Emil Nolde @ Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Historical 20th Century painter Emil Nolde receives a retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. His achievements are tempered by his disturbing fascistic tendencies, which the Modern don't quite manage to frame responsibly
In painter Emil Nolde’s Cabaret Audience (1911), purple, yellow, red and green are brought together to suggest an urban motley of nighttime characters. Perhaps this oversaturated record of the intrigue of anonymous revelry is the analogue of some of the alienation and strangeness Nolde paints into what might otherwise be the familiar scenes of his rural home and religious upbringing.
For instance, a huddle of Farmers (1908) exclude the onlooker, one peering behind his shoulder and out of the painting. While there are blues, rich greens and browns, there’s a deep obscurity as the farmers huddle in low-light, and there’s a suggestion of them bundling together not only to exclude the invisible watching figure they’re side-eyeing, but also to survive the harsh elements in their heavy coats and hats. Similarly, the titular figures of Milkmaids (1903) curve into the whirlpool landscape, while their diagonal arms angle against the vertiginous slide down of the painted marks that describe the field..
Nolde is at his best setting his own nuanced position within images of closed-off European rural and post-WWI city lifestyles. The off-kilter record of communities of which Nolde is a member loses its bite when it trips in places into hackneyed anti-Semitic, colonialist and racist disfigurations – see Martyrdom II, III (1921) or his series of paintings from New Guinea (1914).
While the press materials express surprise at how little Nolde has been exhibited in the previous 60 years, there’s no doubt that rediscovering Nolde’s achievements brings the responsibility of acknowledging his dangerous fascist allegiance and these tendencies within his oeuvre. The Modern’s temptation to write off Nolde’s willing alignment with Nazism on account of the professional hardship he later experienced as a 'degenerate' artist, however, is a harmful simplification and disturbing apologism which abdicates its curatorial responsibility to frame a problematic career.