Thursday 11 April 2019 saw the official opening of the exhibition Emil Nolde – a German Legend. The Artist during the Third Reich in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.

The show – the first exhibition to be co-curated by a historian in the Nationalgalerie – is based on the research of Sidney’s Dr. Bernhard Fulda, Chatong So Fellow and Director of Studies in History, and is accompanied by a four-part online documentary (available in both German and English).

The exhibition has recently been featured in the New York Times, but even before the official opening, Dr Fulda’s project was making front-page news in Germany (e.g. Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Die Welt). One of the Nolde paintings in the exhibition (Breaker, 1936) had been on display in the Berlin office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel since her election in 2006; now, in reaction to an official museum request for a return of the loan the Chancellery decided to hand back not just one but both paintings by Nolde from Merkel’s office. Since Merkel is on record as describing Nolde as her favourite artist, the lack of an official explanation for this clean sweep is causing a lot of speculation as well as a lively public debate about what kind of artworks should be on display in such a political setting. 

The Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) is an iconic figure of German modernism and arguably the most famous ‘degenerate artist’. No other artist had as many works confiscated, nor were their works as prominently displayed in the early venues of the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937/38. How does Nolde’s ostracism and occupational ban fit with our knowledge that he was a Nazi Party member, and that he kept faith with the regime until the end of the war? The art critic Adolf Behne underlined Nolde’s special status on the occasion of the artist’s eightieth birthday in 1947, by pointedly referring to him as a “degenerate ‘degenerate’”. It has long been known that Emil Nolde was a Nazi party member. Yet no previous exhibition has thoroughly examined how this relates to his art, or how the historical circumstances during National Socialism affected his artistic production. 

Dr Fulda was the first scholar granted permission to analyse the extensive holdings of the Nolde estate in Seebüll, one of Europe’s largest artist’s estates. Funded by two Senior Research Fellowships, by Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Gerda Henkel Foundation, he uncovered so much new material that the conventional Nolde narrative – adapted by Siegfried Lenz in his bestselling novel German Lesson of 1968, still widely read in German schools – must be revised comprehensively. Thus, for example, the exhibition presents the famous Unpainted Pictures– the small-format watercolours Nolde was reputed to have secretly painted at Seebüll during his occupational ban – in a completely new light, explaining them as part of a long-standing practice of self-stylisation in which antisemitism played an increasingly central role.

The exhibition presents over 100 originals, some of which have not previously been shown, with references to Nolde’s writings and in the historical context of their creation, in order to reveal the multi-layered relationships between paintings, the artist’s self-presentation, his ostracism, and development of his legend. What impact did the Third Reich have on Emil Nolde's artistic work? To what extent do some of his works, such as his depictions of mythic sacrificial scenes or Nordic people, correspond with his sympathies for the regime? What effects did Nolde’s defamation and occupational ban have on his artistic practice and political outlook? And how did the myths about Nolde develop in the post-war period? The centrepiece of the exhibition is a reconstruction of the ‘painting gallery’ in Nolde’s studio house in Seebüll, a display of paintings and watercolours just as the ageing artist himself arranged them during the wartime winter of 1941/42. 

The exhibition – curated by Bernhard Fulda, together with the art historian Aya Soika and the Director of the Nolde Foundation, Christian Ring– is made possible through a close collaboration between the Nationalgalerie Berlin – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Nolde Foundation which provides the majority of loans. To accompany the exhibition, a richly illustrated volume of essays and pictures (also in an English edition), as well as a separate volume with a timeline and more than 100 documents, will be published by Prestel Verlag. The exhibition will run until 15 September 2019.

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