Germany has had a rich legacy of passionate artists. From literary giants to bearers of paint, they have stunned the world with their madness and outright conflict. The 20th century German watercolor painter and printmaker Emile Nolde, born Emile Hansen, to Frisian and Danish peasant parents on August 7, 1867, in the Danish village of Nolde, displayed this legacy of bittersweet conflict most of the time. This irony produced furious masterpieces by this pioneer of “expressionism,” even as a child.
He became a carver and illustrator from 1884 to 1891, frequently alternating between Munich, Berlin, and Flensburg, to earn a living. His early life was more of a meandering in the desert, trying to find an expression for his talents and tastes. The fall of 1891 marked a turning point in his life, responding to an advertisement; he joined as a professor at the Museum of Industrial Arts in New York. Although the work was not very significant in terms of his career, he was formally exposed to the wealth of artistic tradition in Europe, often wandering the continent to see artistic talents as diverse as Leonardo and Dürer.
Emile Nolde’s partial upbringing, most of which was self-taught, in art made him feel isolated and gravitated toward loneliness and depression. A 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 Nolde finally had a popular audience. However, his later experiments with “expressionism” were quite disappointing. Emile named himself Nolde, after the name of his village 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 girl (1913-14)”, “Blumengarten (Utenwarf) (1917)”, “Prophet (1921)”, “Portrait of a young woman and a boy” and “Portrait of a Man (1926) “are some of his famous paintings during the 1920s. Emile’s life was intertwined with the early rise of Nazi patriotism during the 1920s, as he made his way to his Danish wing. Furthermore, at this time he found a true supporter in Goebbels who, like Nolde himself, believed that “expressionism” was clearly “Aryan.” Emile Nolde, however, had problems with the Hitler regime, which rejected all “unrealistic” art as degenerate. Consequently, Nolde fell from the pedestal of government to be the pedestrian of government. His paintings were demolished and he was forbidden to paint, even privately, after 1941. Ironically, this was his most creative period when the distinctive Emile Nolde created his trademark genres of violent watercolors in extreme secrecy and called them “Unpainted Pictures. “After the war, he regained public consciousness and was honored with the German Order of Merit.
Whatever his political misadventures, whenever Emile Nolde was allowed to exhibit, he proved to be one of the best artists and engravers in the world. His black and white engraving, “The Prophet” is the most famous woodcut created to date. His vibrant yellow-red watercolors were an ode to the new genre of watercolor ‘expressionism’ and his prints (nearly 250 of them) remain as lessons in postmodern ‘expressionist art’. No less a virtuoso of 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 years of political and artistic strangulation made his works dark, bitter and full of anguish. Like Van Gogh, he remained an “outsider,” whose works never fail to highlight the fact that the more tragic an artist’s life, the better his art.