Ernst Wilhelm Nay



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Ernst Wilhelm Nay (* 11 June 1902 in Berlin; † 8 April 1968 in Cologne) was a German painter. He is one of the most important representatives of classical modernism and German post-war art.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s education

Ernst Wilhelm Nay spent his school years at the boarding school Schulpforta in Thuringia, where he passed his Abitur in 1921. Through Karl Hofer’s mediation, Nay obtained a scholarship to the Berlin Hochschule für bildende Künste in 1925. Hofer accepted him directly into his painting class. In 1928, he finished his studies as a master student of Hofer and went on a study trip to Paris. He produced his first surrealist-abstract paintings during a nine-month scholarship to the Villa Massimo in Rome, which he was awarded in 1931. In 1932 Ernst Wilhelm Nay marries Elly Kirchner, whom he meets during his studies.

National Socialist Takeover and Second World War

When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, one of his works was derided in the “Völkischer Beobachter” as a “masterpiece of meanness”. In 1937, the National Socialists confiscated 10 of Nay’s works from public ownership. Two of his paintings are shown at the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organised by the National Socialists. In the same year, through the mediation of Carl Georg Heise, a German art historian and museum director, Nay received financial support from the painter Edward Munch, which enabled him to travel to the Norwegian Lofoten Islands for three months. There, Nay painted large-format watercolours. Later, inspired by these watercolours, he created further “Lofoten pictures”. He met the collector and art dealer Hanna Bekker vom Rath.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the artist was deployed from 1940 to 1945, first in southern France as an infantryman and later in Brittany as a cartographer. At this time he produced small watercolours and drawings. After a short period as a prisoner of war, Nay returned to Germany in 1945 and moved into a house with a studio in Hofheim am Taunus. There he created the so-called ‘Hekate pictures’, which were followed by the series of ‘Fugal pictures’. In these, he processed his experiences of the war and post-war period.

Relocation to Cologne and the first exhibitions of Ernst Wilhelm Nay

In 1951 the artist moved to Cologne. One year later, he began the period of his “Rhythmic Pictures” and in 1954 the period of his “Disc Pictures”, his best-known works. In 1955 the artist was awarded the Lichtwark Prize of the Hanseatic City of Hamburg. That same year, he had his first solo exhibition in the USA at the Kleeman Gallery in New York. In 1956, he was awarded the Grand Art Prize for Painting of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and a solo exhibition in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The artist was also appointed a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1956. Ernst Wilhelm Nay took part in the first three documenta exhibitions in 1955, 1959 and 1964.

On the occasion of his 60th birthday, the Museum Folkwang in Essen opened a comprehensive solo exhibition in 1962. The artist was awarded the Berlin Art Prize in 1964 and the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1967. The disc pictures were further developed in 1963/64 and finally replaced by the so-called “eye pictures”.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay died in Cologne on 8 April 1968.

Reception of the artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay

Nay’s early work is characterised by self-taught landscapes and portraits in which, among other things, the influences of his teacher Karl Hofer are recognisable. Processing a strong dynamic in the movement of his motifs, he increasingly abstracted figures and landscapes. The “Hekate pictures” mark a new stage of development in Nay’s work, in which the past of the war is reflected. Motifs from myth, legend and poetry are echoed here. The final break occurs with the work phase of the “Fugal Pictures”. Glowing colours and intricate forms accompanied by dots and triangular shapes now dominate the choice of motifs. His best-known and most successful works to date are the ‘Scheibenbilder’ (disc works). In these, the circular shape of the disc organises itself into subtle modulations of space and colour.

His international breakthrough came in the 1950s. In addition to receiving numerous awards, his works were shown at many representative exhibitions of German art on an international level.


1921 – Abitur at the boarding school Schulpforta in Thuringia.

1925 – Scholarship holder at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts in the painting class of Carl Hofer, whose master student he became.

1928 – Study trip to Paris.

1937 – The National Socialists confiscate 10 works by Nay, who is now ostracised as “degenerate”, from public ownership. Two of his paintings are shown at the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the National Socialists. With the financial support of Edvard Munch, Nay spent three months in Norway.

1939 – Nay meets the art dealer Hanna Bekker vom Rath.

1940/1945 – War deployment in the south of France and Brittany, at this time he creates small watercolours and drawings.

1947 – Acquaintance with the collectors Günther and Carola Peill, Bernhard Sprengel, Herbert Kurz, and Karl Ströher.

1949 – Beginning of the work period of the “Fugal Pictures”.

1951 – Move to Cologne.

1952 – Beginning of the work period of the “Rhythmic Pictures”.

1954 – Beginning of the work period of the “Scheiben Bilder”.

1955 – Lichtwark Prize in Hamburg.

1956 – Solo exhibition in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Grand Art Prize of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. Appointed member of the Academy of Arts, Berlin.

1962 – Large solo exhibition on the occasion of his 60th birthday at the Museum Folkwang, Essen. Solo exhibitions in New York.

1964 – Art Award of the City of Berlin

1966 – Trips to Morocco, New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan, and Hong Kong.




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