Nolde’s talent for drawing was recognized early on. His teacher often called his student, then still named Emil Hansen, to the blackboard in the front of the classroom to illustrate the respective subject matter. “During the breaks, however, I drew more boldly and independently, portraits of my comrades on the blackboard, with white chalk strokes.” (Emil Nolde: Das eigene Leben, Berlin 1931, p. 39 [translation]). This talent for drawing—for capturing and sharpening the essential in a few moments—can be seen with Nolde as well as with Rohlfs. Nolde received permission from none other than Max Reinhardt to paint during performances at the Deutsches Theater, as often as he wished. Sympathetically and wittily, Rohlfs and Nolde observed their contemporaries on the streets, in cafés, pubs, vaudevilles, and theaters. Rohlfs’ Straßenszene (Street Scene, 1918), Nolde’s Paarin der Loge (Couple in the Theater Lodge,1910/11), and Tingel-Tangel III (1907) elaborately speak to this. The color lithograph Junges Paar (Young Couple, 1913), with its borderline grotesque subjects, also makes clear that Nolde, who had been influenced by rural life, was as strongly attracted to these ‘types’ of the big city as he was unsettled or even repelled by them. In retrospect, at the age of over sixty, he contextualized his early depictions of people with a Christian world view: “Whether poor or rich, servant or prince, we are all human beings and born naked: only the human gives [us] value and measure, be it bad, be it good, material or spiritual, fainthearted or generous” (Emil Nolde: Das eigene Leben, Berlin 1931, p.111 [translation]).
With his first autobiographical volume, Das eigene Leben, Nolde defended himself against the accusations raised against Expressionist artists. Originally, he had intended to self-publish Das eigene Leben and send it to friends. In March 1931, however, Ada and Emil Nolde attended a lecture by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who opened with one of Nolde’s works and cited racist reasons for the decline of art. Nolde consequently decided to launch his autobiography via a publishing house and to take the public perception of his person into his own hands. Expressionist artists at the time were attacked by right-wing art critics primarily for their depictions of people. Nolde reflected and justified this, writing: “This love of the unusual, which was boiling in me then, has always remained with me; my heart always throbbed more vividly when I was faced with and artistically creating a Russian, Chinese, South Sea Islander or a Gypsy, yes even the nocturnal, depraved city dweller excited me like a foreign nature, and the inclination to create racy Jewish types, as later in my religious paintings, probably partly happened—externally—following this impulse.” (Emil Nolde: Das eigene Leben, Berlin 1931, p. 108f. [translation])
A great number of works is addressed by this, first and foremost those created during or after the Noldes’ 1913/14 journey to the northeast of Papua New Guinea, then a German colony. The sheet Sibirische Gutsherren (Siberian Landlords, 1918), is one example, and, much like Rohlfs’ charcoal drawing Mazedonier (Macedonians, ca. 1920), expresses the interest in nationalities that accompanied the dominating nation-state mentality in the 19th century. The color lithograph Junge Dänin (Young Danish Woman, 1913) impressively demonstrates that this was not solely accompanied by an ethnologically interested perspective, as it is displayed e.g. in Nolde’s painting Zwei Russen (Two Russians, 1915; illustration). Here, Nolde is much more interested in the emotional effect of color—the sheet exists in several color versions on either a blue or black ground (illustration).
Another group of works on view in this room illustrates that the human image by far not solely takes the form of individual portraits. Alongside such portraits, e.g. Frau N. (Frau Ada Nolde) (Mrs. N (Mrs. Ada Nolde, 1911) or Schwarzer Junge, Matam (Black Boy, Matam, 1913), there are portraits of couples by Nolde that focus on the general human condition and do so with recourse to grotesque and fantastic means, as the painting Neckerei (Teasing, around 1920) or the watercolor Zwei Männer im Gespräch (Two Men in Conversation, no date) show. On the other side, there are a number of so-called portraits of ‘types’ by Rohlfs. They, too, do not refer to the individual, but feature people of different social classes and groups representatively. Rohlfs’ painting Der Trinker (The Drinker, ca. 1915), which bears the additional titles Der Zecher (The Reveler) and Der Säufer (The Drunkard), is characterized by both sympathy and harshness. As a depiction of a social ‘type,’ however, it ultimately has a strengthening effect for the community. This typification thus fulfills a different function than pictorial stereotyping, which seeks to cement exclusion from society. Rohlfs’ print Mann mit roter Mütze (Man with Red Cap,1937), could easily be mistaken for a stereotypical as well as racist aberration by an artist who was otherwise considered apolitical. The pearly white row of teeth, as well as the full lips alongside the dark background seem to satirize a person of African origin. Essential for understanding the work, but also for a revision of Rohlfs as an indeed thoroughly political artist, is the year of its origin, 1937, when the defamatory exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) was first shown in Munich. It not only brought together the works of art hated by the National Socialists, but also defamed them with banners. A photograph of the Berlin section clearly reads: “Like the niggering of music and theater, the niggering of visual art was intended to uproot the racial instinct of the people, to help tear down the boundaries of blood!” (illustration). Among them one can see Nolde’s woodcuts Mann und Weibchen (Man and [Little] Woman, 1912) and Familie (Family, 1917). Rohlfs’ Mann mit roter Mütze can thus be interpreted as a deliberate reprise of a subject from his 1912 painting Clownsgespräch (Clown Talk, illustration) and, in its stereotypical intensification, as an identification of the artist not only with the art under attack, which included his own, but with the people of other ethnic origins acknowledged by it.