Was Emil Nolde a Nazi painter? Merkel’s decision to remove his works from the Chancellery reignites a debate on the German expressionist’s art, even though his troubled past is nothing new.It shows a huge wave spraying white foam, falling onto a dark ocean. On the horizon, low-hanging blood-red clouds intensify the drama. Breaker, a painting by Emil Nolde (1867 – 1956), is as dramatic as the artist's life story.
The German-Danish artist, whose work was once labeled "degenerate" by the National Socialist government in Berlin in the 1930s, was himself a staunch Nazi. Which is assumed to be why Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to ban Breaker and a second painting by Nolde from her office, returning the loaned works to the Berlin State Museums' collection.
The move comes as two exhibitions grappling with Nolde's conflicted history are set to open in Germany. "Emil Nolde. A German Legend. The Artist during the Nazi Regime" opens April 12 at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, followed by "Escape Into Art? The Brücke Painters in the Nazi Period" at the Brücke Museum, also in the capital city. Both of the museums are a part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Both exhibitions also aim to clear up myths surrounding the artist, who claimed to have been ostracized during the Nazi era.
Read more: How Nazi-banned expressionist Emil Nolde re-envisioned color
Nolde himself rewrote his life story
Nolde's own telling of his life story, it turns out, was "an extreme reinterpretation," says Bernhard Fulda, co-curator of the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition and expert on Nolde.
Fulda, along with art historian Aya Soika, reassessed the artist's wartime experiences. Even though Nolde himself insisted that he was persecuted, their research refers to the fact that he hated Jewish people and was conversant in the language of the time, referring to the Führer, the Volk and the Vaterland.
Read more: Words that came from the Nazis — and others that surprisingly didn't
Fulda drew, in part, on the archives of the Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, which had been opened in 2013 after Christian Ring took over the post of director. A 2014 exhibition at Frankfurt's Städel Museum had already brought this historical retelling to light.
"On the one hand, we have a heroic story that the artist himself had brought into the world and which was then transformed into literature by Werner Haftmann (Ed. note: a German art historian) and author Siegfried Lenz," Fulda told DW. "Even before 1933, Nolde wove his own legend — that of the eternally misunderstood artist. Then he reformulated it into the legend of the German pioneer of modern painting persecuted by Jews. And after 1945 he was suddenly no longer persecuted by the Jews, but by the National Socialists."
"This is an astonishing reinterpretation of his own life's story," said Fulda, "but it was received with enthusiasm in German society. It is astonishing how quickly such a transformation from sinner to saint can take place."
A broader debate on German identity
It is this transformation that appears to be at the heart of the renewed debate surrounding Nolde's contributions to the art world. It's a debate that Christian Ring says he cannot really understand, given that Nolde's biography had been openly discussed for years.
"On the one hand, he is a great artist whose art has had a decisive influence on the development of German art history and who is still regarded by many artists today as a role model … On the other hand, there is a man who was trapped in his time, like many other millions of Germans," says Ring.
Yet Fulda sees the discussion as one which has broadened with time, one in which greater reflection can take place, focusing "on the relationship between German identity, art and changing political power relations, but also on media relations."
"Two very important narratives coincide — one about the art world during National Socialism and one about the time afterwards: about the glorifying prose and about political interest groups who determine what belongs in a museum or the Chancellery and what does not. And one suddenly understands that art is always part of another social and communicative process and is therefore relevant," says Fulda.
"Art can be an incredibly effective means of communication, telling foreign visitors: What we Germans, the German state and its decision-makers do is shaped by German history, by its positive and negative aspects," the curator adds.
Nolde's opportunistic approach
"In our catalog you can read how Nolde tried in 1933 to qualify as a state artist, as a representative artist of this allegedly young German revival. He sat down and developed a territorial solution to the 'Jewish question,' which he even planned to submit to Adolf Hitler," says Fulda. Although Nolde didn't do so in the end, it remains an unusual demonstration of the artist's opportunistic approach, points out the art historian.
Pairing that background information with a work of art, Fulda points out, will change the story you tell yourself when looking at the picture. "A previously harmless painting no longer looks so harmless," Fulda says. And yet, he admits, there is "not a single painting by Nolde from 1933 that would have you thinking by looking at it on its own, 'Nolde was visually working on solving the Jewish question here.'"
Working with the past with contemporary knowledge
As the debate around Nolde's paintings heats up once again, both Ring and Fulda say that while the questions as to how to best consider the art and contributions of those working with the Nazi regime is still open for discussion, it is not limited to paintings.
"How do we deal with music that was created at the time, as with buildings from the National Socialist era? Do we question the democratic principles of contemporary artists?" Ring asked, noting that artistic freedom is of high value.
Fulda, for his part, sees the discussion as being about something greater. "The heated debate is about more than whether or not the works of an anti-Semite can hang in the Chancellery. Do you know how often the chancellor has gone to Bayreuth to listen to the wonderful music of the anti-Semite Richard Wagner? We've been able to deal with that."