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Emil Nolde – Colour is Life

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Modern 2, Edinburgh until October 21st
Four stars

Sex, God and the transcendent tangle of both are the prime pulses behind this collection of more than 100 paintings, drawing, watercolours and prints by one of Germany’s most significant expressionists, brought together in all their contrary glory. Here, after all, is an artist who put faith in National Socialism in the hope that avant-garde art would become a central tenet of government thinking, but whose abstractions were ridiculed in the Nazis’ notorious 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition.

Despite this, a primal fervour remained at the heart of Nolde’s work both before and after being officially black-balled from the art world in ways that all but bursts through the frame. This is the case with the self-deification of Free Spirit (1906) as much as the rapture of Ecstasy (1929), in which a naked Mary is painted at the point of conceiving Jesus, and the sensory abandonment of Candle Dancers (1912). In terms of come-down, Paradise Lost (1921) finds a terrified-looking Adam and Eve hunched on the ground, side by side but very much apart as they guiltily regret the night before.

For all the brutal grotesquery of Nolde’s ‘Unpainted Pictures’, made during his artistic exile, Nolde’s pursuit of intimacy is best captured in Young Couple (1913), eight lithographs of the same image in different colours. Seen side by side, they resemble a Jules Feiffer party scene that perfectly encapsulates Nolde’s ever-changing moods. 

The List, July 2018



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