German expressionism : Emil Nolde in America

by leslierankowfinearts

EMIL NOLDE Strange Couple and Figure in the Background 1938-1945

EMIL NOLDE
Strange Couple and Figure in the Background
1938-1945

EMIL NOLDE (1867-1956), IS ONE OF THE GREAT PAINTERS AND WATERCOLOR MASTERS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. ONE OF THE FIRST GERMAN EXPRESSIONISTS, HE WAS A MEMBER OF THE REVOLUTIONARY GROUP OF EXPRESSIONIST ARTISTS,  DIE BRUCKE (THE BRIDGE), CONSIDERED TO BE THE GERMAN COUNTERPART TO FRANCE’S FAUVIST MOVEMENT. NOLDE’S SPLENDID WATERCOLORS INCLUDE VIVID BROODING STORMSCAPES, BRILLIANT FLORALS AND INTENSELY ENGAGED FIGURAL WORKS.

THE EXHIBITION AT VAN DOREN WAXTER, 24 EAST 73RD STREET, NEW YORK CITY, EMIL NOLDE: EXPRESSIONS IN WATERCOLOR, CURATED BY ART CRITIC AND HISTORIAN, JEFFREY HOFFELD, OFFERED A SUCCINCT BUT IMPECCABLE  SELECTION OF WORKS ON PAPER THAT EMPHASIZE THE DIVERSITY OF NOLDE’S SUBJECT MATTER AND UNDERSCORE HIS TECHNICAL MASTERY OF THIS DIFFICULT MEDIUM. http://www.vandorenwaxter.com/exhibitions/2014-01-24_emil-nolde/.

IN THE SECOND SECTION OF THE EXCELLENT CATALOGUE ESSAY, JEFFREY DETAILS THE PRESENCE OF MODERN GERMAN ART IN AMERICA  AND THE INITIAL  RESPONSE BY THE AMERICAN ART PUBLIC. MANY THANKS TO DORSEY WAXTER AND JEFFREY HOFFELD FOR THIS CONTRIBUTION TO THE LRFA BLOG.

Presented, as it was, during the Depression, well before the formation, under the New Deal, of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, Barr seems to have had in mind more than scholarly considerations when he planned this survey of recent German art.  The tone of his introduction to the exhibition catalogue suggests that he was using the contemporary German art scene as a model for the type of support he hoped to receive for contemporary art from his own constituency.  Barr commended German museum directors, scholars, curators, critics, and publishers for their support of “the most advanced artists long before public opinion forces them to do so,” illustrating his point by including in the catalogue a list of more than fifty museums throughout Germany, which he identified as owning works by “one or more (usually many) of the artists included in the present exhibition.”

Writing with such unqualified enthusiasm for Germany’s support of its modern artists, Barr could not have foreseen that under Nazi rule this nationwide support for modern German art would soon be brutally attacked and disabled.  In 1933, in an article titled “Art in the Third Reich—Preview, 1933,” Barr recorded his experiences during a four-month visit that year to Stuttgart. Initially rejected for publication in the United States, his account of the changed conditions throughout Germany finally made it into print in a 1945 issue of the American Federation of Art’s Magazine of Art.   In contrast to the widespread support in Germany for “advanced art” that he extolled in his 1931 catalogue introduction, merely two years later Barr was clearly shaken and outraged by the dramatically different conditions he now encountered in Germany: “the zeal of the new bureaucracy”: its condemnation of virtually all manifestations of contemporary art as “half-baked rubbish”; and its systematic dismissal of many people, some of whom he had come to know personally, including museum directors and curators, journalists, art historians at universities, artists teaching at art schools, and art dealers who were suspected of having a “corrupting influence,” and were held accountable for promoting and perpetuating what had suddenly come to be considered the prevailing “decadent spiritual attitude ” in art.  As it turned out, Barr was witnessing many of the stifling events that were a prelude to the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937.  In fact, a number of the very same works included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1931 exhibition, returned at the close of that exhibition to the museums in Germany from which they were borrowed, were subsequently seized from the walls of those institutions, and sold by the Reich to finance its devastation of Europe, while the perpetrators rejoiced over “uprooting and crushing” anything that stood in their way “to make art in Germany German again.”

EMIL NOLDE Homestead in the Marsh, undated

EMIL NOLDE
Homestead in the Marsh, undated

Although German artists, including Nolde, whose work was vehemently attacked by the Nazis, continued to be exhibited in America during World War II, exhibitions on the scale of Barr’s 1931 undertaking did not return to favor until well after the war.  The renewed interest in German Expressionism during the 1950s and ‘60s may very well have been stimulated, in part, by its obvious affinities with new forms of expressionist painting, emerging in New York at that time.  In his 1931 catalogue introduction Barr underscored a fundamental difference between German and French art (as well as American modernism): “To appreciate German art,” he explained, “it is necessary to realize that much of it is very different from either French or American art.  Most German artists are romantic, they seem to be less interested in form and style as ends in themselves and more in feeling, in emotional values and even in moral, religious, social and philosophical considerations.”  These “feeling qualities,” of German art, its “emotional values,” as Barr characterized them, which are so integral to German Expressionism, corresponded closely to, and may even have directly supported the increasingly expressionistic bent of a number of American artists, who were no longer under the spell of the School of Paris or American geometric abstraction, but were, instead, evolving their own forms of abstract and figurative expressionism.

EMIL NOLDE Amaryllis and Sunflowers, 1950-1952

EMIL NOLDE
Amaryllis and Sunflowers, 1950-1952

In 1957 the Museum of Modern Art, under the directorship of Andrew Ritchie, once again took up the subject of modern German art in a comprehensive survey exhibition, “German Art of the Twentieth Century,” organized in cooperation with the St Louis Art Museum.  In his essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, Werner Haftmann, intrigued by the resemblances between the art coming on the scene at that time and its possible German antecedents, recognized in the more recently made art “a strong international tendency among young artists towards an abstract Expressionism which releases all their psychic and emotional impulses.”  Haftmann portrayed a shared “psychic restlessness” between the German art of the early decades of the century and more recent art.  Comparing Matisse’s “Arcadian calm” to Kirchner’s more turbulent paint handling and emotionally-charged approach to his subjects, Haftmann saw the German artist as having elevated painting beyond the tranquil and decorative, to a “sphere of almost violent expression.”

Reviewing several new books about modern German art for the Art Bulletin, in 1959, the American art historian Herschel B. Chipp, marveled at the fact that “more than a half dozen exhibitions of German Expressionism” were presented in New York City in 1957, in addition to the “immense comprehensive show” at the Museum of Modern Art, and “several others in various parts of the country,” with still others forthcoming.  Chipp referred to this sudden flurry of interest in German art as “one of the most thoroughgoing changes of taste,” expressed more crudely in the popular press as a “German Invasion.”  As for the “impressive books,” themselves, that Chipp was reviewing, all of which were published in the United States, he applauded the fact that they were not only presenting the art in question to the English-reading public for the first time, but that they also embodied “the most comprehensive studies in any language.”

IN THE NEXT LRFA POST, JEFFREY WILL EXPLORE THE INTERESTING PRECEPT OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM AS A PRECURSOR TO OUR AMERICAN EXPRESSIONIST MOVEMENT AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE PICTORIAL PRESENCE OF EMIL NOLDE IN AMERICA.

I LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS AND ENCOURAGE YOU TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS TIMELY OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE JEFFREY INFORM YOU OF ANY SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF NOLDE’S WORK IN PARTICULAR AND GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM IN GENERAL. WE WELCOME ALL COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS.

THANKS TO ALL WHO FOLLOW AND COMMENT ON THE LRFA BLOG!