Curating Around Controversy: The National Gallery, Emil Nolde, And Nazi Artwork

Chris Hansen reviews the controversial exhibition of the Nazi sympathiser, Emil Nolde, currently on display in the National Gallery of Ireland. It’s an interesting time for the National Gallery to be hosting an exhibition of Emil Nolde’s work, with far-right movements rising in many European countries, not to mention the surge of post-election anti-semitism that continues to sweep the USA. You would think curators at the National Gallery would want to be putting resources to better use rather than displaying a card-carrying Nazi painter. Nolde’s work, for those who aren’t familiar with the relatively overlooked German expressionist, explores natural landscapes: Berlin café scenes, and portraiture of varied groups of people all through a signature colouring for which the exhibition is named “Colour is Life.” Many of the works featured are innovative in their depictions of 20th-century German life through abstract expressionist methods. While this is all well and good, and was, in fact, the reason I wanted to check out the exhibition, a second theme runs very subtly throughout the works and deals very much in the realm of anti-Semitism and eugenics. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are told in the introductory text that while Nolde’s sympathies were with the “National Socialist” party, he was ultimately rejected by the party and even featured in the Nazi degenerate art exhibition of confiscated, supposedly anti-German or anti-Hitler art. This is however in many ways a revisionist history and whitewashing of Nolde’s Nazi affiliation. While it is true that Nolde’s work was rejected by Hitler, and by some accounts a kind of centre point in the degenerate art exhibitions, Nolde’s sympathies stayed with the Nazi party, as a letter written during his exile to friends in Switzerland makes explicit. It is well documented that Nolde felt his rejection by the party was a misstep on their part as Goebbels had been a noted fan of his work prior to Hitler’s rejection. At a critical time in history, Nolde boasted that his work expressed a distinctly Germanic identity, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitic ideas as seen in the exhibition. One painting that I want to draw particular attention to is titled “Martyrdom II.” Depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Nolde fills the space around Jesus’ crucified body with four “evil’ figures laughing at his pain. These characters however very much resemble anti-semitic Jewish caricatures that would have been popular in the period. In fact, an anti-semitic idea prominent in this time would have related to the supposed blame of Jewish people in the killing of Jesus, an idea that this painting seems to depict openly. The other two Martyrdom paintings that flank either side depict various historical persecutions of Christians, and given the time of this creation coupled with Nolde’s Nazi ideology and German national pride, it is not a stretch to say that there is something distinctly dangerous about the principles embodied in this work. While the anti-semitic undertones are not necessarily subtle, the museum’s literature and title cards do not acknowledge it directly. Elsewhere in the gallery, Nolde’s interest in pure breeding can be seen on display. In various paintings of Eastern European men, and especially in paintings of the people in Papua New Guinea, the exhibition makes note that these involve Nolde’s belief in “social sciences” of ethnicity which was popular at the time. A better definition for this belief in “social science” might, however, involve the term “eugenics,” as these paintings categorise the people of other countries he would have travelled to, always positing Germanic traits as most desirable. His interest in primitivism especially, while a complicated topic within the scope of art history, has racist undertones that place the Papua New Guineans he painted as a lesser people. While there is some acknowledgement of these on the part of the gallery, again there is a whitewashing of Nolde’s dangerous beliefs and not enough engagement with the dangers of the ideology presented. I do not necessarily think, however, that Nolde should be barred from future exhibitions in the National Gallery or others. His work is still respected and studied in Germany, with the artist Daniel Richter recently citing him as a major influence. Indeed, many important contributions to modern art came from the Germany of this time, yet context is key when exhibiting this work. Leni Riefenstahl, for example, is still studied in film history for her contribution to documentary film aesthetics, yet there is a universal acknowledgement of her involvement in creating Nazi propaganda. While much of the work in this exhibition is worth seeing, the gallery’s failure to engage with a greater discussion of Nolde’s role in Nazi-era Germany and the dangerous ideology behind much of the work is incredibly disappointing.