The Bridge to a Dangerous Future

Emil Nolde and Die Brücke

an exhibition at the Van Doren Waxter Gallery, New York City, January 23–February 20, 2015
Van Doren Waxter/Beck & Eggeling
Emil Nolde: North Frisian Landscape with Farmhouse, no date

When Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and other artists of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke visited an exhibition in Dresden of Emil Nolde’s paintings in 1906, they were wildly excited. Here, they thought, was a kindred spirit, a mentor even; here was a man whom they should immediately invite to join their group.

It wasn’t so much the subjects of Nolde’s paintings that delighted them. Pictures of farmhouses on the Baltic coast, sunsets over freshly plowed fields, or Mediterranean ruins were fairly conventional. But the execution was remarkable, those lurid reds, dazzling yellows, and shimmering blues that seemed to erupt from the canvas. The show almost certainly included pictures Nolde had painted in Sicily the year before, of Mount Etna gleaming in a misty sunrise, or Taormina’s main square, fiery like a stream of lava. There are shades, or rather flashes, of Turner here, but wilder, more histrionic.

Nolde was thirteen years older than Kirchner and seventeen years older than Schmidt-Rottluff. Many artists in Die Brücke—Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl, Otto Müller—were not only younger than Nolde, but from solid bourgeois families, educated at classical high schools. They were also very social: living together, dancing together, sharing lovers, and bathing in the nude in lakes around their base in Dresden. Kirchner called the bohemian group of Expressionists “one big family.”

These self-consciously bohemian gestures became the subject of many of their paintings, watercolors, and woodcuts produced before World War I: Kirchner’s Reclining Nude with Pipe (1909–1910), for instance, showing a nude woman, her skin the greenish color of absinthe, smoking opium perhaps; or Max Pechstein’s Bathers in Moritzburg (1910) of nude men and women about to make love in the open air.

Nolde was not a bourgeois, but from simple Frisian and Danish peasant stock. He grew up on a farm in Jutland. And he was essentially a loner, unsuited to schools or artists’ colonies, let alone communal living.

And yet, after some hesitation and prodding from his wife, a Danish actress named Ada Vilstrup, Nolde decided to accept their invitation. This actually made sense, because he was the kind of artist his younger admirers aspired to be. They were Romantics who had rejected their stuffy bourgeois backgrounds in order to be free, following their natural instincts, their art merging seamlessly with a radically liberated way of life.

Not that Nolde was in the habit of staging orgies in his studio, donning African masks, or dancing around in the nude the way Kirchner and the others did. But to the more urbane, privileged members of the group, he was the real thing: a man in touch with his own nature and that of the land from which he sprang. They admired the almost manic brushstrokes of Nolde’s pictures that appeared to express emotions directly, without mental…

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