[...], because—to me—they give joy no more!”(1) The whole drama of Emil Nolde culminates in this sentence, by which Tekla Hess, the wife of the deceased Jewish collector Alfred Hess, turned to Nolde to ask him if he wanted to buy back three of his paintings from her collection. The paintings, namely Brüder Kain und Abel (Brothers Cain and Abel), Stilleben mit Reiterfigur (Still Life with Equestrian Figure)and Blaue und lila Blumen (Blue and Purple Flowers),(2) we gather from her words, had given her and her late husband joy.
Now they did no more.
Before asking why she wanted to return the works and whether she succeeded in doing so, or how this transfer took place, we note:
The three paintings had given her, it is so nice that it is a pleasure to say it once again: joy.
Who, after all, and common parlance aside, can say that they have given joy to another person, a stranger? And, more fantastically even, how can it be that this joy, once given, is suddenly no longer there? That it dissolves, like love does at the end of a relationship, no matter how long and how reliably it lasted before? Is it the painting? Is it the painter? Or is it the viewer?
The paintings, we can safely assume, had not changed in the time between their acquisition and the offer to return them. Hence these unchanged pictures will not have changed the viewer either. Does this suffice for a presumption of innocence regarding the work?
Who or what had changed?
Nolde, we must unfortunately assume, had also remained the same. His anti-Semitism and fervent admiration for the “new rulers” did not arise with Hitler any more than it left with him.
So it was only the new understanding of Nolde’s statements, his views, and his behavior that affected his collector and drove away her joy.
Tekla Hess had read Nolde’s autobiographical volume Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle)—in the first edition of 1934, not the revised version published after the war.(3) All of Nolde’s anti-Semitism had become apparent to her here.
By publishing his thoughts, Nolde had robbed her of her joy of his works.
How can it be that one and the same object, the same painting, is both guilty and innocent?
Or does this paradox indicate that it is not the object that requires scrutiny?
Rather: that we may (continue to) look at it independent of these deliberations? Reminded of the loss of joy, but not guilty of it?
Nolde himself indeed was guilty as charged. Unless in the company of those stuck in the past and those wishing to be, it is a fact quickly agreed upon.
Nolde was and remained a National Socialist, and not only as a hack.
He repeatedly offered his services to the National Socialists as the true representative of German art.(4)
He was an anti-Semite, an ardent admirer of Hitler and National Socialism. He had been a dedicated party member since 1934.(5) He denounced colleagues with greatest ease and even devised a plan to “solve the Jewish question.”(6) We can only imagine what this plan looked like. Like so many other things, he will have disposed of it after the war.(7) Only his convictions were never disposed of, and so it comes as no surprise that, as Karl Hofer reported to his colleague Alfred Hentzen in 1948, he would continue to leave the room, even after the war, when “his Fuehrer” was spoken ill of.(8)
Any attempts to make his and also Ada Nolde’s attitudes go away, to put them into perspective or to cover them up, are futile today, despite too much time having passed.
Emil Nolde, indeed the same person, however, created a great and magnificent body of work.
Fortunately, this work is not only “German, strong, rough, and earnest,” as Nolde wrote in a letter to Goebbels in 1938(9)—not in the way he aimed for, but also courageous, innovative, against a tendency towards internationalization, so often unquestioned even today, and, above all, highly sensitive again and again.
The descriptions of how he spread out his water color works on Japanese paper, ever so delicately fleshed out with a pen, later summarized as the “unpainted paintings,” on the grand piano with “touching modesty” and to the delight of the children visiting him, are among the most beautiful things that can be said about a painter.(10)
There is also his devoted love for his wife Ada Nolde, his not always better, but indispensable other half. In his sprawling and repeatedly modified autobiography, he finds words of love and praise for her time and again.
When seen from above, the garden in Seebüll reveals the intertwined initials of Ada and her husband. A secret, which they kept to themselves for the most part.(11)
We know all this from other perpetrators, one may think. Executioners had families, too, played with their children and were generous hosts. The difference is: Nolde was a painter. His professional practice did not lead to the destruction of innocent people. His professional practice, at best, gave joy.
As unpleasant as the distinction used by his “vindicators” as well as by himself, may be—two of his self-portraits show, as he himself wrote, “the human being once as a human being, the other time as an artist“(12)—we have to ask ourselves whether the all too often repulsive banality of his humanity means that his paintings should not be seen?
As children of the longest war-free period on German soil, as members of the Generation Golf(13)—what a mockery to name a generation after a product, a small car from the “Fuehrer’s Autostadt”(14)—as people who, at least until February of this year, only ever felt very remotely affected by war, we have, through our preoccupation with Nolde, repeatedly asked ourselves and now ask you as our readers and us all as people, artists:
Who will we have been?
Will our children reject us, or at least our art, because we did nothing?
Because we still watered our plants on the balcony with drinking water in August 2022?
Because we ate meat?
Because we drove 200 kilometers per hour in cars that weighed 2.5 tons and consumed petroleum or lithium?
Because we ordered all our unnecessary stuff as cheaply as possible, from wherever?
Because we didn’t start riots against the Bezos, Zuckerbergs, and Musks of this world?
This is what happened to us in the course of the two years of dealing with Nolde:
At first his paintings meant little to us and his person nothing, except perhaps for a vague memory that he was one of the “degenerates” and thus one of the “good guys”—a myth that could only be completely dispelled at the beginning of our millennium.
After we had looked into his story, we wanted to reject him and his work, and preferably the entire Kunsthalle Emden commission along with him.
Today we know Nolde’s work like no other painter’s. (And no, we have become neither experts on painting nor on Nolde.)
The painter, the offended one, the never acknowledged youngest brother, the seeker, the one who was not accepted at art school(!), the one overlooked by women, the one longing for the exotic, the egomaniac, the one who felt persecuted, the outcast...
No, we do not like him. In real life we would avoid him and, if we were brave enough, even fight him.
We have learned to love it.
Now we have to endure it.
Lotte Lindner & Till Steinbrenner 2022
(1) Tekla Hess in a letter to Emil Nolde dated January 29, 1935 from the archives of the Nolde Foundation Seebüll, transcribed from an illustration of the original in: Emil Nolde in seiner Zeit. Im Nationalsozialismus, ed. by Christian Ring, Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde, Munich, London, New York 2019, p. 138 [translation].
(2) The paintings Brüder Kain und Abel (Brothers Cain and Abel) and Stilleben mit Reiterfigur (Still Life with Equestrian Figure) both date to 1919, Blaue und lila Blumen (Blue and Purple Flowers) to 1916.
(3) Cf. Emil Nolde: Jahre der Kämpfe, Berlin 1934.
(4) Cf. Nolde’s correspondence with the President of the Prussian Academy of Arts on July 12,1937, the letter to Joseph Goebbels on July 2, 1938 and the letter to the Reich Press Chief and other offices in the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda on December 6,1938, in: Emil Nolde. Eine deutsche Legende. DerKünstler im Nationalsozialismus. Chronik und Dokumente, ed. by Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring, and Aya Soika for the Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin and the Nolde Foundation Seebüll, Munich 2019, pp. 120, 134, 137.
(5) “According to the Treaty of Versailles I was a German expatriate ceded to Denmark, and I lived secluded from the decisive German breakthrough battles. When the German National Socialist Party was founded in North Schleswig, I became a member. My sympathies and all my love are for Germany, the German people, and their ideals” [translation]. From a letter by Emil Nolde to the President of the Prussian Academy of Arts, July 7, 1937, in: Fulda, Ring, and Soika 2019 (see note 4), p. 120.
(6) Ibid., p. 67.
(7) “1933: [...] During these months Nolde worked out a plan, the details of which have not been recorded, which envisaged a territorial solution to the so-called ‘Jewish question’—a resettlement of the Jews. He denounced fellow painter Max Pechstein as a Jew to a ministerial official—probably in order to disqualify him as a candidate for the directorship of the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst in Berlin—and was not prepared to retract the false claim. [...]” [translation]. www.nolde-stiftung.de/nolde/biographie/ [last viewed 9/18/2022]. Cf. also: Fulda, Ring, and Soika, 2019 (see note 4), pp. 102–103.
(8) Ibid, p. 229.
(9) Emil Nolde in a letter to Joseph Goebbels, July 2,1938, in Fulda, Ring, and Soika 2019 (see note 4), p. 134.
(10) Cf. for the quotation as well as the anecdote itself Max Sauerlandt’s widow Alice’s account from 1957, quoted in: Fulda, Ring, and Soika 2019 (see note 4), p. 200.
(11) Emil Nolde: Reisen Ächtung Befreiung1919–1946, Cologne 1967, pp. 94, 97.
(12) “In 1917, when I turned fifty, it was as if I had to paint myself, documenting myself, yes, I painted the human being once as a human being, the other time as an artist, both pictures at the same time; the one begun first was finished last. Breathing a sigh of relief, as if after a completed duty, I painted other figurative pictures again—Painting myself was never my joy” [translation]. Emil Nolde: Welt und Heimat. Die Südseereise, 1913–1918, 4th ed., Cologne 2002, p. 150.
(13) “Generation Golf” is a German name for the demographic cohort following the baby boomers, who were teenagers in the 1980s. The name is derived from the eponymous bestselling novel by German writer Florian Illies which was published in 2000 and whose title alludes to Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s iconic novel Generation X. “Golf” refers to the Volkswagen golf, a very popular and widely used car in the 1980s and 1990s [note by the translator].
(14) “Autostadt” literally translates to “Automobile City” and historically refers to the Volkswagen Manufacturing grounds in the German city of Wolfsburg founded in 1937 under the rule of the Nazi Party [note by the translator].