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50 Years of "Intellectual Pilgrimage": Emil Nolde and Seebüll

Kateri JochumApril 13, 2006

Bold and eccentric, Emil Nolde is one of Germany's most famous expressionist painters. Upon his death 50 years ago, his home in Seebüll near the Danish border became a museum that's stark, idyllic -- and easy to miss.

Emil Nolde's self portraitImage: picture-alliance / dpa
For lack of a bridge to connect it to the mainland, there are only three ways to get to Sylt, Germany's most popular island in the North Sea: by plane, by Danish ferry, or by train from Niebüll. Cars load on in Niebüll, too, and most of the 600,000 tourists to the island pass through the sleepy Frisian town. But only a fraction of these sand-struck visitors know that with a quick side trip, they could visit the former home of one of Germany's most important expressionist painters, Emil Nolde.

Craftsman and artistic avant-garde

Born in 1867, Emil Nolde was a trained wood-carver, who made furniture by day and took art lessons at night. He studied the French impressionists, older masters like Rembrandt, and took trips to visit artists in Denmark and Sweden. Nolde was looking for a new type of art -- genuinely German, uniquely his.

But he was almost 30 before he made his first paintings, which resemble his drawings and wood-cuts: grotesque figures with bold lines and strong contrasts. The style was new, and it inspired the nascent artist movement Die Brücke (The Bridge), who invited Nolde to join them in 1906. He was a member for just a year, preferring winter solitude in Berlin and summers by the sea.

Emil Nolde, Porträt
Worn by wind and weather: Emil NoldeImage: DPA

Bright blue cityscapes, bombastic red floral gardens, pink, yellow and red nudes: Nolde's emotional use of color became his calling card. This was intensified after he and his wife, the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup, returned from an expedition to this South Seas in 1913/14.

Powerful poppies and bold brick

In 1927, the couple moved to Seebüll, a nearly non-existent farming settlement in Schleswig-Holstein, just minutes from the Danish border. It is hard to find, but each year, 78,000 adventurers do drive down the long country road leading to Nolde's home, now a museum, perched atop one of the few tiny hills in the area.

Buchcover: Nolde - Leben
Color and contrast: Nolde's biography and his art

Amidst the wide plains typical for northern Germany, the building is like a brick fortress, with narrow windows and a flat roof. The artist consciously chose the modern Bauhaus-style design to distinguish it from his neighbors' Frisian thatched roofed farmhouses. Rich gardens surround the museum, with flowers -- red poppies and bright blue lilies -- so decidedly foreign to the region that they must be carefully sheltered from the strong winds that sweep up the hill. Here, Nolde said, he came to recuperate from the overwhelming abundance that was Berlin in the Roaring Twenties.

But in 1937, Seebüll became a retreat of a different kind. Along with other expressionists, the National Socialists proclaimed Emile Nolde a "degenerate artist" and confiscated his works. In 1941, they prohibited him from painting altogether.

In a secret room in his house, Nolde continued to paint watercolor sketches -- most of them no bigger than the palm of his hand. By the end of World War II, Nolde had completed more than 1,300 of these so-called "unpainted pictures." They are on display at the museum, as are the large-scale religion-inspired oil paintings Nolde worked on in the last years of his life.

Not just for art pilgrims any more

Ten years before his death on April 13, 1956, Emil Nolde and his wife established The Nolde Foundation Seebüll. Nolde wanted the museum to be a place where "intellectual pilgrims" could come for "happiness and artistic and spiritual relaxation."

Over three and a half million art lovers have done so. But their admission fees of four euros ($4.83) do not nearly cover the maintenance costs. The foundation lives from the sale and reproduction royalties from Nolde's works. However, in 2026, the foundation's copyrights will expire.

Künstler Emil Nolde Ein Selbstbild
Director Manfred Reuther wants to bring more visitors to enjoy Nolde's worksImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

This year, in preparation for that day, the foundation has built a new addition to the house, focusing on Nolde's life. It is also planning an extension in Berlin to focus on the artist's work there. Beginning in April, a new "Nolde Shuttle Bus" will also bring visitors from the island of Sylt, looking for a break from overcrowded beaches and sunburn, directly to the museum's door.