A degenerate biography: Emil Nolde and Nazism

A degenerate biography: Emil Nolde and Nazism

The Nazism wound is still open. Both as a historical phenomenon in the Germany of the 1930s/40s, and as an ideological phantom threatening the civilized world from within. Often, this discussion takes on moralistic tones, making it impossible to address it with the depth that its complexity requires. How could the homeland of the Enlightenment, the world of Kant and Goethe, give birth to such a monster? How can we deal with it all today, at this time of so much regression?

The current exhibition at the Hamburger Banhof Museum in Berlin, on the work of Emil Nolde and his ties with the National Socialist ideology, is yet another episode in this traumatic story. This is an emblematic case of enormous importance. Emil Nolde was hated by Hitler and Goebbels. His work was not only present at the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 through which Goebbels defined the enemy aesthetic (in a rough comparison, they were the Brunas surfistinhas of their time) – it was Nolde’s work that inspired the greatest hatred of the Nazi militants and was given superlative prominence at the ill-fated exhibition. Nothing in it corresponded to the neoclassical model defended by the regime, with its academic ideal of beauty and moral elevation. Everything about it was dark and desperate.

However, the artist Emil Nolde was a committed anti-Semite and a defender of Nazi policy. He wanted to be an artist of the regime, a representative of Germanic purity. His work, unlike its author, wanted something else, it corresponded to another truth. How can we deal with this contradiction between author and work? Is it possible to say that the work possessed a truth opposed to that of the artist? How can we address such a complex past? Is this past, which is not only German, really all behind us? Our desire to spit on “degenerates” remains strong.

Let us return to Nolde’s exhibition and see what is interesting about it. It is important to draw attention to the start of the research that led to this exhibition. In 2013, the curator Christian Ring took over the management of the Ada and Emil Nolde Foundation which, since the 1950s, has looked after the artist’s estate. Contradictory information concerning the biography of the degenerate artist and his heroic resistance to Nazi persecution was already circulating at this time. In a courageous and exemplary gesture, Ring opened up the foundation’s archive with its over 25,000 documents to two researchers dedicated to the subject: the historian Bernhard Fulda of Cambridge and the art historian Aya Soika of Bard College in Berlin. Both began a thorough reappraisal of the artist’s engagement with Nazism and how he was seeking to adapt his subjects to what was most appropriate to that moment. In addition to this, they were unraveling how, after the war, the whole job of cleaning up this past was carried out, creating the myth of the resisting artist. All this culminated in this exhibition, which seeks to explore the complexity of the relationship between the artist and his work and, more specifically, between art, politics and history.

Some questions guide the curatorial narrative: 1 – What Impact did the Third Reich have on Emil Nolde’s work? 2 – To what extent do his depictions of sacrificial scenes and Nordic mythology correspond to his ideological sympathies? 3 – What impact did his being banished by the regime have on his artistic practice and political image? 4 – How was Nolde’s image constructed in the post-war period? None of these questions has an easy answer. To them, I would add one more: Can a work show something different from the artist’s intention?

One thing is undeniable: his work has not been allowed to be formally domesticated, having been, in fact, contrary to the purist canon of the regime and compromised by the expressive intensity of the colors and pictorial matter. His conscience was Nazi, his work was expressionist. How can we understand this division? How should we address this caesura? One thing, as happened to Martin Heidegger, was the initial enchantment with Hitler’s exalted promises and the immediate disillusionment with his policies in government. Regardless of the ethical responsibility of his compromise, wishing to read Heideggerian philosophy as Nazi seems to me a lazy exaggeration.

In the case of Nolde, it wasn’t just a passing fancy. His relationship continued until the end, even after the assumption of the Final Solution” in 1941. His painting, in turn, showed something else. It seemed to believe in another truth, in another expressive power running counter to ideological illustration. It was as if his beliefs called for divine, Olympic figures like those of Leni Riefenstahl, but he could only paint vampire bodies like those of Fritz Lang. As Argan wrote about Nolde, “it is not necessary for a painter to choose colors according to a criterion of verisimilitude: he can produce his figures in red, yellow or blue, in the same way that a sculptor is free to execute his works in wood, stone or bronze” (ARGAN, Arte Moderna. São Paulo, Cia das Letras, 1993, p. 240). Disproportionate figures in the foreground, brutalized forms and a grimy, gloomy palette. How could these characteristics of his work please the neoclassical aesthetic of the regime? What sharing of the sensitive is this within the same gesture where the painting denies the intention?

Freedom in the use of colors, unfolding in a bold expressive intensity, was contrary to what he was supposed to represent if he wished to fit in. Regardless of the choice of subjects more or less aligned with the ideals of the regime, his mode of pictorial formalization eschewed this ideal and, what is more, prevented all and any suitability. Continuing his argument, Argan highlights the relationship between color and the attribution of meaning where this attribution implied “a judgment, a moral or affective posture in relation to the object to which it applies; as the judgment presents itself to perception together with the object, it manifests itself as a deformation or distortion of the object”(Argan, p. 240). The painting refused to represent and what it expressed was bound to pictorial materiality, to a logic of the sensation which denied the logic of his conscience and of the system he wished to represent. It is this truth of the deformation that escapes the normative ideals of totalitarian regimes and that remains as the intransigent and indeterminate power of art in modernity. It is a way of revealing through dissimilarity, through difference, through the non-evident, which renders all identarian thematization a reduction of the freedom of art to always baffle acquired meanings. How strange Nolde was.

In this regard, exhibitions like this pose a huge challenge to evaluating the modes by which art does politics. The ideological program pursued by the artist is not sufficient; we have to perceive how his work speaks and often denies the program. This seems to me to be the case here and this, in a certain way, facilitated the cleansing of his biography. The work corresponded to the resistance. The revision proposed by the documents holds the artist responsible, but the work is unlikely to fit within this view. Hence the complexity and courage of this exhibition which shows that nothing, in art, is resolved in terms of discourse and intention. It is a curatorship that makes us think about the many ways art rejects the given meaning, the clichés, and compels us to multiply the modes of signification that are always being reprocessed.

In the aftermath of the debate prompted by this exhibition in Germany, the Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who lent a work from the official collection to the curatorship, decided to remove from the wall the two works of the artist she kept in the palace of government. On the one hand, she justly punished an artist whose biography is so deplorable. On the other hand, she unjustly removed an important work of German art which was so persecuted by the regime that its author defended. As Bernarhd Fulda, one of the researchers who curated the exhibition and revealed this compromising past of Nolde, told the New York Times, “if Angela Merkel had a painting on the wall with an eagle and a swastika, she could say ‘oops, what’s going on?’ But with Emil Nolde it is necessary to think more carefully about what to do. She could tell her potential visitors, the German past is complex: there is guilt, complicity, denial and there is also beauty” (NYT 10/04/2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/arts/nolde-nazi-exhibition-berlin-merkel.html).

She opted for the politically correct gesture, but this is not always the most interesting option, both from the pedagogical point of view, and the political and artistic one. Nolde’s “degenerate” art said something else, something different and more complicated than the artist himself wanted. Fortunately, exhibitions like this at the Hamburger Banhof exist to show us that art policy does not always coincide with the artist’s politics, and that it is not enough to moralize the debate. The contradictions of the world have to be evidenced. And art is always there to show this and surprise us.

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