A northern painter hungers for southern warmth

Surprisingly, Vincent van Gogh was not the only artist who celebrated giant sunflowers with his brush. Early in the 19th century, the German Phillipe Otto Runge included giant sunflowers in a painting of three children; the plants tower like tree saplings. The Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, in an arresting self-portrait, also portrayed a sunflower head bigger than his own.

And the German 20th-century artist Emil Nolde, whose painting is shown here, was clearly smitten with sunflowers. Doubtless, he thought of Van Gogh when he painted them; Van Gogh was one of the "French" 19th-century artists he listed as "ice-breakers" for the development of what he called "a great new independent art."

But Nolde painted quite differently from Van Gogh, with a broad, stormy boldness, and in fierce, heated, contrasting colors that glow and resonate apocalyptically.

Nolde's impassioned vision belongs - instinctively - to the tradition of ecstatic, expressionistic painting that includes Van Gogh. But it also links Nolde to the early 19th-century Romantics with their brooding sense of awe and sublimity. And for all his undoubted devotion to German soil, Nolde's art conveys a northerner's hunger for the intensity and warmth of southern climes and cultures. He painted the bursting colors of flowers as if they were flourishing in Mediterranean gardens. This may also explain his particular attraction to sunflowers.

Tradition has it that sunflowers, which Nolde painted as if their ragged petals were the fires of the sun licking around the periphery of a lunar eclipse, were brought to Europe in the late 1500s from Peru. Nolde did not have to know this. Intuitively, he found them southern, exotic, and primeval.

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