The invitation to Lotte Lindner & Till Steinbrenner (*1971 / *1967) to contribute to this exhibition roots back to an earlier project. Coinciding with the groundbreaking 2019 exhibition Emil Nolde. A German Legend in Berlin, the Kunsthalle Emden hosted Marc, Macke, Nolde. Masterpieces from the Ziegler Collection. Twenty-seven of the approximately one hundred works on view were by Nolde and were complemented by an additional room dedicated to research findings on Nolde’s stance during National Socialism. Visitors were invited to write down their opinions regarding questions such as “May a person whose art we are looking at (have been) anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic or sexist?” or “What is the relationship between life and work, morality and art?” as contributions to the discussion.
Originally, Lindner & Steinbrenner had intended to work conceptually with these multi-layered responses. However, during the COVID-related postponement and thus longer preparation time of their project, their engagement with Nolde’s ambivalent character grew much more personal: Von Gedanken und unbestimmten Gefühlen getrieben [driven by thoughts and vague feelings]—Nolde’s own words, which Lindner & Steinbrenner now use as the title for their interventions. The quote can be regarded both as a mental and an emotional motto for their engagement, which is often an approximation.
Thus, Till Steinbrenner slipped into Nolde’s role: In one case he imitated a self-portrait featuring the typical large blue pupils Nolde stylized himself with as a seer. In another, Lotte Lindner filmed him re-enacting an episode from Nolde’s youth: “Sometimes I walked alone across the field, driven by thoughts and vague feelings. In the high cornfield, seen by no one, I lay down, my back flat to the ground, my eyes closed, my arms stretched out rigidly, and then I thought: ‘This is how your Savior Jesus Christ lay, when the men and women took him down from the cross,’ and then I turned, scraping a narrow depth in the ground, over which I lay down, dreaming in indeterminate faith that the whole, great, round, wonderful earth was my lover.” (Emil Nolde: Das eigene Leben, Berlin 1931, pp. 49–50 [translation])
This conflation of religious sentiment with a masturbation scene can be read as a deliberate provocation. Nolde, who wrote this at the age of 64, however also opened up with this account, rendering himself vulnerable. The scene is furthermore embedded in the context of Nolde’s conscious identification with the National Socialist blood-and-soil ideology. But it is also an indication of his deep religiosity. His religious works were of great significance not least because he experienced both recognition and rejection through them, and his anti-Semitism was tied to the latter. In particular, Nolde anti-Semitically interpreted the fact that his painting Pfingsten (Pentecost, 1909) was not admitted to the 1910 Berlin Secession spring exhibition, whose jury at that time was headed by Jewish impressionist painter Max Liebermann (1847–1935), as an obstruction to his art by the Jewish art establishment. Nonetheless, anti-Jewish visual stereotypes can also be found in the religious paintings themselves. Lindner & Steinbrenner illustrate this, for example by cutting out depictions of apostles’ heads from art volumes and displaying them on light tables. However—and their choice of the episode in the cornfield makes this clear— it is Nolde’s personal and artistic complexity that they are interested in. The artist duo also demonstrates that not all of Nolde’s religious depictions were per se infused with racist stereotypes. In one photograph, for example, Lindner wears the meticulously cut out female figures from reproductions of the painting Pharaos Tochter findet Moses (Pharaoh’s Daughter Finds Moses, 1910) as a half mask.
With the wooden sculpture of a hand, Lindner & Steinbrenner direct our gaze to the metaphor of the “bound,” “tied,“ and later “freed” hands that the Nolde couple frequently applied in their correspondences to denote what they considered Nolde’s unlawful treatment by the Nazi regime. An epidiascope indicates that this treatment was considerably dramatized by Nolde himself in the postwar period. The device was used by Nolde to enlarge his so-called unpainted pictures. The myth of the painting ban, spread by Siegfried Lenz in his novel Deutschstunde (The German Lesson, 1968), which the artist allegedly secretly circumvented by means of many small watercolors, the “unpainted pictures,” has since been disproved: Although he had been forbidden to exhibit, publish, or sell his art in 1941, he was still free to paint within his own four walls.
The research findings on Nolde’s anti-Semitism and his unwavering loyalty to the Nazi regime confront us with the problem of how to classify the artistic work of a person whose political stance appears to be morally reprehensible. With their second filmic intervention, for which they interpreted a letter written by the Jewish art collector Tekla Hess, Lotte Lindner & Till Steinbrenner confront us with no lesser question than whether Nolde’s works still bring us joy. A question that also invites us to reflect on our own judgment.