Emil Nolde is an odd one. He is grouped with the Expressionists but he seems to do his own thing, not quite fitting in with the rest of them. There isn’t anyone who paints like Nolde, or has ever done, in watercolour or oil. I thought that he had probably developed his painting style by carefully subverting a known system that he had previously absorbed. I knew Nolde had had art training before he became a famous painter. So, I was surprised to discover an excerpt from a book by James Elkins (the book is called “What Painting Is”) in which Nolde’s painting process was described as being chaotic and experimental, going against all known rules in terms of technique with the result that many paintings were ruined.
This unexpected finding, if true, makes me feel much more comfortable about my own painting process because, having had much less instruction in painting than I have in drawing, I feel very comfortable when I draw but when I paint I feel I am reinventing the wheel, making it up as I go along and striving to do something that might be impossible.
Well, apparently Nolde was a kindred spirit in that he painted furiously, wrongly and overdid it on more occasions than not, turning glowing colours into a grey sludgy mess. It seems hard to believe but the book mentions canvases being destroyed or the backs used for new works. I wish I could show some of Nolde’s paintings here but it would be seen as infringing copyright, so I shall link to this illustrated sample of a recent book about Nolde instead.
Recently I created my own versions of two Nolde paintings, trying to work out his painting process through doing. I think I can safely show the pictures here as there is no way they could be confused with the originals! It was a useful exercise but it made me notice in particular how my efforts very obviously lack his beautiful brushmarks. I find it’s difficult to let go and make painterly and pleasing marks when copying anything – whether it’s one of my own drawings or paintings or someone else’s. Only when painting directly from the subject do my brushstrokes seem to flow, at least a bit.
Recently I’ve been wondering whether I feel so attached to Nolde’s vision because, according to another book about the painter, ” Emil Nolde. Mein Wunderland von Meer zu Meer”, the area that Nolde called home was very similar to the landscape in which I grew up. The borderland where Germany meets Denmark was the place Nolde came from and was inspired by, and it seems to echo the scenery of my childhood.
I grew up in a low, marshy area with salt flats leading out into the Irish Sea, with beautiful hills a few miles inland. The skies over those vast, flat fields were huge and you were never far from the sea which, being born in Blackpool and having relatives there, I felt was part of me. I still miss it. The opening picture of this post gives some idea of the immensity of that coastline (which is not just a place of tacky shell-gifts, rock, silly hats and obscenity but a windswept, light and sand-blasted border where powerful forces of thrashing waves and immovable concrete meet under incredible skies).
Nolde was a member of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke for a while but mostly followed his own mystical, colourful path. Paul Klee once said of him:
Abstract artists, far removed from this earth, or fugitives from it, sometimes forget that Nolde exists. Not so I, even on my furthest flights, from which I always manage to find my way back to earth, to rest in the gravitational force I find there. Nolde is more than of the earth, he is the sphere’s guardian spirit. Domiciled elsewhere oneself, one is always aware of the cousin in the deep, the kinsman of one’s choice.