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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Emil Nolde

It's not just nationalistic narrow-mindedness that when we think of art today, we think first of American art. If someone forces the issue, we quickly broaden that view to include that which is done in perhaps England or France, but even then we tend to note that it is those artists working in the big American art markets who are really making the waves. The same way of thinking dominates our attitudes toward nineteenth century and early twentieth century art as well.  We think French. We think academic decadence, we think Impressionism, we think Expressionism, or Dada, or Surrealism, or Cubism--all style that were French in origin. But in doing so, we are not only narrow-minded, but flat out wrong. All these movements were international in scope, especially insofar as Expressionism is concerned. It was international, but particularly it was German, and we do it a great injustice if we center our views on this style only on artists such as Matisse, Van Gogh, Vlaminck, and Derain.

Holiday Guests, 1911, Emil Nolde
The German Expressionists aren't exactly unknown, of course. Kandinsky, Kirchner, Beckmann, and Kokoschka aren't quite household names, but neither are they what you'd call obscure. One of their kind, however, is a bit obscure when in fact, he shouldn't  be. Emil Hansen was born in 1867. He was raised on a farm and first tried his hand at the art of wood carving. Eventually he ended up in Flensburg, Germany, working as a furniture designer. In moving to Berlin in 1890, he changed his name to Emil Nolde. A short period of time spent living in Switzerland amidst the Alpine scenery inspired him to start painting. His early works were anthropomorphic landscapes but later, back in Berlin, he gravitated toward figures, flowers, and still-lifes, exhibiting a loose, colorful style with heavy concentrations of paint and in general, a lighthearted approach to his subject matter. His 1911 grouping of close friends entitled Holiday Guests is typical.

Still Life with Dancers, 1914, Emil Nolde
Studies in Paris at the Academie Julian brought Nolde into contact with the work of Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, further serving to emphasize the use of color in his work. His 1914 Still Life with Dancers gives evidence of a gradual movement toward the use of emotional color over what we term local color. Mountains (below), painted in 1914, all but eliminates subject matter in its overwhelming reds, blues, and greens. Despite his disillusionment with Germany after two world wars, both of which he idealistically supported only to see his hopes for a better society dashed by the cruel forces of political reality, Nolde continued to paint in a manner such that he was not painting "pictures" so much as pure color, becoming the last living member of the original German Expressionist movement.  He died in 1956.  He was 89.
Mountains, 1914, Emil Nolde

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