French Influences and German Expressionism

“I have just told Osthaus (in Hagen) that German art must stand on its own. We have a duty to break away from the French. The time has come for an independent German art,” Nolde declared in a conversation with his friend Hans Fehr in 1912. Four years earlier he had painted Blumengarten, Frau im weißen Kleid en face (Flower Garden, Woman in White Dress en face, illustration), a work that in its style and coloring reveals the influence of late Impressionism and above all Vincent van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism. Rohlfs, too, engaged with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. His landscape paintings from Weimar are indebted to the Barbizon School and thus to a forerunner of Impressionism. Later, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the collection of Karl Ernst Osthaus in the Folkwang Museum in Hagen, where Rohlfs moved into a studio flat, exerted a great attraction on him. Unlike Nolde, Rohlfs investigated the aesthetic vocabulary of Pointillism (Georges Seurat, Paul Signac) much more thoroughly. The painting Ruhr bei Hohnsyburg (Ruhr near Hohnsyburg, ca. 1902/03) impressively demonstrates this. Rohlfs also received Van Gogh closely, as shown in Garten in Soest (Garden in Soest, 1905; illustration) and Hügellandschaft mit tiefstehender Sonne (Hilly Landscape with Low Sun, ca. 1911). In 1904 Rohlfs wrote enthusiastically to a friend: “Osthaus has 4 new van Goghs, including drawings, probably from his last period, ingenious and desolate.”

Nolde’s 1912 call for something new to replace the old is an evergreen in art history. However, when looking at Nolde’s works, it becomes clear that this change did not occur abruptly. His Hamburg prints from 1910 are still entirely devoted to the immersion in the harbor atmosphere. In order to absorb its mood, he moved to a hotel in the harbor district, directly on the water. His etchings’ style oscillates between dissolution and condensation, capturing the light’s nuances between fog and steam from the ships. If the well-known formulas of Impressionism as the art of impression and Expressionism as the art of expression were not far too simple in the first place, the Hamburg prints would logically have to be assigned to Impressionism. The two nudes from the same year also illustrate the coexistence of expressive styles for a long time. While the etching Akt in Vorderansicht (Nude in Front View) features just as loose, rapid a stroke as the Hamburg sheets and is thus reminiscent of the lightness of a quickly captured impression, the etching Akt schräg (Nude Oblique) appears more dramatic, but much less three-dimensional, due to the stroke’s force and the dark background. This striking difference is also apparent in a comparison of Rohlfs’s watercolor of a female nude on her back from 1909 with his linocut of the same subject, which shows the nude laterally reversed for printing reasons. While the watercolor, held in a palette and line management that faintly resembles Fauvism, is interested in modeling body volumes, the linocut confines itself to the interplay of a black and white contrast emphasizing the surface.

The interlocking of the different styles becomes particularly evident in Rohlfs’s painting Waldweg nach Erling (Forest Path to Erling, 1911). In its pastiness and darker color palette, it already appears strongly expressive. The play of light and shadow, on the other hand, is entirely indebted to Impressionism. Nolde’s 1907 lithograph Große Mühle (Large Mill), which he printed with additional areas of colour in 1915, is quite different. The motif, which is firmly associated with the Dutch and North German landscape, combined with the coarse, almost massive form, conveys why anything that ran counter to Impressionism in terms of formal aesthetics and was coded as “Germanic” in terms of content could be considered Expressionism. From then and until the National Socialist era, Expressionism appeared as the possibility of a new German art that could assert itself against the dominance of French art. Thus, Nolde was not alone in regarding Expressionist art as the appropriate means for representing the historical turn embodied by the “Third Reich”—a view that was, of course, aggressively suppressed by the National Socialist exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art, 1937).

Nolde’s rebellion against Impressionism was certainly also motivated by his long-lasting disappointment and anger over the rejection of his painting Pfingsten (Pentecost)  by the Liebermann chaired Berlin Secession jury in 1910: Liebermann was not only one of the most important and influential protagonists on the German art scene of the early 20th century. Rather, he was the German Impressionist. And he was Jewish. The combination of Nolde’s front position opposing the original French Impressionism and his anti-Semitic interpretation of the conflict with Liebermann explains why, even after the Second World War, he could be described both as “anti-Jewish” and “anti-French” in an American exhibition review.

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Further to: Nolde's and Rohlfs's Expressionism


Emil Nolde, Blumengarten, Frau im weißen Kleid en face  (Flower Garden, Woman in White Dress en face), 1908, oil on canvas, 63 × 78.5 cm, Osthaus Museum Hagen © Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde.

Christian Rohlfs, Garten in Soest (Garden in Soest), 1905, oil on canvas, 68 × 96 cm. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on loan from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza en depósito en el Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence

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