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Emil Nolde Schwüler Abend 1930
Image: Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

How Nazi-banned expressionist Emil Nolde re-envisioned color

Jan Tomes
August 7, 2017

He abandoned his family's farm, but became world-famous for landscape paintings. Expressionist Emil Nolde, born 150 years ago, saw the world in abstract but radical colors - a vision that proved too modern for the Nazis.


"Every color harbors its own soul," said Emil Nolde, arguably the most famous German expressionist, who would have celebrated his 150th birthday on August 7. His work embodies this vision, and the fantastic use of color in his paintings never ceases to amaze.

Whether he painted blood-red flowers and skies, lakes and mountains dyed in cerulean, or bright orange fields that flow into deep magenta backgrounds, his work reads as a profound exploration of hues and moods.

Without a doubt, his life was just as colorful. He was born in 1867 as Emil Hansen to a peasant family in Nolde in what was then Prussia (now Burkal in Denmark). He had no interest in becoming a farmer, though later in life he would live reclusively and dedicate a significant portion of his work to rural landscapes.

After training and working as a furniture maker and wood carver, he was rejected from studying art in Munich. Instead he pursued art education in Dachau and Paris - and his talent was finally recognized.

In 1906, he was invited to join the Die Brücke (The Bridge).

The German expressionist avant-garde group, which had been founded by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in 1905, relied on crude drawings, radical colors and complete abstraction.

Nolde, preferring isolation as an artist, withdrew from the group in 1907.

Banned by Hitler, despite being a fan

Despite his proclamation that "art is exalted above religion and race," Nolde was a vocal supporter of Hitler during his rise to power.

Read more: 80 years ago: How 'degenerate art' purges devastated Germany's museums

But being favored by prominent Nazi figures such as Joseph Goebbels and Fritz Hippler did not help him in the end. The regime condemned his art as "degenerate," and Nolde was forbidden from painting until the end of World War II, just like many other avant-garde artists. Their work was simply too modern for the traditionalist Nazis.

Before his death in 1956, Nolde was rehabilitated and awarded the German Order of Merit. A selection of his oeuvre is presented in the gallery above.

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