He was a Nazi sympathizer and a Jew hater — that’s what researchers discovered about painter Emil Nolde. Nevertheless, his paintings hung in the German Chancellor’s office until recently. Stefan Dege wonders why.The Chancellery could have known already: As early as 2013, historian Bernhard Fulda and art historian Aya Soika presented the results of their research, which led to a major Emil Nolde exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Their bottom line: The expressionist artist sugar-coated his biography. Though his own works were indeed defamed by the Nazis as "degenerate," the painter nevertheless remained a fervent supporter of National Socialism, he offered to serve as a state artist for the Nazis, and drew up his own "de-Jewification plan." All this will be shown in a spectacular Nolde show, which opens in Berlin on Friday.
Read more: Why Merkel had an expressionist's works removed from the Chancellery
A lack of finesse
The Emil Nolde myth of the Nazis' victim has been wavering for some time now. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her office will have to wrestle with accusations of bad timing and a lack of sensitivity. After all, it was only when a museum requested a loan that they returned Nolde's paintings — without comment.
Official photos from several years ago in the German republic's political power hub show the German head of government in conversation with then US Secretary of State John Kerry — in front of Nolde's painting Breaker from 1936.
Can an artist like Emil Nolde represent Germany in the year 2019? Which art can hang in a place where statespeople from all over the world pass by?
In Nolde's case, it's hardly about renouncing a politically unpopular artist — the case is more complex. But these are questions that require a social debate. In addition, it should also be clarified who determines the selection of art in spaces that represent the state: Museum experts? Bureaucrats? The parliament? The respective incumbents?
The Nolde case comes at a delicate moment in cultural policy. Set to open at the end this year, the Is Berlin's Humboldt Forum shying away from colonial history? in Berlin is a world-class museum, a prestigious project by Monika Grütters, Minister of State for Culture. But with its collection of ethnological exhibits, it is also caught up in Germany's debates on colonial history.
And, as Nolde shows, the Nazi past is far from forgotten. Every new case of looted art also shows the importance of provenance research. Whether as a result of lacking political will or money, this process hasn't been established in a binding and comprehensive way yet. Many museums are out on their own.
Read more: Nazi-looted art: Why are restitutions still the exception?
Can art and the artist's disposition be separated?
Emil Nolde may have been a Nazi supporter and anti-Semite. But what does that mean for his art? One may still find his works beautiful — his glowing marsh and sea landscapes under a wildly stormy sky, as well as his biblical scenes and especially his enchantingly watercolors of flowers. But in the office of the German Chancellor?