Emile Nolde – The German, Expressionist Master of Darkness

Germany has had a rich legacy of passionate artists. From literary giants to the wielders of paint, they have surprised the world with their madness, and utter conflict. German watercolor painter and the printmaker of the twentieth century, Emile Nolde, born Emile Hansen, to Frisian & Danish peasant parents on August 7, 1867, in the Danish village of Nolde, displayed this legacy of bittersweet conflict more often than not. This irony yielded furious masterpieces from this pioneer of ‘Expressionism,’ even when he was a young boy.

He became a carver and an illustrator between the period 1884 to 1891, by alternating frequently between Munich, Berlin, and Flensburg, to earn his living. His early life was more of a meandering in wilderness, trying to find an expression for his talent, and tastes. The autumn of 1891 was a turning point in his life, when responding to an advertisement; he joined as a teacher in The Museum of Industrial Arts, New York. Although, the job was not very significant in the terms of his career, he was formally exposed to the wealth of artistic tradition in Europe, often roaming across the continent to view artistic talents as diverse as Leonardo and Durer.

Emile Nolde’s partial education, most of which was self-taught, in art made him feel isolated, and gravitated towards loneliness & depression. One milestone in his life was a series of his “postcards” that depicted the Swiss Mountains as giants. These postcards were an instant hit with the masses, and at last, Nolde had a popular audience. However, his later experiments with ‘Expressionism’ were quite disappointing. Emile named himself as Nolde, after his village’s name in 1902. During 1906-07, the artist was a member of the group of artists, ‘Die Brücke (The Bridge).’

“Young Couple (1913),” “Portrait of a Young Girl (1913-14),” “Blumengarten (Utenwarf) (1917),” “Prophet (1921),” “Portrait of a Young Woman and a Child,” and “Portrait of a Man (1926),” are some of his famous paintings during 1920s. Emile’s life became intertwined with the early rise of Nazi patriotism during 1920s, as he drifted towards its Danish wing. In addition, at this time he found a true supporter in Goebbels who, like Nolde himself, believed ‘Expressionism’ to be distinctly ‘Aryan.’ Emile Nolde, however, ran into problems with the Hitler Regime, which rejected all ‘Non-Realist’ art as degenerate. Consequently, Nolde fell from the government pedestal to being the government pedestrian. His paintings were torn down and he was forbidden from painting, even in private, after the year 1941. Ironically, this was his most creative period when the distinctive Emile Nolde created his characteristic genres of violent watercolors in extreme secrecy and named them “Unpainted Pictures.” After the war, he bounced back into public consciousness, and was honored with the German Order of Merit.

Whatever his political misadventures might have been, whenever Emile Nolde was allowed to display, he proved himself one of the world’s finest artists and printmakers. His black and white print, “The Prophet” is the most famous woodcut created as of date. His vibrant yellow-red watercolors were an ode to the new genre of watercolor ‘Expressionism’ and his etchings (almost 250 of them) remain as lessons in the postmodern ‘Expressionist Art.’ No less a virtuoso in oils, he executed “Lesende junge frau,” “Blumengarten (ohne Figur),” and “Blumen und Wolken,” which are iconic works in their own right.

Until he died peacefully on April 13, 1956 in Seebull, Emile Nolde remained a lost soul. His pains, sufferings, and the years of political and artistic strangulation made his works dark, bitter, and full of angst. Like Van Gogh, he remained an “outsider,” whose works never fail to bring out the fact that the more tragic an artist’s life is, the better is his art.