Biographies Emil Nolde & Christian Rohlfs

Christian Rohlfs

1849 Leezen bei Groß Niendorf1938 Hagen

A stroke of fate was decisive for the artistic development of Christian Rohlfs, who was born on 22 December 1849 in Leezen near Groß Niendorf: As a child he fell from an apple tree and contracted rheumatoid periostitis of the right leg. During the two years of illness, a doctor encouraged the young Rohlfs to pursue his talent for drawing. He enabled his attendance of the Realgymnasium (secondary school) in Bad Segeberg and recommended him to Berlin in 1870, from where Rohlfs moved on to the The Grand Ducal Saxon Art School in Weimar, beginning his studies in the winter semester of 1870. This phase of appreciative support for the talented young man was abruptly interrupted in 1871 by a deterioration and finally the amputation of his leg in 1873. In 1874 he resumed his studies. For the next ten years he would train with various genre and history painters representative of a realistic style.

Rohlfs’ early studies consisted of direct observations of nature, which he continued to develop and which made him receptive to the Barbizon School’s understanding of nature. In 1881 his conception of art led to a break with his teacher Alexandre Struys. From 1884 on Rohlfs mainly painted landscapes, from 1888 onwards an Impressionist influence became apparent, with Rohlf finding reassurance in the contemplation of Monet’s work.

His acquaintance with Karl Ernst Osthaus in 1900, through Henry van de Velde, was decisive for the further course of his life. Rohlfs accepted Osthaus’ invitation to come to the newly founded Folkwang Museum in Hagen, designed by architect van de Velde, to move into a studio there, and to teach at the planned—but ultimately never realized—painting school.

From 1901 until his death, Hagen remained a constant in Rohlfs’ life. In his first years there, he received important impulses from the newly forming European art through Osthaus’s collection and exhibition activities. His work clearly displays influences from Neo-Impressionism and the work of Vincent van Gogh. In 1904 Rohlfs met Edvard Munch in Weimar, in 1905 Emil Nolde in Soest. The following year Rohlfs had his first solo exhibition at the Folkwang Museum. In 1909 he joined the Deutscher Werkbund (association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists), in 1911 the Expressionist artist association Neue Sezession in Berlin, and in 1914 the artist association Freie Sezession Berlin. Given the outbreak of the First World War, Rohlfs was unable to work artistically for several months and then devoted himself to religious motifs until 1918. Due to the lack of material in the wake of the war, he produced many woodcuts and watercolors in 1917. In the 1920s he began to work mainly with water tempera on paper, which gradually replaced the oil paintings in terms of format. The year 1919 marked a significant change in his private life: Rohlfs, 70 years old at this point, married Helene Vogt and, following a pneumonia infection, regularly spent several months a year in Ascona on Lake Maggiore from 1927 onwards. In 1930, and initiated by the Osthaus Association, the Christian Rohlfs Museum in Hagen was established as the first public institution dedicated to a modern artist. In the course of the Nazi Gleichschaltung (coordination), the name of the Christian Rohlfs Museum, which in the meantime had become part of the Städtisches Museum, was dropped in 1933. In 1937, Rohlfs was deemed “degenerate” by National Socialist cultural policy, four hundred and twelve of his works were removed from German museums, he was banned from exhibiting, and some of his works were shown in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Christian Rohlfs died in his Hagen studio on January 8, 1938.


Emil Nolde

1867 Nolde1956 Seebüll

Born on August 7, 1867 in the village of Nolde in the German-Danish border region, Emil Hansen overcame several obstacles to follow his calling as an artist. Against his father’s wishes, he completed an apprenticeship at the Sauermann furniture factory and wood-carving school in Flensburg from 1884 to 1888. Until his employment as a teacher for industrial drawing and shaping at the Museum of Industry and Trade in St. Gallen from 1892 to 1897, Nolde made a living as a wood carver. In 1894 he achieved great success, also financially, with his mountain postcards, which enabled him to pursue his artistic career for some time after his dismissal from St. Gallen. In 1898 he was rejected by the Munich Academy of Arts, a year later he attended the private Académie Julien in Paris. Stays in Denmark followed. In 1902 he changed his name to Nolde, his birthplace, and married the Danish native Ada Vilstrup.

From 1903 onwards the Noldes spent their winters in Berlin, otherwise living in various places in North Friesland. In 1906 he joined the Brücke artists’s group for a year, and in 1908 the artist association Berlin Secession until his withdrawal after a falling out with Max Liebermann in 1910. In 1913 and 1914 the Noldes unofficially participated in the “Medical-Demographic German New Guinea Expedition” and travelled via Moscow, Siberia, Korea, Japan, and China to present-day Papua New Guinea. In 1920 Nolde became a Danish citizen. 1927 marked the beginning of the construction of his self-designed residential and studio house in Seebüll, which was later designated in his will as the headquarters of the foundation. Ada and Emil Nolde were thrilled by the National Socialists’ seizure of power in 1933. In the same year, the so-called Expressionismusstreit (Expressionism Controversy), which focused on the person of Nolde in particular, reached a climax: defenders and critics alike engaged in a bitter exchange of blows over whether Expressionism could represent the new regime as German art. Nolde joined the Nationalsozialistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft National Socialist Working Group of Northern Schleswig in 1934; as a Dane he could not become a member of the Nazi party NSDAP. The second volume of his autobiography was published under the title Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle), in which the Liebermann conflict was interpreted in an anti-Semitic vein.

In 1937, over one thousand of Nolde’s works were confiscated from German museums. Thirty-three of his paintings were shown in the defamatory Degenerate Art exhibition, which opened in Munich in July of the same year. Nolde refused to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts; he managed to ensure that no more works were presented in the propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art at the end of 1938. In 1940 Nolde had his best-selling year ever, in 1941 he was banned from working. Private correspondences with his wife in 1942 and aphorisms intended for publication in 1943 show that Nolde’s anti-Semitism was radicalizing. In 1946, Nolde was exonerated by the Denazification Committee of Kiel; the rejection of his art by the National Socialists played a significant role here and was interpreted as the artist’s own rejection of the Nazi regime. The narrative of the victim was also applied by Nolde in his fourth autobiographical volume and for a long time remained decisive for the reception both of his work and of his person. Emil Nolde died in Seebüll on April 13, 1956.


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