Collection Highlight - Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde Self-Portrait

During Jim Bridenstine's tenure as director, the KIA collection grew by 65%, with the addition of about 1740 works over 24 years. Because choosing one favorite to highlight in this issue was impossible, he suggested we feature the first work he helped acquire. Typical of Bridenstine, it comes with a story. Shortly after he assumed the position of director, KIA benefactor Genevieve U. Gilmore passed away, bequeathing to the KIA a small number of works from her collection not claimed by family members. Bridenstine recalls the family generously inviting him to list pieces most desirable for the KIA collection, so that they might steer clear of these works when making their choices. Gilmore's collection included works on paper by many notable American and European artists, and Bridenstine asked Curator Helen Sheridan to rank selections, with the provision that Emil Nolde's Self Portrait top the list. People close to Bridenstine know his love for portraiture. Why? "I love people; people have stories."

What story can we read in Emil Nolde's self-portrait of 1910? We see a solemn character poised at the edge of darkness, with downturned mouth and rough features starkly illuminated. Spontaneous strokes of ink suggest a sense of urgency. A simple, plaid cap partially obscures the artist's eyes, making his intense gaze hard to read, but still magnetic. One might read reproach, but also yearning. He may feel caught between despondency and determination, failures and successes, shadow and light.

Nolde was born of peasant farmers in northern Germany. Often feeling lonely and misunderstood, he found solace in religion and a connection with the earth. Nolde admired the work of Van Gogh, and felt similarly compelled to make art. He wrote that elements of nature "aroused my enthusiasm as well as tormented me with demands that I paint them."

Nolde painted this portrait during his early years as a practicing artist, which he called his "Years of Struggle" (1902-1914). He marked 1902 as the beginning of his life as a practicing artist. Nolde's distortion of form and color for the sake of expression excited some younger German artists. They invited him to join their group in Berlin, known as die Bruecke. At first elated, Nolde soon realized he was too solitary and needed independence to develop his own expressionist vision. He wrote in 1909 of striving to paint his emotional response to nature, rather than its appearance.

"Nature truly and exactly copied does not create an artwork....Nature converted by the addition of one's own soulfulness and spirituality raises the work to an artwork."

As Nolde found his unique style, he experienced some successes, but also bitter rejections. In 1910, he was expelled from the Berlin Secession for vehemently criticizing their dismissal of his new style and other expressionistic work by younger artists.

At the time of this Self-Portrait, Nolde's story was just beginning. He stood at the threshold of the German Expressionist movement. Like other artists challenging artistic boundaries (and especially those attempting to work through the Nazi era), Nolde and his artistic vision would be alternately cast in shadow and light.

Karla Niehus
Associate Curator of Exhibitions