The art world is in an uproar with the discovery in a Munich apartment. of over 1,000 modernist paintings that had been stolen by Nazis. Many of the paintings were last seen at the infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art") exhibition in Munich. Presumably, some of the rediscovered works are by the great expressionist painter Emil Nolde. Nolde was well-represented at the Entartete Kunst show with 27 paintings; his religious work Christus und die Suenderin was argueably the centerpiece of the entire exhibition and was singled out for special scorn by the Nazis. Thousands of Nolde's paintings were subsequently removed from museums and galaries in Germany, and the Nazis issued a Malverbot to the artist - a prohibition of painting (which Nolde fortunately ignored by creating thousands of exquisite watercolors). Fortunately, many of Nolde's works found their way to the United States, and I first encountered his art at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University.
Because Nolde was persecuted by the Nazis, he enjoyed a reputation as something of a rebel in postwar Germany. The central figure in Siegfried Lenz's great novel Die Deutschstunde (The German Lesson - see my review), the artist Max Ludwig Nansen, is modeled on Nolde.
Although Nolde is labeled as an expressionist painter, he didn't have much in common with his peers, and, in fact, was expelled from the expressionist group Die Brücke. German Expressionism was primarily an urban movement, inspired by the kenetic energy and chaos of the city. Nolde was most at home on the deserted coast of Nothern Friesland by the border with Denmark. It was here that he produced his most famous land- and seascapes distinguished by their intense colors. Nolde was strongly influenced by a 1913 trip to the South Sea Islands, and it seems almost that the colors of Guaguin have been poured into the wind and fog of the North Sea. The colors bleed into each other in an almost crude way, but the emotional power of the paintings is driven by Nolde's amazing technical control.
What is interesting about Nolde's biography is that the painter, although persecuted by the Nazis and even deprived of his livlihood as an artist, was loyal to the Nazi cause to the bitter end. HIs troubles, he claimed were based on a "misunderstanding" and Hitler was simply misled by those around him in rejecting Nolde's art. A letter by Nolde which was recenly discovered in Switzerland makes clear where Nolde's allegiance lay:
"Den Nationalsozialismus verehre ich als die besondere und jüngste Staatsform, die Arbeit ist zur Ehre erhoben. Und ich habe den Glauben, dass unser großer deutscher Führer Adolf Hitler nur für das Recht und Wohl des deutschen Volkes lebt und wirkt und auch dass er in ernsten Sachen von Grund auf die Wahrheit wissen will, [...] und trotz allem, was in jüngster Zeit gegen mich unternommen worden ist, bin ich stets und immer im In- und Ausland für die große deutsche nationalsozialistische Sache mit vollster Ueberzeugung eingetreten. Ich habe den Eindruck, dass meine um 1910 geführten Kulturkämpfe gegen die herrschende Ueberfremdung in allem Künstlerischen und gegen die alles beherrschende jüdische Macht, jetzt nur noch wenigen bekannt sein möge."
(I have the utmost respect for National Socialism as the most special and modern state, work is elevated as something honorable. And I firmly believe that our great Fuehrer Adolf Hitler lives only for the justice and well-being of the German Volk, and when it comes to the most serious matters is ony interested in the Truth. And, despite everything that has recently happened to me I have always stood for the great German National Socialist ideal with the strongest conviction. I have the feeling that everything I have done since 1910 in my cultural struggle against foreign influence and against the power of the Jews is known to but a few.")
History is replete with artists and writers of genius whose ideas we find repulsive today; Leni Riefenstahl, Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Celine come to mind. In the case of Nolde, there is nothing overtly political about his work, and his aesthetic sensibility was certainly quite different from the Blut-und-Boden style advanced by the Nazis. I will be waiting impatiently to find out what lost works of this great artist have been found in the Munich apartment.