“[…] Perhaps there has never been so little discussion of art problems between two painters. But we looked at each other, I at the dear person, he at me, understanding one another without many words, and that’s how it stayed for life.”
This is how Emil Nolde (1867–1956) described his first encounter with Christian Rohlfs (1849–1938) in his second autobiographical volume Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle, Berlin 1934, p. 79 [translation]). Brought together by the founder of the Folkwang Museum in Hagen, Karl Ernst Osthaus, the artists met in Soest in 1905. It is impossible to tell how close their friendship really was, for lack of sufficient documentation. Moreover, it is quite likely that Nolde idealized his account. Rather than publishing the first volume of his autobiography, Das eigene Leben (My Own Life), for a private circle of friends and patrons, as initially planned, in 1931, Nolde had decided to publicly react to the criticism of his art from the right-wing camp and to influence the way he was perceived with his book. A strong emphasis on his peasant origins allowed Nolde to identify with the National Socialist blood-and-soil ideology in writing, despite no longer being a German citizen since the cession of his northern Schleswig homeland to Denmark (1920). The second volume even surpassed this ideology: In Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle)—a title that has repeatedly been considered a reference to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925)—one finds clearly anti-Semitic passages.
Nolde and Rohlfs shared strong artistic-aesthetic similarities in their practice: their love for working on paper and their closeness to nature expressed in depictions of flowers and landscapes. However, the two great mavericks of Expressionism differed significantly in their attitudes towards the “Third Reich.” According to present-day knowledge Rohlfs made neither anti-Semitic nor racist statements. Unlike Nolde, he was not a party member. Nolde, on the other hand, sought as much proximity to the Nazi Party as his Danish citizenship allowed him: In 1934 he joined the Nationalsozialistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Nordschleswig (National Socialist Working Group North Schleswig, NSAN), which was transformed into the Nazi Party North Schleswig in 1935. While there are no accounts of Rohlfs courting the Nazi regime, Nolde considered himself the ideal representative of a “new German” art and aspired to become the most important “Third Reich” painter. As part of the defamation of their art as “degenerate,” Nolde and Rohlfs were officially ordered to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts. Both refused to comply. Nolde, however, regarded his rejection by the National Socialist cultural policy as a tragic misunderstanding and remained loyal to the regime nonetheless. Rohlfs, on the other hand, did not engage in any argument: “If you do not like my work, you are free to remove me from the Academy’s list of members; but I will do nothing that could be interpreted as a confession of my own unworthiness.”
Against this backdrop, the juxtaposition of artworks by the Nazi Party supporter Nolde and the politically independent Rohlfs raises one question above all: are the two artists’ different political stances reflected in their respective works?
An answer requires closer examination of the ambivalent relationship between Expressionist art and National Socialism. In the first “Third Reich” years, the question whether Expressionism could be considered the “new German” art or not, was relatively open.
Critics and supporters engaged in a public debate. Expressionism’s proponents considered it an opportunity to counter French Impressionism with something at least on a par and thus to compensate for the German defeat in the First World War (1914–1918) in the field of art. It was not until the National Socialist propaganda exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in 1937 and the simultaneous “cleansing” of public art collections that Expressionism was finally stigmatised.
Thus, with regard to Nolde, two things become clear: 1.) As an important pioneer of Classical Modernism he could also feel and express strong sympathies with National Socialism. 2) Despite these sympathies, the National Socialist regime rejected his art from 1937 onwards and excluded him from the Reichskunstkammer in 1941, which amounted to a professional ban. And Nolde’s is not an isolated case with respect to this ambivalence.
Looking at the artworks in this exhibition, one thing becomes obvious: they are not mere illustrations of two opposing political viewpoints in the “Third Reich.” Particularly the juxtaposition of numerous genres devoted to the depiction of humans reveals nuanced complexity. Both Nolde and Rohlfs were gifted draughtsmen. Their studies and sketches display wit, humor, and precise observation. However, both artists at times also suggest forms of exotic and racist stereotypes in which a potential for discrimination can be discerned even if they can also be regarded as representations of something generally human.
Contrasting Nolde and Rohlfs shows that the obvious difference between their political stances is confronted with the ambivalence of their individual characteristics of Expressionist art. This ambivalence became possible through Expressionism breaking up the classicist unity of the true, the beautiful, and the good, and finding truth precisely in the exaggerated and the “ugly.”