Exhibiting historically problematic artists. Review of “Nolde and the North” at Bucerius Art Forum, Hamburg.

The question of how to deal with artworks by problematic artists has received increasing attention in the past decade and is an important topic for viewers, collectors, and exhibitors of art. I was therefore anticipating the exhibition “Nolde and the North” (running 16.10.2021 – 23.01.2022 at Bucerius Art Forum) in Hamburg to see how they took on the challenge of exhibiting the German Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867 – 1956).

Who is Emil Nolde?

Nolde is one of Germany’s most famous 20th century painters, whom even Germans not interested in art will have heard of. He was an Expressionist and an early proponent of the style. As an Expressionist he belonged to the group of artists, who, during the German Nazi-regime, were put under an occupational ban. In addition to this ban, which prevented Nolde from exhibiting and selling his works, many of his existing artworks were confiscated by authorities and included in the so called “degenerate” art exhibitions of the 1930s and 1940s (beginning with an exhibition in Munich in 1937 that then toured through German and Austrian cities). These exhibitions were used by the Nazis’ culture department as a propaganda tool to discredit and publicly shame modernist (often Jewish) artists believed to represent ‘everything that was wrong’ with German art during the period. After the war was over and the Nazi regime had ended, Nolde continued his work as an artist. In the postwar years the ageing paintertook an active role in shaping the narrative of his artistic vision as having been stifled, persecuted, and suppressed by the Nazis. Additionally, the popular 1960s novel “The German Lesson” by German author Siegfried Lenz significantly contributed to this version of Nolde’s story by presenting a central character, who is easily identifiable as being based on Nolde and who has to hide and paint in secret during the Nazi-regime.

Illustration of Emil Nolde by Luisa Hahn (@vermindlich)

However, Nolde’s position as a victim of the Nazi’s cultural “Gleichschaltung” (consolidation of institutional powers) is not as straight-forward as most people have believed in the 65 years since his death. It is true that as an Expressionist – using bright colours, rough brushstrokes, and mask-like depictions of faces with distorted features – Nolde’s art was rejected by the Nazi officials. But it is also true that Nolde was a convinced antisemite and an early and lasting supporter of the Nazis. He enthusiastically joined a local section of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1934 and until 1945 did not hold back from publicly expressing his antisemitic convictions. He also actively connected his artistic with his political vision and believed that Expressionism was the appropriate art form to represent a new and strong Germany, consciously creating a narrative in which the German expressionism was situated in opposition to a soft French Impressionism. Hereby, he strategically used autobiographical writings to situate his art as fundamentally German, for example reframing his exclusion from the Berlin secession as being due to a Jewish conspiracy against him lead by the Impressionist Max Liebermann.

Left: Emil Nolde, Lost Paradise, 1921. Oil on canvas, 106,5 × 157 cm. Seebüll, Nolde Foundation (© Nolde Foundation Seebüll)
Right: Emil Nolde, The Sinner (Christ and the Sinner), 1926. Oil on canvas, 86 x 106 cm. Berlin, Nationalgalerie (© Nolde Foundation Seebüll)

Exhibiting Nolde

However, while it had been known that Nolde was a supporter of the Nazis, the fact that they did not take on his narrative of Expressionism as the new German art form (a narrative shared by other expressionists) and his consequent occupational ban and inclusion in the “degenerate” art exhibitions have enabled the postwar narrative that situates Nolde amongst the victims of the NS-regime. Controversy around the revision of this narrative has risen in the past decade, which have seen an increased awareness of Nolde’s antisemitic convictions. And while some argue that Nolde was “caught up” in the ideology of his time and should be admired for his advancements in painting nonetheless, the general understanding has been reached that his antisemitism and enthusiasm for the Nazis exceeded the level at which a critical engagement with it can be avoided. One consequence of the public debate around Nolde has been the removal by then-chancellor Angela Merkel of two Nolde paintings from her government offices in 2019.

Left: Emil Nolde, Gaut the Red, 1938. Oil on cavas, 100,5 x 74 cm. Seebüll, Nolde Foundation (© Nolde Foundation Seebüll)
Right: Emil Nolde, The Holy Fire, 1940. Oil on canvas, 70 x 110 cm. Seebüll, Nolde Foundation (© Nolde Foundation Seebüll)

Though the focus of the exhibition of Nolde’s work in the Bucerius Art Forum was his early stylistic development inspired by Danish painters, the announcement for the exhibition mentions Nolde’s Nazi views and calls him the most “controversial artist of classical modernism”. An introductory text at the entrance of the exhibition outlines Nolde’s antisemitism and claims that his “problematic views and his exceptional artworks are inextricable”. It ends by declaring the goal to provide a space in which to discuss and view Nolde’s work with all its tensions. Since this sounded like the introduction to a nuanced exhibition, I was surprised to find that inside there were no further mentions of Nolde’s antisemitic views or the historical context of Germany between 1933 and 1945. The only exceptions to this were an exhibition label of a single painting, which suggested that Nolde’s turn to Nordic subjects could be interpreted as an attempt to gain the favour of Nazi officials, and a 60 minute film screening in a side room.

The film did discuss the complexities of Nolde’s biography in detail, but its format made engagement with it difficult. The film started screening on the hour, so unless one planned it carefully or had lucky timing, it had already begun and one had to either wait for it to start again or had to only watch parts of it. It can be assumed that most visitors therefore did not see the film at all or only fragments of it. This situation could have been easily improved by making the film available online, even if only in connection to the purchased ticket, for people to watch in their own time. However, the film cannot be found anywhere on the internet. 

The director of the gallery can be seen in an interview claiming that they wanted people to be confronted with the conflicting feeling of viewing the impressive artworks with the knowledge of their problematic maker. Yet, the exhibition failed to achieve just this, by moving all engagement with Nolde’s Nazi sympathies into the introductory text at the entrance and the film in the side room, making it easy for visitors to miss or avoid this part of the painter. Should the curators have wished to truly confront the viewers, more suitable concepts come to mind that would put the paintings into the context of Nolde’s engagement with and praise of the Nazis.

Such an approach could have taken many forms, an example being the inclusion of existing archival materials of excerpts from Nolde’s letters and published writings detailing his antisemitic and nationalistic views. These could have been used to actively put the person Nolde in dialogue with the painter Nolde and allow visitors to engage with the two aspects side by side. Another angle might be a timeline explaining the discrimination against artists (including Nolde’s occupational ban) alongside information of the expansion of Nazi ideology in Germany, their gain of power, the systematic discrimination and genocide of the Jews and the persecution and murder of other groups deemed to be racially inferior or undesirable due to ideological reasons. The differences between these life stories would be highlighted and – most crucial – the narrative of Nolde as a victim, which implicitly puts him on the same step with those systematically murdered during the NS-regime, could be overcome.

Even if Nolde’s views are not found to be problematic enough to stop exhibiting him altogether (I want to withhold judgement about that here) the narrative of Nolde being a victim of the Nazi regime has to be publicly revised and his role as at least a Nazi sympathiser has to be seriously included into his public persona and therefore any exhibition of his works. It is disappointing that those responsible for the exhibition at the Bucerius Art Forum seem to understand the issues surrounding artists like Emil Nolde, but were not willing or able to own up to them to the degree that is necessary to truly reach and touch all visitors.