The Turku Art Museum starts its autumn season with an exhibition of work by Emil Nolde (1867–1956). An incomparable figure of German expressionism, Nolde had a long and dramatic career full of ups and downs. Born Hans Emil Hansen, he trained as wood carver and furniture designer, subsequently developing over the years into a notorious artist, then a “degenerate artist” and finally an internationally esteemed icon of early modernism. Reassessment of his work continues to this day as new and previously glossed-over facts of the artist’s past come to light as the Nolde archives are opened up.
Nolde’s journey through life took a meandering path. Born in the village of Nolde near the Danish border, he spent his formative years as an artist in various parts of Europe, and eventually adopted the name of his birthplace in 1902. Nolde started out as a neo-romantic painter, but soon became an adherent of French post-impressionism. He reinvented himself again around 1909 by embracing expressionism, the very latest art trend in Germany. An intensely coloured expressionism with robustly stylised figures became his hallmark. In addition to a pictorial world, in his later life Nolde also created a habitat for himself, complete with a house and studio in Seebüll in northernmost Germany. The house also included a sumptuous flower garden that became the artist’s and his wife Ada’s cherished treasure, a miniature paradise. Nolde also made use of the many varieties of flower and their changing seasonal hues in his watercolours.
In the 1930s, Nolde’s work came up against the National Socialist conception of art with its penchant for likeness. The Nazi authorities confiscated over a thousand works by Nolde from German museums. Some of them were included in the notorious Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) exhibition in 1937. The touring exhibition showcased modernist artworks classified as ‘non-art’, with the intention of defaming them. However, Nolde's works were later withdrawn from the exhibition at his request. The conflict culminated in 1941 when the Nazis banned Nolde from working. At the time Nolde himself was both an ardent supporter and a member of the party as well as an anti-Semite.
Under the professional ban, Nolde was forbidden to present his work publicly, but he was nevertheless one of the top-selling German artists during the war. From the early 1930’s until the 1950’s he produced over 1,300 watercolours in his home studio in a remote rural area. These Unpainted pictures, as they came to be known, have acquired mythic proportions in Nolde’s work. The current exhibition includes nearly 60 of them. Technically the watercolours display a virtuoso mastery of the medium, and they represent a distillation of Nolde’s high-coloured style and imagery, from character studies and fantasy motifs to intensely felt landscapes and seascapes.
Nolde’s work has previously featured in major exhibitions in Finland only in 1958 and 1972. The current selection includes nearly a hundred oil paintings and watercolours covering a period extending from the early 1900s to the 1950s. The exhibition is produced in collaboration with the Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, and it is on show in Finland only in Turku.