“Regarding the younger German artists (young mainly in terms of direction), the matter of fact seems to remain that the Folkwang Museum is several years or decades ahead of all the others. [...] These artists are called Expressionists, which is supposed to denote that they no longer start from the external impression of nature, but from the spiritual experience, and thus their main goal is the force of spiritual expression. The conqueror of this field is probably Christian Rohlfs, who in a laborious struggle underwent this development coming from Impressionism and despite his 64 years today still belongs to the young, the master, however, is Emil Nolde [...]. He, too, is already mature in years.”
The reason for this assessment expressed in 1913 by Kurt Freyer, the assistant of Karl Ernst Osthaus, probably relates to the greater continuity of Nolde’s work. His watercolors in particular testify to a consistent quality of expression. Rohlfs, too, appreciated the works of his fellow artist: “This month Nolde has a rich exhibition here extremestly [sic] captivatingly strong in color. New views again in parts,” he wrote in 1916 on the occasion of an exhibition of Nolde’s work at the Folkwang. Rohlfs himself tried out various modes of expression and styles; throughout his life he was open to suggestions and experiments. He summed up his artistic credo as follows: “There is no longer an only saving faith, neither in religion nor in art. I grant everything validity. One can detect the problem in light and color like Nolde or in the line like Hodler. [...] That fact that a work of art has personality is the only justified requirement, everything else is professorial rules; restricting the artist and sometimes leading him into complete confusion.” The works gathered in this room give an impression of this attitude. For example, the painting Berg (Mountain, 1911/1919) and the tempera painting Schlafende in Rot (Sleeping Woman in Red, ca. 1911) contain a strongly Expressionist formal vocabulary, while Äpfel in einer Schale (Apples in a Bowl, 1923) and the ink pen drawing Pilze (Mushrooms, 1925) reveal the influence of Neue Sachlichkeit. The still life Zinnerarien (Cineraria, 1911; 1918; possibly also 1920), on the other hand, fabulously conveys a technique developed by Rohlfs that pervaded his oeuvre to the end: Once applied, paint was mechanically as well as chemically dissolved again, albeit in a very controlled manner, so that, as in the case of the flower still life, a rhythm can be discerned in the removal of the layers of paint, which transfers the picture beyond the decorative-ornamental into abstraction.
Nolde’s color lithograph Windmühle (Windmill, 1913) and Rohlfs’s watercolor Patroklidomin Soest (Cathedral of St. Patroclus in Soest, 1919) present almost prototypically Expressionist in their lines and surface design. Their watercolors Bäume an der Wiedau (Trees on the Wiedau, ca. 1924) and Hochwald (High Forest, 1920), as well as Holsteinischer Bauernhof I (Holstein Farm I, 1922) and Marschlandschaft (Marshy Landscape, ca. 1920/25), in turn, reveal that Nolde preferred applying watercolors wet-on-wet with a moment of uncontrollability and chance, while Rohlfs fused the draftsmanlike, that is, the emphasis on line, with watercolors. The two Schleswig-Holstein landscapes establish a reference to the origin of both artists, which is reflected in their respective work. Nolde’s connection to his homeland was much more intense than Rohlfs’, who, after leaving his parents’ home, lived and worked in other places, including Weimar, Bavaria, Hagen, and finally in Ascona, Switzerland. Nolde’s life was characterized by a relatively secluded rural life and regular stays in Berlin as well as numerous journeys; the most prominent likely being the “Medical-Demographic German New Guinea Expedition,” in which the Nolde couple participated from 1913 to 1914. Nolde’s watercolor Tänzerin im roten Kleid (Dancer in a Red Dress, 1910) and the ceramic tile Zwei Tänzerinnen (Two Dancers, 1913) can be seen as representative of the influences of urban life—with Rohlfs’ Tanzende (Dancing Woman, 1923) joining in as a caricaturesque snapshot—and for the ethnographic interest expressed in the Papua New Guinea expedition.
The native landscapes, as featured in the paintings Bauernhof (Farm, 1924) and Korndiemen am Sielzug (Wheatstacks at the Dike, 1939), form a constant in Nolde’s work and show his attachment to his origins. Rohlfs also loved the landscape of northern Germany; pine forests, for example, can be found as a motif in various creative phases. A photograph from 1925 to 1926 shows Rohlfs amidst such a forest at the seaside resort of Misdroy on the Baltic Sea (illustration). In Nolde’s work, landscape motifs changed in their implication. While at first they stood for a sense of homeland, in the 1930s they increasingly became a way for Nolde to express his identification with the National Socialist blood-and-soil ideology. While other defamed artists, including some of the former Brücke artists such as Max Pechstein, also moved on to painting “German” landscapes as an adaptation to the Nazi art policy, things were different for Nolde. Born in 1867, he was directly affected by the annexation that followed the outcome of World War I (in comparison, Rohlfs was already 70 years old at the end of the war and socialized by the empire; as a mature man, the war and its consequences did not influence him in the way they did Nolde). In 1920 Nolde became a Danish citizen and remained such until the end of his life. Yet he identified as a German and therefore felt all the more misunderstood by the National Socialist cultural policy’s rejection.