German Expressionism & The Third Reich

Hey everybody, this week I wanted to talk about one of my personal interests, German Expressionism, as well as art in general during the Third Reich. Ever since seeing my first examples of German Expressionist art in my “Art in the Modern Era” course here at Marywood, I fell in love and it’s actually what I want to focus my studies on when going to grad school for art history.

One of the examples that made me fall in love with German Expressionist art was Emil Nolde’s “The Last Supper” (shown below). I should add that I absolutely LOVE religious German Expressionist works…now, this one wasn’t painted during WWII obviously, I just wanted to set up a sort of timeline with Nolde since his work would later tie in with my other interest of art during the Third Reich.

Emil Nolde ‘The Last Supper”

German Expressionist works are very emotional and jarring. Between the use of colors and the very visible, almost audible, brushstrokes, the viewer can easily read the many emotions a work of art conveys. Upon first glance, and without knowing the title of the piece, the viewer would notice that there’s simply a group of people playing cards. However, upon further inspection, your eye is drawn INTENTIONALLY right towards the middle to the only white area in the painting.

Why is it white? And why right in the middle? Is this figure important and why so? Here, Nolde painted his depiction of the last supper. Obviously, the middle figure is Christ and his holiness is inferred through the use of white and the subtle glow about his figure. Instead of being laid out in a flat perspective, such as DaVinci’s last supper painting, this piece goes back in space and people completely surround Christ, again enhancing his importance. I love the colors, I love the composition, and I love the emotion. Though it’s very rough, the viewer can feel the dynamic energy the figures exude almost making the painting come alive. You feel very drawn in by the warmth of the scene, and Nolde very carefully allows a little bit of open space, almost inviting you to come sit at the table reflecting the openness of Christ’s teachings.

Here’s where things get interesting… I came across Mary M. Lane’s article last week talking about Nolde’s history as a supporter of the Nazi party. He met Adolf Hitler during a dinner party in November of 1933. A year after that meeting, Nolde even modeled his own autobiography Years of Struggle after Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler really didn’t enjoy German Expressionism, he favored hyper-realistic figures over the expressionistic figures Nolde painted. Lane wrote that after Hitler included a lot of Nolde’s works in the infamous 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, Nolde “began crafting an image as a persecuted artist that he promoted to the Allies and his fellow Germans after the war”. After that point, an effort to hide Nolde’s racist past began and it wasn’t until recent years that an exhibition in 2013 uncovered his attempts to become close with Hitler and his support of the Nazi party.

It’s a really interesting article and having enjoyed looking at Nolde’s works, it was only just last week that I found this article which opened my eyes to his ties with Nazism. For me, this is another case of ‘can you separate the art from the artist’? Subject matter like this is something I really hope to pursue in grad school, hopefully in Germany. I will be studying in Berlin for my final Spring semester as an undergrad and I hope to use that experience when I apply to go to grad school for art history in Germany.

The image used for the cover photo is courtesy of I hope y’all have a great week and stay safe!!!

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