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No more Nolde in Merkel's office: favorite painter of the Germans and Nazis

In this gallery: 4 pictures

"A drama has unfolded. Hitler is no longer alive." With these words the painter Emil Nolde noted the end of the Second World War on May 4, 1945. He was able to see the German defeat exclusively as a humiliation and in a larger context: "Poor Germany, dear Germany, with your elemental strength, with your idealism against sex-fold [sic!] Superiority in two world wars and both lost."

For Nolde, the end of the National Socialist regime should have been a relief, after all he was expelled from the Reichskunstkammer in 1941, and in 1937 he was even part of the exhibition Degenerate art, was then able to have it removed from this denouncing canon against which the Nazis wanted to establish their own art.

Political show

Emil Nolde was by no means in the resistance during the Nazi years or even in internal emigration (like the Roman German lesson suggested by Siegfried Lenz), but he was not a state artist either.

In any case, he is still one of the favorite painters of the Germans to this day, as you can see from the number of visitors to the exhibition since last Friday Emil Nolde. A German legend. The artist under National Socialism can be seen in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. It is an explosive show, not least because two works come straight from the office of the German Chancellor: Angela Merkel had thirteen years Flower garden (Thersen's house) (1915) and Crusher (1936) around, the picture High waves (1940) once called it her favorite painting.

Anti-Semitic motivated

Nolde was a (north) German artist under National Socialism. He was considered too expressionistic for the staid doctrines of Nazi art policy, but that did not prevent him and his wife Ada from placing great hopes in National Socialism. First and foremost, these hopes were motivated by anti-Semitism: Nolde dealt with classic world conspiracy theories, he believed in a "strange connection between the Soviet and Kurfürstendamm", and he saw the revolution in Russia as a Jewish project with the aim of achieving "world power".

These and comparable quotes can be read in the exhibition in showcases in original documents. The two art historians Bernhard Fulda and Aya Soika have developed an appropriately complex dramaturgy: Nolde is newly developed here on several levels. His anti-Semitism was not unknown, but there are now numerous references to the extent of his ideological radicalism.

German legend

The historical evidence is cleverly combined with Nolde's artistic positions. Because the case is so exciting (and revealing) because it not only mirrors art debates from the first half of the 20th century almost paradigmatically - the young Federal Republic can also recognize itself here. This is where the German legend came into being, which the exhibition speaks of in its title.

The famous Unpainted pictures, on which Nolde's reputation as a Nazi opponent is based, are consequently presented here as tears from an art book, because in this form they became, so to speak, an inventory of the intellectual budget of the FRG after the war. The circumstances of these watercolors, which Nolde painted in the North Frisian town of Seebüll during the war, were ideal for a narrative of inwardness.

Weltanschauung extremist

On the other hand, there are now numerous documents (also in two extensive catalog volumes) that identify Nolde as an ideological extremist who carefully worked on a relieving legend himself after the war. In the picture Jesus and the scribes (1951), the exhibition organizers make it clear that Nolde later deliberately painted over his own anti-Jewish caricatures, which he originally assumed. But a German line leads from these early pictures to the film Jud Suss and the propaganda sheet The striker.

Emil Nolde's drama has been rolled out in all forms with this Berlin exhibition, and Germany can complete another important chapter in coming to terms with the past this summer. (Bert Rebhandl, April 17, 2019)