Emil Nolde

“A few times I have been asked if I don’t take any interest in people because I seem to look so little. ‘Yes, very much’, I said, because I really do like to do it. Maybe just in a different way than usual. In a twelfth of a second the eye should be able to take in the impression, and further lingering on the object is private pleasure. But also, if you only half look at people, they become simpler and bigger. The friends, the enemies, and also the indifferent, they are all my helpers, when from the subconscious they come forward again. They are my images.”

Hardly any other genre of image can trace a history as imposing as that of the portrait. A symbol of power and the staging of the individual, it enjoyed a singular status until the establishment of photography. Elegant or sentimental, glorifying, simple and reduced, nothing remains hidden in the art of portraiture. And so, it is not surprising that Emil Nolde was also intensively concerned with human representation and portraiture throughout his life. Nolde knows how to paint the authenticity and immediacy of the observed so that the physical gives in to the existential. He writes in his autobiography: “[g]enerally I was, where I could, amid the most diverse people” — observing facial expressions, gestures and the common togetherness.

Emil Nolde worked with an extensive variety of motivic constellations in his double portraits. They were creatures from fairy tales and legends, not infrequently also animal or haunted figures, but mostly man and woman. The images speak their own impermeable and calm language.

The double portrait “Mann und Frau (Profil en face)” from 1921 with an exceptional provenance from the artist’s estate is undoubtedly one of the most impressive paintings the artist created in the early 1920s. Works of similar quality are found in important museum collections, such as the Brücke Museum in Berlin or the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Only the beard separates the depiction of the people and assigns them to their genders according to the title. The rich and deep colours mystify the display of the two, who are in no direct interaction with each other or with the artist. The woman, facing the painter but looking gently past him, has her mouth slightly open, exposing concise, hard front teeth as an absolute eye-catcher. The full lips, painted in rich red-orange, are caught in the blaze that is her hair. The gaze wanders towards her radiant blue eyes, which stand out from the ochre colouring of the face. Looking directly at her is a man with a long chin beard, who turns his left profile towards the artist. While the woman seems a little uncertain, the man looks at her with strongly reddened cheeks and a look full of deep affection and tenderness. His lips, too, stand out thick and full-round against the striking, ochre-coloured face. It is notable how the rich brown beard is not ref lected in the hair. Rather, it is painted in a saturated black in the same cut as that of the woman. Almost like mythical creatures, Nolde stages and distorts the appearance of people—his concern is not to depict what is seen, but what is perceived. Completely abstracted, the background appears merely in a mixed palette of dull colours and thus enters the border of mythologising the content of the picture. Here, too, one’s inner self is placed above the physiognomy of the outer condition.

Nolde’s pictorial conception of the human being turns away from the classical portrait and towards a psychologised depiction of interpersonal thinking—the expression of fear, absence, and rapture, but also secret relationships with the counterpart and a revelation of the inner mindset. The artist skilfully processes the interpersonal uncertainty in the ambiguous typification of man and woman; a tension and agitation that the image battles on with itself.

(Quoted from: Nolde, Emil: Jahre der Kämpfe. Cologne 2002, p. 138.)

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