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 calculation. A similar mythology of total spontaneity would later be taken up by Abstract Expressionists, like Jackson Pollock in the US or Karel Appel in Europe.
In fact, Nolde was far from being a wild peasant with a paintbrush. Although he had been rejected by the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, he had studied painting in Paris and had a firm grasp of artistic movements in France as well as Germany. Like Kirchner and the other Die Brücke artists, he was deeply influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin, as well as the French Fauvists: Matisse, Derain, de Vlaminck.
Another influence was the Belgian eccentric James Ensor. This is clear, for example, from Nolde’s famous painting Mask Still Life III (1911), showing tribal masks from South America hanging on a wall. Nolde shared Ensor’s fascination with masks, but his depiction is less grotesque or satirical (Nolde didn’t do satire), and far from simply expressing stormy emotions, the picture was made after careful study in the Berlin Museum of Ethnology.
The French influence was something of a sore point, for as much as they were affected by French art, the members of Die Brücke were also self-consciously German. They wanted to find a uniquely German expression, to be in touch with German nature, and ever since German thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte developed their theories on the German spirit, this meant reacting against the rationalist tradition of France. Die Brücke, meaning “the bridge,” came from a dictum by Nietzsche: “The greatness of man is that he is a bridge and not a purpose.”
As typical German Romantics, the Expressionists rebelled against the Enlightenment idea of universalism or rationalism, associated with the artificiality of civilized urban society. This was only partly a matter of subject. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s village scenes in 1907, very similar in style to Nolde’s paintings of old farmhouses, are an example of the taste for rural life. But other artists, like Kirchner and sometimes even Nolde himself, liked to depict unfettered human instincts in an urban environment: Nolde’s Dancers (1920), for instance, shows two women dressed in bright yellows and blues dancing in a nightclub to a backdrop of rather bestial looking faces, or Kirchner’s Negro Dance (1911), in which two black people gambol in a Berlin dance hall.
But it was style, more than content, that mattered. All art that was too “civilized,” or smelled of the academy, was dismissed as inauthentic. That type of French art, Kirchner liked to claim, could only depict or describe nature, whereas the Germans could express it. “Germanic art,” he declared, “is religion in the widest sense of the word…. A German paints the ‘what,’ a Frenchman the ‘how.’” Hence, in the words of a contemporary German philosopher named Rudolf Eucken, “We can say that we [Germans] form the soul of humanity.”
One might assume that the kind of French art the German Expressionists reacted against was of the most academic kind: Henri Fantin-Latour’s realist paintings of flowers or famous people, or Bouguereau’s salon pictures of pink-fleshed nudes. But in fact, the attempt to find a balance between feeling and form, articulated by Matisse or Derain, was also rejected by the Germans of Die Brücke. They had a different idea, which they believed was typically German: form should be a direct expression of ecstatic feeling, just as man should merge with nature.
Not only Expressionist artists embraced these ideas between the two world wars. They were part of a wider movement of youthful seekers hoping to find spiritual bliss by wandering through the German landscape in shorts, hiking boots, and backpacks. This, too, was often a collective enterprise with much folksinging around campfires and the like.
Since the French Fauvists also rebelled against the academy, their influence on the Germans was actually not really a contradiction at all, and some of the theorizing by Kirchner and others about the Germanic soul is half-baked at best. Germans followed French examples rather like Europeans picked up their anti-American rhetoric from the counterculture at Berkeley or Ann Arbor in the 1960s. Kirchner’s pretense that he was unaware of the art of the Fauvists and drew all his inspiration from Dürer and other Nordic artists was just that, a defensive pretense.
Perhaps because he was older, Nolde didn’t even feel the need to pretend. He wrote in 1908: “The big, really important battles have been fought in France. The great Frenchmen, Manet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin and Signac were the ice-breakers.”
One should not exaggerate the German chauvinism of Die Brücke either, since the pull from other sources of “primitive” power was often just as strong. Otto Müller, for example, looked to the Roma, or Gypsies, as an inspiration. African imagery, too, cast its spell, as was true, of course, for many contemporary artists in Paris. And in 1914 Max Pechstein painted some rather bad pictures of happy natives in Micronesia. Nolde, too, followed Gauguin’s path to the South Seas, where he did some striking portraits of local people. His painting, in 1912, of a European missionary in a monstrous mask standing beside a more “natural” woman and child shows just what he thought of Western intervention in the pure ways of the native.
Only a year and a half after he joined Die Brücke, Nolde decided to go his own way and break with the group, of which he had been a largely passive member anyway. Artistically, the break was never complete, for Nolde and the others, especially Schmidt-Rottluff, who was most like him in temperament, continued to influence one another. There was a political split, however, which tainted Nolde’s reputation. None of the Brücke artists was tempted to join the Nazi movement. Nolde was.
In 1933, he attended a dinner as Heinrich Himmler’s personal guest, and declared that “the Führer was great and noble in his efforts and a man of action blessed with genius.” In that same year, he denounced his colleague Max Pechstein to the propaganda ministry, suggesting that he was a Jew (he wasn’t). A year later, he joined the Danish section of the Nazi Party, and wrote a memoir, Years of My Struggle, in which he observed that the presence of Jews in Germany had become intolerable.
It is easy to dismiss all this as the misguided moves of a politically naive artist. Or one might argue that politics and art should be cleanly separated. An artist can have bad politics and still create brilliant art: Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night is a work of genius, despite the author’s pro-Nazi views; the poetry of T.S. Eliot is great despite his anti-Semitism, and so on. It is in any case hard to see any sinister Nazi influences in Nolde’s art of any period.
So perhaps Nolde’s unrequited love affair with the Nazi Party is of no significance. Maybe his political enthusiasms had nothing to do with his art. But I think such a conclusion would skirt an important issue. For there was a link between the German Romantic tradition—the worship of the German soul, the veneration of the simple Nordic folk, the hatred of rationalism and urban civilization—and National Socialism. Jews, for example, were associated by anti-Semites with the rootless, “parasitic” cosmopolitanism that many German Romantics deplored. Nolde’s anti-Semitism and Nazi enthusiasms were of a piece with his views on art and his stress on “pure” communities, unpolluted by alien elements.
However, this still does not mean that his art was bad. In a curious way, his passion for the native soil (though not his anti-Semitism) actually contributed to its power, especially in the brooding watercolors of northern seascapes he made during the 1940s.
Nolde could be usefully compared to certain Scandinavian artists and thinkers. Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer, comes to mind, or Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer. They, too, were inspired by the Nordic soul and landscape. Hamsun even became an active supporter of Nazi Germany, presenting his 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature medal to Joseph Goebbels in 1943. But his best books, like Nolde’s paintings and watercolors—and certainly Sibelius’s music—cannot be called Nazi art, even though the Nazis exploited some of the same artistic sources for their political propaganda.
Nolde’s art was never exploited by the Nazis. Quite the contrary, they banned his work as an example of “degenerate art,” just as they did the works of the other Expressionists. He was forbidden to paint anything at all. There was no coherent reason for this to have happened. It really came down to Hitler’s personal taste. Goebbels, who had written a hysterical novel, entitled Michael: A German Destiny in Diary Form, had actually been in favor of making Expressionism the official national style of the Third Reich.
But Hitler was outraged by the wildness of the German Expressionists: their savage colors and deliberate distortions he saw as perverse daubs. In his personal taste, Hitler was precisely the kind of petty bourgeois that Nolde and Die Brücke had rebelled against. He liked naturalistic paintings of rural landscapes and German peasants, and dull classicist sculptures of muscle-bound heroes. In subject matter, his taste may have had something in common with Nolde’s, but in style not at all.
And so Nolde was packed off to his native coastal region, where he continued to paint in secret during the war. The smell of oil paint might have given him away, so he restricted himself to watercolors. There is nothing delicate about his many pictures of local flowers; they have a savage beauty, like the stormy clouds and blood-streaked sunsets in his landscapes, some of which were redone in oil after 1945.
Kirchner committed suicide in 1938. Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, Müller, and the others were cast into oblivion as long as Hitler’s Reich lasted. But even if Goebbels had had his way and Expressionism had become the Nazi art, it is doubtful that these men, including Nolde, would have lasted very long as official artists. They were too free-spirited to be tied to any political regime. Nolde didn’t even want to be part of a school of friends.
It would be a mistake to conclude that their type of German Romanticism had to lead inevitably to the murderous Nazi state. Just because there were historical links between National Socialism and the campfire-singing Wandervögel or Nolde’s quest for the Nordic soul, this does not mean that mass murder was just waiting to happen. Great art and poetry sprang from the same culture that was mined for vile propaganda by the Nazis. But the art and poetry live on, as the fine exhibition of pictures by Nolde, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, and other artists of Die Brücke at the Van Doren Waxter Gallery in New York City proves once again.