Museum's Role in Giving Whole Picture of an Artist

Emil Nolde exhibit criticized for glossing over his Nazi sympathies

HISTORY shows that all too often men's beliefs can be rooted in terrible biases and unsavory convictions. But if such is the case with a major German artist with the mark of genius on his work, what importance should be given to his documented Nazi sympathies?

Last week, when Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) opened an extensive exhibit of Emil Nolde (1867-1956) prints and watercolors, co-curator Clifford Ackerly learned that Nolde's Nazi sympathies were an issue.

When the exhibit opened, Boston Globe art reviewer Christine Temin first wrote a favorable review headlined ``The Fearless Expressionist,'' focusing on the innovative brilliance of Nolde, with no mention of his connection to the Third Reich.

Several days later, in a second article, she charged that the exhibit catalog, and the text displayed on the wall next to the works, gave an ``incomplete'' account of Nolde's political sympathies.

Ms. Temin says she was alerted to Nolde's background by a concerned reader. ``Nolde joined the National Socialist party early on,'' Temin says, ``and had a record of wanting to be the great Nazi artist who would be promoted by the party. The show is beautiful, but you have to say what the man was.''

Nolde's Nazi connections have been well known in the art world. In 1985, an exhibition of German 20th-century art at London's Royal Academy referred to Nolde as ``having been sympathetic to National Socialism at an early stage and a member of the Nazi party.'' Lynn Nicholas, author of ``The Rape of Europa,'' a book about European art, says: ``There is no question that Nolde was a Nazi party member.''

In the MFA reference material for the exhibit, Nolde's political naivete is mentioned in several paragraphs. But the portent is somewhat lessened by emphasizing the artistic resonance of his work in an overriding manner.

In fact, Nolde presents an odd case in the annals of artists who embraced bad politics. By the time Hitler had an iron grip on Germany, Nolde was a successful and prolific printmaker and artist, well into his 60s. He was a political innocent, as were millions of Germans who blindly supported a nationalism that led to World War II and to the horrible systematic destruction of Jews and others.

Nolde's bold romantic images were rooted in the folklore and fable of the peasant culture of his youth lived near the Danish border. He was a self-absorbed man and regarded as a loner. None of his works has any blatant images or symbols that could be seen as racially or ethnically negative.

The Nolde style was innovative, with freshly imagined subjects and colorful, even spontaneous compositions, all elements that Hitler disliked in art and discouraged in the Third Reich.

Nolde, who joined the Danish National Socialist party in 1920, thought his art dovetailed with German romanticism and idealized peasant life. But to his surprise in 1937, more than 1,000 of his works were confiscated by authorities. Forty-eight were shown at the infamous ``Degenerative Art'' show in Munich the same year. Hitler's intent for the exhibit was public ridicule of modern art.

Forbidden to paint and banished to his home in Seebull in northern Germany near the Danish border, Nolde worked secretly painting small watercolors. As late as 1942 he sought recognition and approval of his work from the Third Reich. The exhibit here assembles 150 of Nolde's prints and 34 of his vibrant watercolors, which ``redefined the medium for the 20th century,'' Mr. Ackerly says.

Viewed without the knowledge of Nolde's thwarted desire to be part of the Third Reich, his banishment as described in the catalog and the wall description appears to depict him as something of a victim.

Ackerly says in retrospect that perhaps he was ``too gentle'' in the catalog and the exhibit in noting Nolde's political sympathies. ``You think you are saying it, but it wasn't enough. In the chronology we mentioned his membership in the Danish wing of the National Socialist party. But it's also been hard to clarify what actually went on in his life, and we'll still be learning that over the years.''

Temin says, ``I think the political issues here are so immense that you really can't avoid them. It seems to me [the MFA exhibit] wanted to evade the political issues in favor of talking about Nolde as an innovate printmaker.''

MFA director Malcolm Rogers concluded that it was a ``mistake'' to have not been more direct. He said the following sentence would be added to the wall text of the exhibit: ``Nolde, who had actively sought recognition from Nazi cultural authorities and who was a party member, was dismayed to be one of the artists most censured by the government.''

* Nolde's work will be shown in Boston until May 7 and then at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from June 8 through Sept. 10. The watercolors are displayed only in Boston.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.