Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Mask Still Life III, 1911, oil on canvas, 74 x 78 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
For regular readers of ‘painting of the week’ you’ll know that here at I.B.Tauris we have a bit of a thing for German Expressionism. So when it came to finding a Halloween themed painting Emil Nolde’s masks sprang to mind.
As this painting may suggest, Nolde’s art aimed to awe. With its grotesque shapes and symbolic colour, Nolde wasn’t concerned in humour. Of his use of colour and tonal effects, Nolde believed emotional honesty was paramount:
There is silver blue, sky blue and thunder blue. Every colour holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me, and which acts as a stimulus. To a person who has no art in him, colours are colours, tones tones… and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range between heaven to hell, just go unnoticed.
Nolde’s masks, which are part of a series, are not social comment or satire. Nolde wasn’t preoccupied with depicting human suffering and cruelty, instead, his masks stem from his interest in indigenous art and ritual. In this sense Nolde is part of a late-nineteenth/early twentieth-century tradition, Primitivism, which includes notable figures like Gauguin and Picasso.
Art critic Peter Howard Selz believes Nolde was attracted to indigenous art because he saw in it an ‘affirmation of his own anti-classical art.’ Abstract, emotional and colourful with a rhythmic sense of ornamentation and mystic power, this painting acts as a sensuous, liberatory, and honest reaction to his subjects. It should come as no surprise then that Nolde was one of the first artists to protest against the relegation of primitive art-objects to museums, where they were displayed as anthropological specimens. TA