The 19th century, into which Christian Rohlfs (1849–1938) and Emil Nolde (1867–1956), who was almost twenty years his junior, were born and also experienced their artistic formation, was marked by the emancipation of the bourgeoisie as a result of the French Revolution and in the course of the Industrial Revolution that began in England. This also changed the social position of art: it freed itself from its dependence on nobility and the church and became subject to the free market. Arts’ status of autonomy increased, with demands for originality and individuality being voiced and thus for overcoming prescriptive aesthetics. This was contrasted by the curricula at art academies, with their focus on drawing devoted to realism, which was increasingly regarded unfruitful. It was a time when many successful artists were self-taught.
Rohlfs studied at the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Art in Weimar from 1870 to 1884 and was awarded the title of professor at the Weimar Academy in 1902. In contrast, Emil Nolde, the fourth of five children from a farming family in northern Schleswig, was denied a regular academic education and career. Instead, he began his career in the arts and crafts. He learned to draw through an apprenticeship as a wood sculptor’s assistant, and only secretly attended the life drawing class at the Kunstgewerbeschule Karlsruhe, followed by self-study and training at private painting schools. The early work of both artists is still marked by the dominance of Realism. Rohlfs, however, broke away from genre painting in the 1880s. His Rückenakt (Nude from Behind, 1878) already emphasizes the paint’s materiality and the brushwork. The act of painting itself is also addressed in terms of content, seeing that it appears as if the model is shamefully blushing over her partial exposure. Rohlfs displays a precise and empathetic power of observation here, without being intrusive; this also characterizes his later work. Rohlfs fully broke with the conventions of academic teaching through his notion of landscape painting. This genre, which was actually of secondary importance, was elevated by the avant-garde of the time beyond its hitherto status as mere study, thus gaining independence. Rohlfs was particularly guided by the Barbizon School, whose open-air painting was a precursor of Impressionism. The everyday motif of his Märzlandschaft bei Weimar (March Landscape near Weimar, ca. 1892) speaks of a marked reticence towards the politically representative use of art.
From 1892 to 1897 Nolde taught modeling and industrial drawing at the Industry and Trade Museum St. Gallen. This period functioned as a hinge of sorts between his education and his actual vocation as an artist. In 1894 he published a portfolio with twenty-four sheets entitled Typen aus Appenzell-Innerrhoden (Types from Appenzell-Innerrhoden). The portfolio was intended as a Christmas present for his fellow Alpine Club members, Nolde was an enthusiastic hiker. The portraits of peasant women and farmers are indebted to the naturalistic tradition of drawing, however, in the male portraits they hint at sensuous, cartoonish observation. These prints are an early example of the ‘type’ portrait genre, which does not pay tribute to the individual but aims at expressing the universal.
Losing his job in Switzerland because he only focused on artistic drawings, not technical ones, did not affect Nolde. With his so-called Bergpostkarten [mountain postcards], which were also launched on the open market in 1894, Nolde celebrated a great success—not only financially—which enabled him to pursue his artistic work without worries for some time. The depiction of personalized mountain massifs established a new genre that quickly found imitators. Nolde created facial features reminiscent of all kinds of fictional characters from fairy tales and legends, which testified to his passion for the grotesque pervading his entire oeuvre.
For one of their interventions, Lindner & Steinbrenner chose the motif of Nolde’s woodcut Lachender Gnom mit dickem Kopf (Laughing Gnome with Fat Head, 1921), highlighting the humorous, light-hearted quality of Nolde’s work that makes him conceivable as a child in the artist’s sense. In 1948, a similarly fantastic creature by Nolde’s hand adorned the first exhibition catalog of the Kestner Gesellschaft following the institution’s closure in 1936 for refusing to dismiss its Jewish director Justus Bier. The institution was able to seamlessly continue its pre-war program, as many persecuted artists regarded it a place of integrity. The fact that Nolde’s self-mythization as a victim of the Nazi regime remained unquestioned at the time shows the power of the narrative of the “unpainted pictures,” but also that there is a quality in his work whose effect remains unaffected by his abstruse political statements.