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An Encounter With The Work Of Emil Nolde

A man walks past Emile Nolde's "Das Leben Christi" (1911/12, Life of Christ) at the Städel Museum.
Arne Dedert
AFP/Getty Images
A man walks past Emile Nolde's "Das Leben Christi" (1911/12, Life of Christ) at the Städel Museum.

I visited the Emil Nolde (1867-1956) exhibition now up at Frankfurt's Städel Museum this past week. Nolde's paintings are small, sketch-like, personal, and serious. They are authentic: one person doing what he obviously needs to do and making no bones about the fact.

I was moved by his religious paintings — almost comic-book like depictions of events in the life of Christ. So direct and explicit in their illustrative power that I found found myself excited by the religious feeling they expressed.

I had never seen most of this work before. I took delight in seascapes painted early on in his career. They were reduced, in the way of Turner, or Rothko, to a fog-like non-structure, a kind of blankness, a blankness that still did the work of picturing.

And so they invite us to ask: what is a picture, anyway? And how do we behold the beach and the sea and the sky when we behold them, as we do, in a picture? These paintings don't just show the sea; they put that showing on display, right next to the evident signs of the artist's brushwork, his choices, the manifest fact that what we see, really, is the product not so much of human labor, as it is of something more like result of a kind of compulsion.

I had that sense at the Städel looking at Nolde's work.

I had a similar feeling at the David Hockney show that was recently up at the de Young museum in San Francisco. The painter as a doodler, the one who just can't stop the pencil, or pen, or brush, or, in the case of Hockney, the thumbs and fingers on his iPad or iPhone.

Not that Nolde's pictures are not composed.

One striking painting depicts a woman performing on a stage. It is an erotic act and she is exposing herself sexually before an audience of staring men. We see the captivated faces of the men; but we don't see what they see. And neither does Nolde. He's on the sidelines, watching people watching her. This picture, which is downright enthralling, directs our attention to watching itself, to wanting to watch, and to the detachment, or even isolation, that sometimes accompanies not only watching, but making paintings, too.

Nolde's work was banned during the Nazi period. In the eyes of fascist authorities, his work was was deemed inferior. His paintings were removed from museums and many of his paintings were included in the notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibiton of 1937. He was prohibited from painting, even in private.

It is painful to stand before some of the very paintings on display at the Städel that Joseph Goebbels and his cohort put on display as examples of degenerate art. Because of the personal nature of this work, the establishment rejection of the work feels particularly cruel.

But I am glad I didn't know Nolde had been a rather enthusiastic member of the National Socialists himself when I visited the Städel. It might have distracted me from the pictures.

He seems to have been a person of dark, racialist ideas. Of German and Danish extraction, he adopted the name Nolde. It was the name of the town near where he grew up. The exhibition puts this rather vulnerable, objectionable and even pathetic side of the artist very much on view.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.