GSE logo

Emil Nolde - Christian Rohlfs
Two German Expressionist Masters

September 24, 1996 to November 09, 1996

Of the various “isms” associated with the birth of modern art, Expressionism is among the hardest to pin down. Unlike Cubism, for example, it is not a specific style, nor is Expressionism strictly confined to the visual arts. Encompassing numerous cultural strands, from poetry to cinema to architecture, Expressionism is perhaps best defined by its inchoate utopianism, by the belief that art can transform the world and by a concomitant rejection of established aesthetic norms. Wassily Kandinsky, probably the movement’s most articulate painter, wrote about capturing the “inner resonance” of a subject, thereby transcending its material reality. This may be as close as one can come to establishing Expressionism’s pictorial parameters.

Attempting to order the chaos of Expressionism, historians have tended to focus on the two principal groups--Die Brücke and Der blaue Reiter--which briefly united certain key artists in the decade before World War I. Yet only a handful of painters were closely allied with these two groups; others drifted in and out, and even the core contingents did not hold together long. Furthermore, while Die Brücke and Der blaue Reiter bear the distinction of being artist-initiated, they were hardly the only forums for the avant-garde. Herwarth Walden in Berlin, Emil Richter in Dresden, and Hans Goltz in Munich were among the dealers who risked ridicule and financial disaster to bring new work before the public. The collector Karl Ernst Osthaus put all his resources and energy into building a museum for modern art, the Folkwang, in the otherwise uninspiring industrial town of Hagen. Far from being confined to a limited cadre of artists or a narrowly circumscribed time or place, Expressionist tendencies swept across Germany during the first decades of this century, surfacing in almost every major city (and not a few minor ones) and engulfing a host of disparate creators.

Christian Rohlfs and Emil Nolde were anomalous participants in this movement that seems to consist primarily of anomalies. Though Nolde was tangentially associated with Die Brücke and Rohlfs spent his mature years as the principal artist-in-residence at Osthaus’s Hagen compound, both men were essentially loners. Furthermore, Rohlfs, born in 1849, and Nolde, born in 1867, were each significantly older than Expressionism’s leading players. Each had undergone a protracted and often frustrating apprenticeship that gave little indication of the painter’s future destiny. And then, shortly after the turn of the century, Rohlfs and Nolde were almost simultaneously struck by the revolutionary art of Munch, Van Gogh and Gauguin. In crafting their own Expressionist idioms, Rohlfs and Nolde relied independently on an idiosyncratic working through of the Impressionist legacy, as well as on personal responses to the German landscape and heritage. That both artists were embraced by the Expressionist movement came as a welcome surprise, not as the fulfillment of any conscious drive.

Rohlfs and Nolde also shared common origins in the northwest corner of Germany --a remote area near the Danish border, dominated by flat farmland, marshes and little fishing villages. However, the artists’ earliest experiences were in many ways very different. It may indeed be said that the entire course of Rohlfs’ life was shaped by an early bout with rheumatic fever, which left his right leg permanently weakened; in 1874, the leg was amputated. His childhood was marred by long periods of illness, hospitalization and convalescence, during which a kindly physician taught the boy to draw as a means of easing his tedium. Rendered unfit by his handicap to take over the family farm, Rohlfs in 1870 began studying art at the Ducal Academy in Weimar. There he absorbed the lessons of French Impressionism second hand, through its somewhat more subdued German variants; not until 1890 did he see his first painting by Edouard Manet. By then, Rohlfs had set up his own independent studio, where he eked out a modest living under the patronage of the Grand-Duke of Saxe-Weimar. The limits of his professional possibilities seemed to have been reached when in 1902 Rohlfs was awarded a professorship in Weimar. With characteristic cynicism, he commented, “Is that supposed to mean I’ve exhausted all my ideas about painting?”

In fact, Rohlfs’ creative potential had at this point barely been tapped. In 1900, the designer Henry van de Velde had introduced him to Karl Ernst Osthaus, and the following year Rohlfs was offered a studio at the Folkwang. New works by Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Hodler and other leading modern artists from across Europe arrived at the museum almost daily. Osthaus also served as a conduit between Rohlfs and the leading German artists, who visited or showed at Hagen. Rohlfs, in turn, became more widely known through his own exposure at the Folkwang and through exhibitions arranged elsewhere by Osthaus. Giving up his Weimar studio in 1904, Rohlfs would--apart from occasional travels-- spend the rest of his life in Hagen.

Rohlfs’ Hagen encounters had an immediate impact on both his technical and formal approaches to art. He began experimenting with more spontaneous mediums, executing his first watercolors in 1903 and, inspired by Munch and the Brücke artists, his first woodcuts in 1908. Osthaus, a great believer in the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), encouraged Rohlfs’ interest in crafts such as embroidery, weaving and enamel. These relatively graphic techniques turned Rohlfs toward bolder, more expressive forms, leading him gradually away from the blurry tones of German Impressionism. Already in Weimar, he had concentrated on painting intimate natural vignettes (the crook of a path, a forest corner), and now he began a protracted search for what he called “good foregrounds”: close-up scenes that establish an immediate connection with the viewer, while eschewing the compromising illusionistic tricks required by a deeper landscape. His use of color changed, too, as Rohlfs passed quickly through phases influenced by Seurat’s pointillism, Van Gogh’s strong impasto, and finally the stained-glass compositions of the Belgian Symbolist Johan Thorn Prikker. Although Rohlfs never progressed to total abstraction, his deft manipulation of isolated swathes or veils of color enabled him to portray subjects in purely aesthetic rather than conventionally realistic terms.

Writing about Rohlfs in 1918, the critic Paul Westheim commented that it was too bad he had gone to the Academy; “That cost him twenty, thirty or more years.” Given the anti-academic mandate of the early modernists, Rohlfs could only succeed by transcending his extensive early training. Yet the developmental path proved no less tortuous for Emil Nolde, who was largely self-taught. Born Emil Hansen near the north German town of Nolde, the artist did not execute his first painting until he was thirty. Of barely literate peasant stock, he trained as a furniture carver and cabinet maker, and for some years earned his living in this trade. Where and when possible, he also tried to study art, eventually landing a post as drawing teacher at the Museum of Industrial Arts in St. Gall, Switzerland. In his spare time he painted a series of anthropomorphic caricatures of the Alps, which, published as postcards, brought him a sudden windfall of 25,000 Swiss Francs. With his morale and pocket-book thus bolstered, he quit his teaching job in 1898 and repaired to Munich with the intention of becoming a painter.

Perhaps because of his humble background, Nolde seems to have been exceptionally embittered by the round of rejections and setbacks which are the lot of so many fledgling painters. Turned down by the Academy in Munich, he studied privately with Friedrich Fehr and Adolf Hölzel and in 1899 made the nearly obligatory pilgrimage to Paris. Already Nolde had a firmly entrenched disdain for authority, preferring to pick and choose his aesthetic influences according to personal whim. Suffering from profound feelings of isolation, he retreated to Copenhagen in 1900, where his loneliness was at least partially alleviated by his 1902 marriage to a Danish theatrical student, Ada Vilstrup. To mark his independence and new identity, the artist at this time took the name of his birthplace, Nolde.

Bored by German Impressionism but intoxicated by the paintings of Gauguin, Munch and Van Gogh, Nolde wanted to craft a language of pure color. Gradually abandoning the last vestiges of Impressionistic technique, he began to juxtapose evocative hues in broad, distinct patches. This move brought the artist his first taste of success when a painting was accepted for exhibition at the Berlin Secession in 1904. As a result, he came in contact with major figures such as Osthaus and Rohlfs and, much to his pleasure, received an invitation in 1906 to join Die Brücke group. By 1910, Nolde was a notable figure on the Berlin art scene, and his work was in turn enriched by his encounters with the city’s vibrant night life. Though the artist habitually wintered in Berlin, he and his wife still spent a substantial part of each year in various small towns near the Danish border, eventually building the home at Seebüll that today houses the Nolde Foundation.

Both Nolde and Rohlfs trod similar paths through Impressionism, gradually freeing color, brushstroke and form from optical reality to create independent pictorial idioms which, in Kandinsky’s terms, more closely corresponded to the subject’s “inner resonance.” Likewise, there is a parallel between Rohlfs’ search for “good foregrounds” and Nolde’s close-up seascapes and flower pictures, which generally lack external spatial referents such as a shoreline, vase or table. Nolde, like Rohlfs, was a prolific printmaker, and in each case the artist’s encounter with the genre was fueled by the Brücke’s revival of woodcut, and faded with age and the waning of Expressionism after World War I. However, as befit his academic training, Rohlfs’ orientation overall was far more structured, Nolde’s clearly more spontaneous. Although there is evident overlap and interplay between the differing versions of similar subjects that Nolde executed, he believed that conscious thought and preparation are antithetical to art, and intentionally incorporated chance elements in both his prints and his watercolors.

Despite the utopian component of Expressionism’s mandate, neither Nolde nor Rohlfs saw his mission in particularly political terms. Of the two, only Rohlfs reacted in any discernible way to the upheaval of World War I, and this only obliquely. In a series of religious works and prints dealing with death, he equated war and death with fate: as inevitabilities, rather than as evils to be actively resisted. His conservative response to the Weimar revolution, Death as Juggler (checklist #55), like Alfred Rethel’s well-known predecessor, A Dance of Death of the Year 1848, portrays the rebellious public as death’s unwitting dupes. Nolde for the most part eschewed even an allegorical approach to current events. His use of religious iconography was entirely personal: combining idiosyncratic evangelical interpretations of scripture with a primitive, vaguely sexual passion.

Nolde’s god, essentially pantheistic, emerges in all his myriad evocations of the natural environment. Perhaps for this reason, the artist had a mystical attachment to the German soil that found a ready echo in National Socialist propaganda. Like many who live near a frontier, Nolde longed for a stronger national identity, and though he had taken Danish citizenship after World War I, he wanted to see himself as heir to the great German tradition of Dürer and Grünewald. This craving for identity was exacerbated by the artist’s endemic insecurity and bitterness, which caused him--along with many similarly insecure and bitter denizens of the Reich--to lay blame upon the supposedly unfit, the “un-German,” the Jew.

Both Rohlfs and Nolde were banned by the Nazis following the famous “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937. Rohlfs reacted with typical subdued dignity when his membership in the Prussian Academy was rescinded: “I never strove for honors and never placed much value on them. . . . If you do not like my work, you are free to strike my name from the Academy’s membership list, but I will do nothing that could be interpreted as a corroboration of my unworthiness.” Nolde, after he was forbidden to work, responded with uncomprehending indignation. Though many things--his disdain for academic classicism and his admiration for the art of “primitive” races foremost among them--made him anathema to Nazi tastes, Nolde could not understand why he was, once again, being rejected. As late as 1942, he petitioned to have the ban on his work revoked; finally, he resigned himself to quietly living out the War in Seebüll, surreptitiously defying the ban by creating a series of diminutive watercolors, which he called “unpainted pictures.” Rohlfs, dying in 1938, did not long endure Nazi persecution. Nolde, despite his Nazi sympathies, lived to see his reputation reinstated after World War II. He died in 1956.