated enough in our thinking to make the connection between the pogroms of the early fifth century, which were influenced by fourth century patristic literature; the mediaeval pogroms, pyre burnings and tortures of middle-European Jews often sanctioned by church and state too; the expulsions and persecutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had a primarily political motivation; the Russian pogroms of the early nineteenth century; and the continuing anti-Semitism and religious and political purges throughout Europe that were eventually to culminate in mass-genocides under both Hitler and Stalin. European anti-Semitism has been institutionalised by church and state for centuries, and depicted in art, too, as is the case below in Natalya Goncharova's painting Rabbi with Cat, c.1912, (currently on display at Modern Two from the Collection of the National Galleries Scotland). In the 1920s and 30s figures such as Nolde conveyed such institutionalised anti-Semitism to the audience of avant-garde culture, as well, but for quite different reasons and certainly with quite different intent.
Another point worth stressing here is that the rise of Nazism was not just a power grab in a bureaucratic or paramilitary sense, but also a grab for power over the ownership of the long-established history of anti-Semitism that, as noted, went back to the mediaeval period and before. When Rainbird told Burns that the gallery would not cave in to pressure being voiced in Ireland from what were describe as a mere ‘few’ (that is, a mere few who wanted Nolde’s anti-Semitic Martyrdom II taken down and removed), he was to comment to Burns; ‘We are not taking the painting down, and I think the description [we have] is fine. It is mentioned in the catalogue [but] we don’t go into huge levels of detail about it. I don’t want to pull something out of proportion.’
But, hang on... Excuse me? Rewind. What is required to see the interconnectedness of the long and sorry history here that clearly eluded the curator? Just for the record, Rainbird studied Art History and German at University College London between 1979 and 1984. Following his tenure as Senior Curator at Tate between 1987 and 2006, he was to take on the role of Director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Am I missing something here? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, writing in The Times meanwhile, pretty much panned the exhibition when it was in Dublin, but she too downplays Nolde’s anti-Semitism as a mere means that the artist deployed to ‘curry favour (and hence further his career) on the far right,’ which if you consult the historical record is simply not the case – even in his private correspondence Nolde was quick to nail himself as a Nazi not just in name but in action, too. For Telegraph critic Alastair Sooke, Nolde was ‘an easy figure to loathe […] whose anti-Semitism is evident in various monstrous hook-nosed characters that appear in his paintings,’ but again Sooke’s reference is a passing one. Though he offers some further limited discussion of Nolde’s Nazi connections, it did not go much further than that.
'Is Nolde the Wagner of the art world? Is his talent so extraordinary that, however tainted his reputation, we should still turn up? Curators make what feels like a fairly determined bid to exonerate him by opening the show with a room of works that dwell on his intense belief in the importance of what the German language describes as Heimat. It translates loosely as “homeland”.'
– Rachel Campbell-Johnston – The Times
The critic for the Irish Times, Aidan Dunne, was to take another angle on the ‘currying favour’ line developed by Campbell-Johnston, noting that, ‘When Himmler had invited [Nolde] to the 10th anniversary celebrations of Hitler’s failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, he duly turned up. After being labelled degenerate, he wrote a toadying letter to Goebbels, pointing out his efforts as a champion of National Socialism and offering a self-pitying account of himself as just the kind of German the Nazis loved.’ Evidence enough, I think, to claim that Nolde was no shrinking violet from a ‘cultural backwater’ in the far north, maybe.
As for The Independent, the online paper’s critic, William Cook, took another tack entirely in light of the outpouring of news at that time following revelations about the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein and other celebrity figures and public servants (something that was later to be discussed on BBC Radio Scotland in connection with Nolde, also): ‘the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?’
'How could an artist who painted with such humanity and sensitivity support a murderous tyranny which was already persecuting its own citizens long before Germany went to war?'
– William Cook, The Independent
Again quoting the exhibition’s curator, Sean Rainbird, Cook went on to report, ‘If Nolde was merely a second-rate artist, this moral conundrum would be a lot less troubling.’ But why? I don't remember those using the #metoo hashtag forgiving predatory bosses in the workplace arena, while issuing forth their just invective for Hollywood moguls alone. But Cook misses the point entirely anyway, in asking 'How could an artist who painted with such humanity and sensitivity support a murderous tyranny which was already persecuting its own citizens long before Germany went to war?' According to the Reich Citizenship Law that was passed unanimously in 1935, only people of 'German or kindred blood' could be citizens of Germany, and so in the eyes of 'the law', with Jews defined by 'birth and by blood alone', pretty much anyone of Jewish ancestry was no longer considered a citizen. But then Cook did not know this, I guess, because he wasn't there.
Apparently, if you read the press given to Colour is Life, the argument goes something like this, though: ‘Plenty of other people who supported the Nazis have been forgiven and forgotten. It’s the power of [Nolde's] art which makes his story so fascinating – and so disturbing […] If he’d been just another journeyman, his membership of the Nazi party would be no big deal.’ With allusions to Hitler’s favoured filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, the Independent’s readers were told via Cook’s critique that certain artists are, ‘far too talented for [their] own good. The thing that troubles us about [Nolde], and those moviemakers who’ve become today’s moral bogeymen [presumably another allusion to Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al], is that eternal gap between mortal man and his immortal art.’
We are in dangerous territory here, and equivalence with regard matters such as these is something that I’ve always found a somewhat ugly sport. The fact of the matter is, though, Nolde wasn’t merely a second-rate artist, nor a journeyman painter, and we are dealing with him. A man who, for a while, had the ear of many of those who were considered the Party elite. The controversy that arises when we argue for or against the case for equivalence was, for a time, a pretty heated issue in Germany, particularly during the Historikerstreit (or Historians' Dispute of 1986 and 1987), but maybe I’ll save that one for another day and you can Google it for now – that is, if you don’t know, because you weren’t there.
'It would be dishonest and cowardly to try to clean up Nolde and pretend his victimisation as a degenerate artist cancels out his keen support for Hitler.'
– Jonathan Jones, The Guardian
The Guardian's Jonathan Jones got closet to the nub of the argument with regard to Nolde’s art, however, and that is that many would ‘rather keep [Nolde] as a footnote to the history of modern art […] In fact, the Nazis themselves provided an alibi of sorts for anyone wanting to admire Nolde’s artistic brilliance, while separating him from the genocide of millions that was the ultimate result of views like his.’ The problem is here, though, is that it is only fairly recently that the extent of Nolde’s connections to the Party and its higher echelons has really entered the public consciousness (if it has at all in any meaningful or lasting way) and even Keith Hartley, Chief Curator and Deputy Director at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh admitted, in a BBC Radio Scotland discussion item, that when he embarked upon the organisation of the exhibition, he too was ignorant of the true extent of the political trajectory that Nolde’s life had taken.
4. WHAT TO DO WITH NOLDE?
As a young undergraduate attending lectures at London’s Chelsea School of Art in the early-1980s, Nolde was certainly not introduced to me as a mere footnote to the history of Modern Art, nor a one-time member of the NSDAP. He was up there with the greats of the period – no questions asked. I didn’t like his art then and I don’t like it now, but at that time it was because I viewed it through the lens of Doris Saatchi, who, in the pages of Artscribe magazine (October 1982, p 18), was promoting ‘bad painting’ (by which she meant ‘good’) replete with the notion of the artist as a heroic figure presenting, ‘rude truths in a junky world.’
It seemed to me then that the slap-and-daub primitivism of German Expressionism, although it had its quirky charm was, on closer inspection, pretty wanting and empty – a mere blip on the visceral radar that one noted while on route to more interesting destinations. However, a growing disquiet around Nolde’s political leanings and anti-Semitism emerged rather later and, in 2013, I learned of it first via the German news magazine Der Spiegel which reported:
Documents from a Swiss estate suggest that the artist was not only a staunch anti-Semite, but also a passionate Nazi and admirer of Adolf Hitler. Nolde declared in these to a "faith" in the "great German leader Adolf Hitler" [and] the previously unknown documents evidently reveal Nolde's National Socialist and anti-Semitic feelings. [From the article now archived here.]
Another approach seen more widely in response to the Nolde exhibition in Scotland has been to suggest that Nolde is celebrated in Germany still today (which is indeed the case) and that his art is the subject of much appreciation and scholarly study. Hell, let’s not shrink from the truth; Nolde was ‘rehabilitated’ in Germany a long time ago and, prior to his death in 1956, he was awarded the German Order of Merit. Much of his output has also been credited as having an influential role in the development of German Neo-Expressionism in the late-1970s and early-80s as well, revealed most strongly in the work of Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Per Kirkeby, A. R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and others, all of whom were included in the Royal Academy of Art’s A New Spirit in Painting show of 1981. And I know, because I was there.
That said, while German painters of the 1970s and particularly the mid-1980s picked over the legacy of their parents' and grandparents' generations, German academics were developing their own rather special ways of addressing the problem of one-time ‘Nazi sympathisers’ or active Party members. Indeed, the racially based caricatures that Nolde inserts into his painting Martyrdom II (we will get to it eventually) bear a strong similarity to the caricaturing of Jews in the 1940 film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew); the infamously abhorrent anti-Semitic propaganda film that was presented to the people of Germany as ‘a documentary’ by the Party’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
It is also the case that racial stereotyping according to facial features was central to the National Socialist programme of ‘Racial Hygiene Classes’, which were the learning ground that would come to underpin the acceptance of its wider Eugenics programme, as well as the murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children perceived to be a burden upon the German economy due to their inability to work, whether due to disability, infirmity, or hereditary illness. Even those born blind were 'invited' to be sterilised so as not to 'infect' the mythical Aryan gene pool. Heads of racial types, created by anthropologists from plaster moulds of the faces of living subjects, were meanwhile mass-produced in Nazi Germany for use in exhibitions and at all levels of education, from school children to members of the SS, primarily as an aid to recognising or demonising 'the other'.
In Germany today, public distribution and exhibition of Der Ewige Jude is prohibited, and permission of its use for academic study is only given to universities where a member of faculty has a proven and verifiable competence in media science and Holocaust studies. Remember that Sunday Times report in which Rainbird stated of Nolde’s anti-Semitic propagandising art that, ‘it is mentioned in the catalogue [but] we don’t go into huge levels of detail about it. I don’t want to pull something out of proportion.’ Well in Germany achieving a proportionate response seems to matter, or so I am reliably informed. While we could argue here over what is proportionate and what is not, when it comes to the display of visual art, I prefer to err on the side of caution and say that burying such references as catalogue mentions or brief text descriptions to the works is probably not the best way to go, particularly in light of the foregoing information.
In terms of their museology, the organisers of Emil Nolde – Colour is Life would do well to look at examples of signage and information-sharing that are used to exemplary effect by institutions that seek to truly inform with regard how propagandising visual art and images work, instances of which exist in the cases of the Imperial War Museum, London, and the travelling exhibitions organised by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Both of these institutions have carefully thought through how necessary it is to counter racial stereotyping in propagandising imagery with informative displays that engage their visitors, rather than greeting them with a wall of text that is off-putting to many, and is frequently ignored.
When you are dealing with ‘limit case’ subjects such as Nolde's most anti-Semitic imagery, it seems to me that there is a duty to go the extra mile, including supplementary displays where it is deemed most necessary. While I'm aware that that goes against the grain of art museum conventions (where discrete labelling is preferred so as not to 'impose on the work' unduly), there are occasions when it is wholly appropriate to impose a view on the work and attack these issues head on.
Worth noting here, too, I think, is that when I contacted the National Galleries Scotland to ask whether the text in the exhibition publication referred to was the same as that which appeared in Ireland, I was told that it was. What’s more, it is pretty much the same information that appears on the exhibition's signage boards and labelling, as well. That's not to say that National Galleries Scotland have neglected to signal some relevant information up front, for visitors are greeted with limited information on arrival. My questions here are; (a) Does the information imaginatively engage those approaching the exhibition? and; (b) Is it only a partial record or complete? In the case of the latter, it is wanting, I believe.
While Nolde's art should be seen, and by many (just in case anybody thought I was taking a censorial approach, which I'm not), in light of Nolde's often unashamedly anti-Semitic content – which unlike the content of The Eternal Jew, is so much harder to 'unpick' and evaluate in terms of the artist’s overtly political motives – unless we embark on a more thoroughgoing comparative analysis of where art and life intersect, then our efforts are bound to fall short. It's time to rethink, I believe, and deploy interpretive materials that dissect such content responsibly and with information displayed prominently throughout, even calling upon the wealth of expertise that is available from within the field of Holocaust Studies, if need be.
I mean our newspaper critics and radio presenters no disrespect, but it simply should not fall to them to evaluate the complexities of Nolde’s art in the very limited page or air-space that is available to them (although it would have helped if the BBC had called upon critics who actually knew of Nolde’s work before they invited them to discuss it with Hartley in the broadcast referred to above). It is not necessarily the case that newspaper critics lack the political imagination or critical acumen to analyse Nolde’s art in the space available to them, I think they often do, but more about whether these issues have been sufficiently thought through and addressed in the first place, and I don't think they have – though National Galleries Scotland seem not to agree.
After all, if Nolde’s art epitomises the complexity of the Holocaust as a social process, and thus offers something to us that may lead to a greater understanding of how the mass killing of six million or more Jews came about in clear sight of the wider population (not to mention their turning a blind eye to the fate of others, which included the pan-European killing of eastern-Europe’s Romani, the Poles, Slavs, and almost anyone considered an enemy of the Reich or a threat to the myth of a pure Aryan master race, including homosexuals, ‘incurable’ alcoholics and, not least, the physically and mentally disabled, too, all of which has a social relevance today), why not seize the moment, and try something new? Consult those with expertise on how anti-Semitic art should be read, for as I have already alluded, sometimes words are not enough and language breaks down.
5. ANTI-SEMITIC ART AS ‘LIMIT CASE’ EXHIBIT
If the expertise I have referred to is not used to its fullest potential, I strongly believe that we do fall prey to a form of inadvertent revisionism and repugnant rehabilitation of one of recent art history’s most vile anti-Semites, largely through the sheer idiocy of ‘editorially’ playing down the most pressing questions about an exhibition that merits fulsome discussion, as well as huge sensitivity. Indeed, this might be the best place to note that although Martyrdom II is reproduced in the exhibition publication, in the Introduction and in four accompanying essays, it is not mentioned directly at all!
Anyone who calls me out on simply ‘playing the Nazi card’ here, or seeks to highlight that much of the exhibition contains work that lacks any connection to Nazism might want to think again. This is serious, and I don’t give a fig for what a fine colourist Nolde was with regard his other works. He has had a fair run (more than many others who are his equals, I would say) and maybe the time has come now to just take a step back and reconsider. Fine colourists such as Nolde may be few and far between if we look for some that match his sensitivity in that regard, but they do exist, and I’ll gladly trade Nolde for any one of them if he is to be presented in the way that I maintain he is here.
If we do not treat such matters as ones of principle, then we also inevitably end up descending to the level of Nolde’s propagandising art. Present it in a way that it may be interpreted as near-context-free, and you are every bit a part of the problem that is frequently seen in our major cities and urban spaces in the form of race hatred today. Comments that the Nolde exhibition offers the opportunity to confront beauty and ugliness in full view of each other are just not helpful, either. In the Europe of today, where our political leaders are seen to deride a desire to look upon ourselves as citizens of the world, I can do that pretty much anywhere if I set my mind to it.
Nolde’s anti-Semitism as art history’s own ‘limit case’ takes us into a whole new world of linguistic complexity, and both art criticism and art history are not adequate enough as disciplines to address it alone. Something more is required.
What I really object to in terms of Nolde’s work being spoken of in this way, though, is being told that through his art we can bear witness to the horror that his anti-Semitism represents. Tell that to the last remaining survivors of the death camps and they will tell you what it is to bear witness. Anyone with even a moderate take on anti-Semitism as it relates to the crossing of the Threshold of Genocide knows that you do not (indeed, you cannot) claim the role of authentic witness in this context, and frankly, I’ve grown tired of being told that in this or that artist’s work we might make the mistake of assuming superior moral judgements that reinforce polarity rather than understanding, too.
It is in Nolde’s art (some of it, that is) that the roots of such polarities are fostered in full view. That is why certain aspects of his art require skilful interpretation and backgrounding by those with expertise in not art criticism but the much wider fields of Holocaust Studies and Representation. Let us not pretend that we can ever bear witness through Nolde’s art alone, then. Nolde’s anti-Semitism as art history’s ‘limit case’, too, takes us into a whole new world of linguistic complexity, and both art criticism and art history are not adequate enough as disciplines to address it alone.
But here’s the rub. It’s a bigger task than you might think, and it involves such a leap of imagination that I doubt many museum curators possess sufficient perspicacity or critical acumen to rethink how such art could or should be displayed. Certainly a part self-congratulatory, part critical video thrown up on YouTube does not cut it for a centre of excellence such as a National Gallery of Modern Art. I know budgets are tight for many major institutions, but assistance is available from organisations with a vested interested in others getting this right.
You want to know how the land lies when it comes to such issues as these? As Berel Lang has noted, ‘Anyone who recognizes that the Holocaust poses unusual problems of representation also […] admits the possibility that limits apply to or constrain such representation.’ (p ix) This is the kind of interpretation that such an exhibition requires, not passing references on the way to the rescuing of Nolde’s reputation as ‘a colourist of interest’. Andrea Reiter has similarly written, in her analysis of some one hundred and thirty works of Holocaust literature, of the quite exceptional nature of what we are dealing with here, and the manner in which it ‘places heavy demands on the expressive power of language.’ (p 13) The same is true of visual art (if not more so), in case you again think that literature represents some kind of special case.
Equally, according to Zygmunt Baumann, ‘there is hardly a more formidable challenge to human skills and wits than the need to verbalize [or visualise] a thoroughly personal, lived-through experience in a way that allowed it to be lived through, vicariously, by those who did not experience it.’ (p viii) That is, if they do not know, because they were not there! Then again, unless you've grown tired and have scrolled down to this point because the images are more of a draw, I'm aware that I haven't yet revealed Emil Nolde's Martyrdom II, so perhaps now is a good time to do that. If I might ask you to do this, take a while with it (maybe longer than you normally would) and then we'll move on.
First I will say of the above to the wayward reader who bemoans what they see as my own bid for equivalence – between the horror of the death camps and the (‘mere’) cruelty of anti-Semitism as depicted by Nolde: You know what? That ‘hook-nosed’ figure on the right in Martyrdom II (about which there has been some past argument over whether it is a man or a women that we see)? Well, I'll opt for female here and say that she represents somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s sister, somebody's aunt, somebody’s grandmother. Regardless of gender however, and more due to age, both foregrounded figures in Martyrdom II , once the eliminationist anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi machine were really rolling, would likely have been deemed unfit for slave labour and just told to get in line. Yes, I use ugly language here, because I’m telling it as it was – and is, and could be in the future. And one day we will know... because we may be there.
Indeed, in terms of the racial stereotyping we are already there, and have been for a while. When in 2016, the Department of Transport and British Transport Police teamed up with Network Rail for a poster campaign to encourage rail travellers to inform on anyone thought to be acting suspiciously or who could be a potential terrorist threat, their poster campaign caused outrage for its clear similarities to posters advertising The Eternal Jew from the 1930s.
As the slogan read, 'See It, Say It, Sorted.' Instead of the stereotype of the Jew from the 1930s, however, portrayed was a 'racial type' thought to resemble in stereotypical form, a would-be terrorist, the tagline reading: "Are they wearing a big coat to hide something?" This following Prime Minister Theresa May's announcement that if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere, recalling the rhetoric of Nazism and the fear of the 'cosmopolitan' other. The poster was withdrawn following a series of complaints, but the ghost of past prejudices and pogroms looms large here. Have we really reached a point at which now those with certain facial features who wear large or oversized coats are to be pointed out as suspects? The campaign is still running but, following the complaints, the stereotyping has been toned down.
* * *
To return to the subject I have been addressing with regard Nolde's anti-Semitism in relation to Martyrdom II, I want also to return to a much wider discussion of the written record as it pertains to Nolde's life and what oversights or revisions have been made in terms of the way he is read and understood – that is, in relation to the much wider discourse pertaining to a long history of anti–Semitism in the visual arts. Our problem here relates to the burdens that fall upon us in trying to name what it is that we see, however. While the formal literary traditions that weigh upon much writing on the Holocaust, threaten, as Reiter claims, to ‘annul the individuality and the specificity of experiences,’ (p 2) in the field of history Inga Clendinnen has also noted that historians have typically had to set aside their anthropological insights (as should art historians and critics, too), ‘because such approaches seem at once too trivial and too mundane to comprehend enormities.’ (p 142)
Most of the press that the exhibition I refer to above has received to date, has also proved itself too mundane to comprehend the enormities of the level of anti-Semitism in Nolde’s work, where it occurs, embodying as it does the very thinking that allowed so many to perish. While the Holocaust looms large, the detail of its early mechanisms and machinery (such as the Nuremberg Laws, of which the Reich Citizenship Law was one component) go unnoticed now, completely unknown to the vast majority... who were not there. While I am not suggesting for a minute that what we see on the wall in the case of Nolde’s Martyrdom II is Konzentrationslagerleben (or ‘life in the camps’), what we do see is the base mentality that, in a myriad of ways, led to it. Art criticism may be a hazy form of journalism intended merely to entertain, or it may take the form of hard-won yet formulaic observations that are equally as unhelpful (and there is of course much in between), but something other is required when confronted with the propagandist process and the inherent anti-Semitism of artists such as Nolde.
The task for the ill-informed art scribe is a tough one, of course, for when it comes to this form of anti-Semitism, as Efraim Sicher contests, it indeed ‘looms so large that it cripples any political or social thinking which tries to place it within a temporal or conceptual framework,’ (p 78) and this we see in both the reviews of the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Two) and its previous outing in Dublin from which I have quoted. Nolde’s apologists and rehabilitators will of course call me out here, asking for evidence of the precise crimes that he was guilty of, beyond being what most seem to sum up as a toadying little bootlicker from the sticks. I don’t view the nature of his contribution in terms of the need to point up specific ‘crimes’ however. I am more interested in giving a more thoroughgoing appraisal of the complex web of connections that are intrinsic to his art – connections and affiliations that underpin it, that is, and which I believe should better inform our understanding and offer up insights into how it should be responsibly displayed and read.
6. DISSECTING NOLDE – THE 'DIE ZEIT' REVELATIONS
Perhaps it is time to return to that Spiegel article that alerted many of us to 'the problem of Nolde' back in 2013. Der Spiegel, some might remember, had picked up the story of Nolde’s Nazi connections (already known to those closest to the promotion of his art) via a story run in the German newspaper Die Zeit. In an article that the paper ran on October 21 2013, (Noldes Bekenntnis) written by the art historian Stefan Koldehoff – a German art market expert who studied German studies and political science – the report revealed precisely what those new records that had come to light contained. As Koldehoff began:
A half a century after his death Nolde is a superstar. Judged on the basis of the record highs his works fetch on the international art market, the attendance numbers at the exhibitions [...] and the staggering print run of illustrated books, postcards, calendars and posters featuring his art, then Emil Nolde is by those standards one of the most prominent figures in the art world.
Of Nolde’s memoirs, however, Koldehoff revealed that, ‘in a talk commemorating Nolde’s 100th birthday back in 1967, the philologist and literary critic Walter Jens warned that one could not trust the rigour of the artist’s statements about himself.’ Since the end of the war, as I have already noted above, Nolde had begun re-editing his memoirs and falsifying his own record. From a document found in Switzerland, dated 1938, Koldehoff broke the story of Nolde the enduring Nazi who had written: ‘For as long as I’ve worked as an artist I have publicly battled against the foreign infiltration of German art, against the dirty dealings on the art market and the disproportionately predominant Jewish influence everywhere in the arts.’
As Koldehoff’s explosive article continued:
…what we already know about the painter is enough to belie the image cultivated for the public – that of a mere victim of the Nazis. On April, 27 1933 just twelve weeks after Hitler’s accession to power, Nolde wrote an enthusiastic letter to the Norwegian art historian Henrik Grevenor in Oslo. In it he says the following: “So many things have happened through the political turbulence of this winter. And it occupies one continually because we are in the midst of experiencing the well-orchestrated and beautiful rise of the German people.”
Just a few days later, wrote Koldehoff, Nolde turned these words into action, denouncing his fellow artist Max Pechstein as Jew to the authorities. Citing Aya Soika and Bernhard Fulda’s 2012 biography of Pechstein, Koldehoff highlighted their findings that:
Nolde went to an official at the propaganda ministry in May of 1933 and denounced [Max] Pechstein as allegedly Jewish solely on the basis of his rival’s name. After Pechstein informed his accuser that this claim was untrue but could seriously endanger him and his family, Nolde nevertheless refused to officially rectify his statements.
As a direct result of Nolde's denouncing him, according to a letter Pechstein wrote to the artist Franz Radziwill, quoted in Soika and Fulda's biography, he was subsequently informed by the Reich executive of the NSDAP that he was considered 'a symbol of the old regime' and would 'therefore have to vanish'. When Pechstein challenged Nolde by telephone, he told Nolde that he felt his 'entire existence was at stake.' Nolde refused to back down, however, and soon afterwards sent a letter in reply, stating that he 'was entirely disinterested in Pechstein's livelihood.' (p.302)
Later Koldehoff wrote of how Nolde seemed to be suffering from what today we might describe as a form of cognitive dissonance when, in December 1938, the artist wrote:
I revere the extraordinary and most recent form of government that National Socialism embodies; the work has been elevated to an honour, and I believe that our great German Führer Adolf Hitler lives and acts only on behalf of the justice and prosperity of the German people. And that he wants to know the complete truth regarding serious matters... and despite everything recently done to me, I have always and continually stood up for the National Socialist cause with the fullest conviction, at home and abroad. I have the impression that even today only a few people are aware of the culture war I led in 1910 against the prevailing foreign infiltration of all of the arts and against the all-powerful Jewish entity.
As Koldehoff went on to add, 'The 71-year-old also employed the most malignant form of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic diction to provide further clarifications’:
There are those who say my art work was sponsored and bought by Jews. This is false too. Some scattered paintings have found their way into the hands of Jews through the art market. Generally however they antagonize me. They have never wanted the purity and pristine German-ness in my art and have ridiculed it. All of my essential paintings are in the hands of Germans, have been purchased by Germans not in any way polluted by foreign influences, but who are conscious about their German-ness.
The Die Zeit report additionally noted that the intentional warping of Nolde’s record had begun shortly after the war ended: ‘Until his death in April 1956 the painter himself did what he could to assist in the process.’ Pointing to the fact that Kölner Dumont Verlag (the publishing house that for decades had been the main arm of the Nolde Foundation’s book publishing operations), Koldehoff highlighted Werner Haftmann’s 1963 contribution on Nolde’s “Unpainted Pictures” (see: Emil Nolde - Ungemalte Bilder) that are often the real crowd-pleasers at exhibitions of his work. Dumont, wrote Koldehoff, ‘has thus been earning money over this time period by publishing material containing a falsified historical record.’
The final paragraph of the Die Zeit article Koldehoff reserved for more positive developments, however: Although the unrevised Nolde autobiography continued to be sold, the Nolde Foundation Seebüll was embracing a new policy of complete transparency, and allowing scholars to investigate Nolde’s connections with National Socialism. In his research, Koldehoff had interviewed Christian Ring, who a few weeks previously had been appointed director of the Nolde Foundation. Ring, it was said, had told Die Zeit, 'All the cards have to be on the table […] There can’t be any more taboos.'
* * *
And yet… and yet… The publication that accompanies Emil Nolde – Colour is Life at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) is a collaborative publication produced jointly by National Galleries Scotland, National Gallery Ireland, and the Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Among the Directorial signatories are Dr Simon Groom, Director, Modern and Contemporary Art, National Galleries of Scotland, Sean Rainbird, Director, National Gallery of Ireland, and Dr Christian Ring, Director, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde (aka The Nolde Foundation). Questions necessarily arise from seeing such an apparent art historical powerhouse of knowledge concerning all things Emil Nolde, therefore.
One of the most pressing of these questions relates, of course, to Koldehoff’s 2013 article for Die Zeit – Why is the man that Emil Nolde is said to have denounced as a Jew to the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda only mentioned by Sean Rainbird in his essay relating to Nolde's participation in an expedition to New Guinea; once in the biographical data (p 123), and twice in the bibliographic materials in relation to material authored by Rüdiger Joplin and the book that Fulda and Soika had written? (The very book in which, it will be remembered, the authors revealed Nolde’s denouncement of Pechstein as a Jew).
Really? No mention of the Pechstein incident in over 120 pages of editorial material at all? If the Pechstein incident is not mentioned, then we’re sure as hell not going to be told why it happened then – something that was even absent from Koldehoff’s Die Zeit article.
This is how revisionist art history works though. If you don’t talk about the incident itself, then you won’t have to talk about why it occurred, and yet this is hugely relevant with regard Nolde; (a) to our understanding of Nolde within the field of German Expressionism from an art historical point of view; (b) to our understanding of Nolde, the man, from a socio-cultural/political point of view; and (c) to our naturally human curiosity and interest concerning how Nolde could denounce Pechstein as a Jew to the Ministry.
7. OVERSIGHT OR REVISIONISM – A DIFFICULT CALL
In a crucial passage that I think it is necessary to quote at length from the book that accompanies the exhibition, Frances Blyth, a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department, The University of Edinburgh, writes:
In 1910, when [Nolde’s] 'Pentecost' was rejected by the Berlin Secession, probably Germany’s most important exhibiting society, Nolde was furious. He knew that it, together with 'The Last Supper', was his most important painting to date and had changed the way his work was to develop from that time onwards. He felt that the Secession, which had championed Impressionism, both French and German, was now holding back the latest, younger forces in German art. He wrote a public letter to Max Liebermann (1847–1935), the President of the Secession and the acknowledged leader of the German Impressionists, criticising him and his behaviour. This led to Nolde’s expulsion from the Secession, making him into the de facto leader of the avant-garde. It also contributed to an increasingly national, and in some quarters nationalist, slant on arguments about avant-garde versus traditional art. Interestingly, Nolde straddled these camps in a fascinating way.
Indeed he did – but how much a near-revisionist appraisal this is in terms of what is not mentioned? As the Italian researcher Giovanni Mazzaferro explains, the background here is somewhat complex. Expelled from the Secession, Nolde ‘was immediately afterwards co-opted by the “New Secession”, created around Max Pechstein to lead the revenge of the young artists against the old guard,’ and ‘crucially, the new group brought together part of the old Berlin Secession with the artists of the Die Brücke from Dresden,’ of which for a short period Nolde was a part.
Nolde, it is said,
…was proposed as the new chair of the “New Secession” against the incumbent Max Pechstein (the two hated each other since the Die Brücke in Dresden). Nolde won the election, but immediately afterwards Pechstein and all old members of the Die Brücke movement withdrew their membership and resigned, marking the end of the Berlin group. The narrative in Nolde’s Memoirs is partial: he referred to a lack of discussion, while the clash between personalities was very severe; he did not speak of the direct ballot vote between he and Pechstein, nor of his own victory and of Pechstein’s immediate decision to leave the New Secession. Only the work of recent historians researching Nolde’s private archives has made it possible to understand in full what happened.
(See: Giovanni Mazzaferro, Scritti di artisti tedeschi del XX secolo - Emil Nolde, Mein Leben [La mia vita] Parte Quarta: Metamorfosi, mutazioni, mistificazioni. The Mazzaferro Library Online).
Obviously, Blyth’s essay in Colour is Life cannot include the great many controversies that Nolde was at the centre of (an analysis of those could run to many volumes, indeed), but the Pechstein incident is significant, and notable here for not only its omission but the background to which it pertains. The fall out from the bad blood that existed between Nolde and his fellow artist/adversary Pechstein didn’t just result in the issue of a venomous polemic (as was often the case within the factional world of the German avant-garde in-fighting) or some other form of ‘internal backlash’ within that sphere; it resulted in Nolde appealing to the deadly bureaucratic machinery of the State as a means of reprisal – very possibly in full knowledge that it could cause Pechstein and his family immense harm. Indeed Pechstein was so deeply concerned about the threat the denouncement posed for his family, he subsequently spent considerable time and energy researching his ancestry back to the sixteenth century so that he could clear his name in the eyes of the Party.
Even the title of the volume of Nolde's memoirs in which these and other conflicts were documented (and misrepresented) is worded in such a way to reflect just how much Nolde identified with the prevailing political winds of those times. Let us not forget that the Nazi art theorist Paul Schultze-Naumberg had published the pamphlet Struggle around the art (Kampf um die Kunst) and there are many other examples that are highlighted by Mazzaferro:
In 1933 [...] Joachim Hossenfelder wrote “Our struggle” to explain the merits of racial theories to protestant believers […] in 1934 Josef Goebbels published “The struggle on Berlin” […] Alfred Rosenberg published “The struggle on the world view”; the Nazi psychologist Erich Rudolf Jaensch proposed the Aryanisation of the science founded by Freud and Jung with “The Struggle of the German Psychology” and “Blood and honour; a struggle for German rebirth”.
Mazzaferro's list contains many other such examples, too, leading him to conclude that Nolde’s titling of Jahre der Kämpfe was precisely calculated to propagate a view of himself as very much a part of the publishing scene from which such literary bilge was appearing following Hitler's seizure of power.
As Koldehoff noted in Die Zeit, in the second volume of Nolde’s autobiographical writings, Nolde had written as a self-styled propagandist – passages that included such anti-Semitic bile as the following:
Jews have a lot of intelligence and spirit, yet little soul and little creative talent... Jews are different than we are... the unfortunate presence of their settlements in the abodes of the Aryan peoples and their strong involvement in the innermost seats of power and culture have led to an unbearable situation for both sides.
I ask again, why is it that such a vicious anti-Semite is not outed in full in relation to his work on display in the exhibition, Emil Nolde – Colour is Life? To return to the exhibition publication, the phrase anti-Semitic appears only once in a biographical note for 1933. The phrase anti-Semitism appears not at all. Even references to the Jews of Europe are pared down to the point of a passing reference in the introductory essay by Keith Hartley, and a later near-apologistic reference by Hartley to Nolde being called out as one of the ‘psychopathic muckrakers and business-savvy Jews’ from whose studios the work on display at the Degenerate 'Art' exhibition were said to have originated, although many were also sourced from museums as well.
Meanwhile, Max Lieberman is mentioned by Blythe as Nolde’s ‘Jewish adversary and founder of the Berlin Secession’ and there is one further reference to the Jews in the form of another biographical note for the year 1934, which reads: ‘In November 1934 the second volume of Nolde’s autobiography, Jahre der Kämpfe (‘Years of struggle’), is published. In it he portrays himself as an early, lone opponent of ‘Jewish’ dominance in the art world of Germany.’
If the charge of revisionism does not stick here (and I should stress that I think it arises from a form of complacency rather than intent), I don’t know what will. Rarely do we get to thoroughly immerse ourselves in the opportunity to learn what lay within the psyche of a Nazi-sympathising artist such as Nolde and the current exhibition presents a prime opportunity to do that while not ignoring his, some would say, less-controversial work. In the right hands this exhibition would not be bemoaning the fact that Nolde suffered such an ‘ironic’ inversion of fate to have been so misunderstood, or that he was so naïve that he did not 'get' Hitler’s cultural agenda from the outset due to some initially encouraging moves by Goebbels, and the architect of ‘the Final Solution’ Heinrich Himmler.
When I put all of this to National Galleries Scotland, an NGS spokesperson provided the following statement:
We certainly believe that it is important to establish the right balance here. Nolde’s history is complex, particularly in relation to his support for the Nazis, their censorship of his art and his postwar reputation. Without condoning or excusing his politics and beliefs, we believe it is important that we do not look away from his work, or the facts of his life, recognising his significance in the history of modern art while considering the broader context of his turbulent and conflicted career. In recent years there have been major exhibitions of Nolde’s work in Frankfurt, Vienna, Oslo and Paris, and next year the National Gallery in Berlin will mount an exhibition on the subject of Nolde and National Socialism.
To say that National Galleries Scotland seemed a little surprised by my questions was rather underscored by my receiving photographs from their Press Office, highlighting display signage and texts that reflect the scant references to National Socialism in their accompanying publication. That they could only offer a signpost to two lectures (one an introductory lecture by Sean Rainbird, and the other – at the time of writing upcoming – by Dr Deborah Lewer, University of Glasgow, titled Colour is Life: Emil Nolde’s Paradox – Between Expressionism, ‘Degenerate Art’ and Fascism, seems to me lamentable, though.
8. ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS OF ART & OURSELVES
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether Lewer’s consideration of some of the problematic issues that the Nolde exhibition throws up will be throughly examined, but this singular consideration of those issues, does appear, to me anyway, to be a rather lazy bolt-on event on the part of National Galleries Scotland. This, I should hasten to add is not something I am attributing to Lewer. Despite her being known for her strong commitment to public engagement and knowledge exchange beyond academia, which I applaud in terms of her efforts regarding the widening participation in the debate, I’m wondering how far the outlook of National Galleries Scotland can facilitate this.
Both lectures ‘have been pitched at adult level’ according to the same NGS spokesperson, but do we not also have a duty when presenting work such as this to deploy to its fullest extent a wide-ranging educational programme for groups across the fullest appropriate age-spectrum? Certainly other museums showing anti-Semitic work do just that, perhaps out of a sense of moral duty, or perhaps caution.
To underscore a point made by LaCapra, the issues I have raised here concern not just the inadequacy of language, but of imagination, too. As a reality that goes ‘beyond powers of both imagination and conceptualisation’, LaCapra claims that German anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust that it allowed for, poses special problems of representation today for much the same reason that it posed problems at the time of its occurrence. After all, ‘if the victims themselves could at times not believe what they went through and beheld, then how is any meaningful representation possible now?’ (p 220)
We present the work of Nolde and other propagandists of the process that led to ‘the Final Solution’ at our peril if we do not consider these issues and think more carefully about what we choose to exhibit, and how we go about presenting and documenting it, when we do. Though National Galleries Scotland have told me that they have co-organised an 'academic conference on Degenerate Art' that they will host on 13 October, 2018, the charge of 'degeneracy' against Nolde and his contemporaries is a well-rehearsed topic that permeates all levels of Nolde scholarship and the wider representation of the artist, as well. Will it address the wider issues concerning Nolde’s relationship to National Socialism? I hope so, but I don’t know, because we are not there yet. On the basis of the evidence here, I have to say, I doubt it.
With regard the 2013 article by Koldehoff, a spokesperson for National Galleries Scotland has replied to my queries on that score saying that,
Within the exhibition, we have included original copies of the first and second editions of The Years of Struggle, the second volume of Nolde’s autobiography, highlighting in the accompanying label the careful deletion of anti-Semitic comments in the later edition; and quoting the same statement referenced in the Die Zeit article.
In light of Koldehoff also noting in his 2013 report Nolde’s views on the ‘danger of interracial mixing’, and what were referred to in the report as some ‘similar deadly and abstruse claims of Nazi ideology,’ I still feel the need to ask; is this enough?
There is a lot that is missing from the record about Nolde and his art, as we now know. Much of it represents omissions that the gallery-going public are almost encouraged to overlook entirely in Emil Nolde – Colour is Life, however. Nolde was misunderstood? He suffered the greatest of ironies? He was subjected to a huge injustice in his own lifetime? These are all foregrounded for the audience. What is missing is greater emphasis on the much wider evidence of the extent of his viscous anti-Semitism and a more thoroughgoing examination of a man whose life was, in many ways, not just dedicated to art but to his desire to play a significant part in Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich as a Proto-Nazi-Modernist, even though he was knocked back, again and again.
To mount an exhibition of Nolde’s work takes a great amount of effort, research and significant time, but some oversights here simply beggar belief. Asked of why the Pechstein incident was not better foregrounded [correction, not mentioned at all] in the National Galleries Scotland literature, the NGS’s spokesperson told me: ‘The information about Pechstein was not something that we were aware of at the time the chronology was created.’
But why? Both Sean Rainbird and Dr Astrid Becker who contribute essays to the publication that accompanies the exhibition both cite Fulda and Soika’s Pechstein biography, in which the Pechstein incident is documented. This isn’t just an oversight, surely? A lot of work went into this, and yet to NGS's reply to my question concerning the Pechstein case is appended the final line: ‘If we had been aware of the Pechstein information it's likely this would have been addressed in our texts.’ – Enough, now!
9. A QUESTION OF ETHICS & INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY
In actively promoting himself as a friend of Nazism and cow towing to the Nazi elite, Nolde wasn’t simply mistaken in what he was doing. It didn’t happen by accident. He was a man of his times and a man of the prevailing ideology of his times, yes, but the greatest irony of all is that from the northern outpost to which he was exiled and effectively erased from German cultural life by the Nazis until after the war, in his later years he devoted a significant amount of his time there to carefully erasing those parts of himself that he knew would go against him in the de-Nazification period immediately following Germany's capitulation – that is, following the erasure of some six million or more Jews as 'non-persons', too.
In light of National Galleries Scotland’s limited programme of events and discussion of what they have chosen to display, it is worth noting that in London the Imperial War Museum will not even permit the licensing of images of anti-Semitic material and imagery due to what is considered ‘the huge sensitivity’ of making these public, even to the press. I did try to obtain some 'generic' materials and was prepared to pay the fees so that I could offer visual examples here of what an informative exercise in ethical museology the IWM exhibition is, but to no avail. They simply would not budge on a matter of principle, and I think they are right.
At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, meanwhile, licensing of such images (some of which I include here in direct relation to the museum’s educational programme of touring exhibitions), are similarly only permitted if the images are presented within the clear context of the museum's educational policies, and captioning rules are stringently adhered to (which I have, hence the extensive captioning to the images they hold the copyright to). In Germany, the aforementioned upcoming exhibition at Berlin’s National Gallery is set to examine in detail Nolde’s relationship with National Socialism (which itself will be a significant departure from the last Nolde exhibition – Emil Nolde. Man - Nature - Myth: Watercolours and Graphic Works in Berlin's Museum of Prints and Drawings, 2009 – the media materials for which omitted entirely his connections in this regard, focussing instead on his being a victim of Nazi censure too). Credit will no doubt go the Nolde Foundation for giving some steer to the upcoming show in Berlin, but I’m really curious as to why it appears there was not greater steer given to National Galleries Scotland and The National Gallery of Ireland for this one.
In closing, while celebrated as a colourist for the clandestine work he amassed while in exile to the north, let’s not forget that when clandestine art was made in the camps, it was rarely art for which colour was of any great concern, for in the death camps there simply was no colour as you and I know it. Maybe that is something to ponder before any of us shells out for an exhibition poster of Nolde's poppies to brighten up a wall. A loathsome anti-Semite painted that image that is reproduced there – Colour is life? Indeed it is. But do not feel pity for Nolde. Talent he may well have had, but so did a great many of those artists, musicians, writers, composers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers, and all other creative souls who perished in the death camps – citizens of the world who became citizens of nowhere with the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. Who speaks for them, and what events have been arranged to commemorate their suffering here?
That’s the final question that I put to National Galleries Scotland, too, in the form of the following: Has National Galleries Scotland had any contact with, or taken advice from organisations who represent Holocaust Survivors, or those now living in Scotland who sought refuge in the UK between 1933 and 1945?
After all, as curator Keith Hartley was to tell listeners on BBC Radio Scotland with regard one's reception of the exhibition, ‘It depends where you are coming from. If you’re a Jew who lost people in the gas chambers, you’re going to feel very differently about this exhibition to other people.’ Damn right!
The answer I got back from the NGS, however, was brief and to the point: ‘To date, we haven’t had contact with organisations who represent Holocaust Survivors.’ Now that's something you'll not here from the National Gallery in Berlin next year – of that we can be sure, and some of us will be there.
EMIL NOLDE – COLOUR IS LIFE
Continues until – 21 October 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
73 Belford Road,