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September 2019, No. 1398 – Vol 161

Escape into Art? The Brücke Painters in the Nazi Period Brücke-Museum and Kunsthaus Dahlem, Berlin; Emil Nolde – A German Legend: The Artist during the Nazi Period. Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

Exhibition Review

Escape into Art? The Brücke Painters in the Nazi Period Brücke-Museum and Kunsthaus Dahlem, Berlin; Emil Nolde – A German Legend: The Artist during the Nazi Period. Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

by CHRISTIAN WEIKOP

These two excellent exhibitions, both with highly informative catalogues, explore with a new openness the relationship between Expressionism and National Socialism. As part of Escape into Art? at the Brücke-Museum, which investigates the period up to 1945, the neighbouring Kunsthaus Dahlem examines the rehabilitation of the Brücke artists in the post-war era.(1) It is the first time that these two institutions have joined forces, which is symbolic of a new wider approach. The Director of the Brücke-Museum, Lisa Marei Schmidt, who replaced the long-serving Magdalena M. Moeller in October 2017, immediately tore down old fences, both literally and metaphorically, in seeking to collaborate with academics, curators and other museum directors on challenging new topics, and moving away from the more formalist Brücke ‘Meisterwerke’ exhibitions of the past. In this case, the collaborators are Aya Soika and Meike Hoffmann, world-leading authorities on Expressionism and Degenerate Art, and their impressive exhibition focuses primarily on the careers of Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (Fig.22), and to a lesser extent Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, during the period of National Socialist rule.

The displays explore the manoeuvres the former Brücke artists undertook to continue working, and explain why they were still able to exhibit their paintings at galleries and art associations in Germany until the summer of 1937, even though they had by then been castigated as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. The exhibition is very well contextualised – which is crucial given the complexities of this subject – with wall panels and displays considering the National Socialist dispute over the idea of ‘Nordic Expressionism’, the artists’ figural depictions of the 1930s, the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937 (which included key Brücke works), the fate of their Jewish patrons and collectors and the bombed-out ruins of their studios and apartments (Fig.21). The exhibition is hugely impressive in its scope, and the Brücke-Museum has never looked so good.

On the other side of the city, guarding the doors to the main entrance of the Hamburger Bahnhof, is a giant wood sculpture by Georg Baselitz, an artist who has so often responded to Brücke’s legacy. The sculpture, Volk, Ding, Zero (2009), is of a seated blue figure – a self-portrait – wearing white boxer shorts and a white cap emblazoned with the word ‘Zero’. The cap could be referring to the term ‘Hour Zero’ (‘Stunde Null’), the desire in post-war German society to make a clean sweep, to re-establish itself ab ovo, something Baselitz has always considered to be a fallacy. This wooden sentinel weeps tears of white paint, and given the nature of one of the exhibitions inside the building, it is tempting to fantasise that they are tears for an artist (often referenced by Baselitz) whose difficult past has caught up with him. The groundbreaking exhibition in question, Emil Nolde – A German Legend, refutes any possibility of a ‘clean sweep’.(2) Since Nolde (1867–1956) was once a member of the Brücke, one wonders whether he might have been included in the Dahlem exhibition, but Nolde’s politics were of such a different order that he demands solo treatment. 

The exhibition stands in marked contrast with last year’s display in Dublin and Edinburgh, Emil Nolde: Colour is Life.(3) That exhibition was intended to demonstrate that Nolde was one of the greatest colourists of the twentieth century, and his exhilarating oils, watercolours and lithographs glowed on the sympathetically lit, deep burgundy and aubergine walls of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. By contrast, the walls of the Nolde exhibition spaces at the Hamburger Bahnhof are a clinical white, which does little to enhance the viewer’s aesthetic experience of the hundred or so works on display. This seems, however, to be a deliberate strategy, as a positive ‘aesthetic experience’ is certainly not the point of this exhibition. Here, Nolde is under close curatorial scrutiny – one could even say ‘on the slab’ – and the many glass vitrines that contain vital documentary evidence help subdivide the laboratory-like white-cube spaces, somehow appropriate for this unflinching post-mortem. 

The motivation behind such an examination was a pressing need to explode certain time-honoured myths about the artist, to explore the extent of his anti-Semitism, the degree to which he was an apologist for the National Socialist regime, and conversely, the degree to which he was a victim of it. The dissection comes courtesy of Bernhard Fulda and Aya Soika, as well as Christian Ring, the Director of the Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, who gave Fulda and Soika unrestricted access to the extensive holdings of the artist’s estate in order to facilitate a thorough reassessment of the artist’s connections to National Socialism. This ‘cards on the table’ approach had been resisted by the foundation’s previous directors. They carefully constructed Nolde’s image as a persecuted Modernist artist, and were ably assisted in this objective by the influential art historian, and the first Director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Werner Haftmann.(4)

Fulda, Soika and Ring effectively deconstruct this ‘hero narrative’ from the outset of the exhibition, closely examining the nature of the ‘Nolde cult’ before 1933, opening with an analysis of his reception in 1927, at the time of a major touring retrospective that marked the artist’s sixtieth birthday. The well-known paintings Pentecost (1909) and Paradise lost (Fig.23) face each other across the first room. The former was rejected by the Berlin Secession in 1910, and Nolde’s protest against Max Liebermann, the Jewish president of that Secession, was so vehement that it resulted in Nolde’s expulsion from that institution. It was this episode that Nolde referred to in the 1930s in his memoirs and his letters to high-ranking Party officials. As a defence against the Nazis' accusations of degeneracy, Nolde regurgitated this early battle against what he perceived to be the Jewish stronghold of the Berlin art scene as evidence of both his ‘Germanness’ and his National Socialist credentials.

The exhibition effectively demonstrates the contested status of Nolde within the ranks of the National Socialist party in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was positive commentary in the völkisch and right-wing press concerning Nolde’s peasant origins and his proclivity for rural subjects, and an idea was also perpetuated that his religious paintings constituted an extension of a German Gothic tradition. On the other hand, as early as 1928 National Socialists such as Paul Schultze-Naumburg saw the deformations and anti-naturalistic use of colour in his biblical paintings as evidence of his ‘degeneracy’. This inconsistency in the National Socialist perspective on Nolde was part of a wider dispute over the status of Expressionism within the ranks of the party between 1933 and 1937. The curators also draw attention to the startling fact that on 9th November 1933, Nolde was guest of honour at Heinrich Himmler’s tenth anniversary celebrations of the Munich ‘Beer Hall Putsch’, and that in the same year he even denounced his former Brücke colleague Max Pechstein as a ‘Jew’ to the Propaganda Ministry, resulting in the Prussian Academy of Arts having to confirm Pechstein’s ‘pure Aryan heritage’.(5)

Nolde exhibitions of the last few decades have tended to mention rather than dwell on the fact that from September 1934, Nolde was a member of the National Socialist Association of Northern Schleswig, a Nazi organisation of ethnic Germans near the Danish border. It is an inconvenient truth not easily reconciled with the ‘hero narrative’ constructed for Nolde after the Second World War, at a time when Germany desperately needed heroes. Nolde was rehabilitated after the war, given an honorary professorship from the Federal State Government of Schleswig-Holstein in 1946 and even a Pour le Mérite in 1952, and considered primarily as a victim of the National Socialist Degenerate Art campaign. It was well known that his polyptych The life of Christ (1911–12) was the centrepiece of the Entartete Kunst exhibition that travelled throughout Germany from 1937, and that more of his works were initially included in this touring concentration camp of art than those of any other Expressionist. What is lesser known is that Nolde’s letters to Party officials, including Joseph Goebbels, along with support from influential friends, resulted in The life of Christ being returned to the artist by the end of 1938. By the beginning of 1939, none of Nolde’s paintings was included in the exhibition.

After the war, knowledge of Nolde’s professional ban, issued in 1941, helped exonerate him in spite of his party membership. This ban was also the inspiration for Siegfried Lenz’s novel Deutschstunde (The German Lesson), published in 1968, in which the hero, Max Ludwig Nansen (based on Nolde), is under surveillance by local Schleswig-Holstein Nazis. The curators argue that alongside other measures that effectively de-Nazified Nolde, it was principally through this bestselling fiction that his ‘victim’ status was consolidated, ultimately leading to his paintings adorning the state chambers of German federal presidents and chancellors. But when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, decided to lend two Nolde paintings to this exhibition, she did not ask for them back.(6) Ultimately it is hard to say what the impact of this show will be on future exhibitions of Nolde’s art, or indeed on his canonical status in Western art history, but it seems unlikely that it will be business as usual.

  1. Catalogue: Escape into Art? The Brücke Painters in the Nazi Period. Edited by Meike Hoffmann, Lisa Marei Schmidt and Aya Soika. 288 pp. incl. 244 col. ills. (Brücke-Museum, Berlin, and Hirmer, Munich, 2019), £39.95. ISBN 978–3–7774–3286–1.
  2. Catalogue: Emil Nolde: The Artist during the Third Reich. Edited by Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring and Aya Soika. 384 pp. incl. 250 col. ills. (Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, and Prestel, Munich, 2019), £45. ISBN 978–3–7913–5894–9.
  3. Reviewed by Jill Lloyd in this Magazine, 160 (2018), pp.684–86. 
  4. See, for example, W. Haftmann: Emil Nolde: Unpainted Pictures, transl. I. Goodwin, New York 1965.
  5. This point is made in a vitrine text labelled ‘Nolde’s Anti-Semitism and Years of Struggle, 1934’ and in the Nolde exhibition catalogue, p.102.
  6. See C. Hickley: ‘Stripping away lies to expose a painter’s Nazi past’, The New York Times (10th April 2019), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/arts/nolde-nazi-exhibition-berlin-merkel.html, accessed 12th August 2019.
Fig.21. Max Pechstein’s easel in front of the ruin of his studio building at Kurfürstenstrasse 126, around 1945. (Archiv Pechstein, Hamburg/ Tökendorf; photographer unknown; exh. Brücke-Museum, Berlin).
Fig.22. Uprooted trees, by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. 1934. Oil on canvas, 98 by 112 cm. (Brücke-Museum, Berlin; © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2019). 
Fig.23. Paradise lost, by Emil Nolde. 1921. Oil on canvas, 106.5 by 157 cm. (Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Schleswig-Holstein; photograph Elke Walford and Dirk Dunkelberg; exh. Hamburger Banhof, Berlin).