Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings

The banning of Emil Nolde’s art as “degenerate” by the Nazis signaled the end of freedom of expression in Germany. The Nazi attack on modernism, which the ban exemplified, caused German artists to flee to other nations and forced those who remained to modify their work, thereby changing the history of modern art throughout and beyond Europe.

Summary of Event

By the early 1930’s, Emil Nolde was one of the leading expressionist German Expressionism painters in Germany. His work was highly regarded by other artists, as well as by art critics, according to whom he expressed better than any other painter of his age the forceful, emotional, and intuitive character of expressionism. At times, Nolde’s paintings appeared violent or grotesque, defeating his stated purpose of moving away from nature while remaining natural. However, his works exhibited an originality that few could match. Censorship;Germany
[kw]Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings (Aug. 23, 1941)
[kw]Nolde’s Paintings, Nazis Ban (Aug. 23, 1941)[Noldes Paintings, Nazis Ban]
[kw]Paintings, Nazis Ban Nolde’s (Aug. 23, 1941)
[g]Europe;Aug. 23, 1941: Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings[00310]
[g]Germany;Aug. 23, 1941: Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings[00310]
[c]Arts;Aug. 23, 1941: Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings[00310]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 23, 1941: Nazis Ban Nolde’s Paintings[00310]
Nolde, Emil
Goebbels, Joseph
Rosenberg, Alfred
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;censorship

Although his name is associated with Die Brücke Brücke, Die (the bridge), a group of expressionist artists to which he belonged in 1906 and 1907, Nolde always remained distanced from the group’s members. Nolde was almost a generation older than the rest of Die Brücke’s artists, and his art was rooted in nineteenth century traditions, making stylistic and temperamental differences between him and the group unavoidable. Nolde’s religiosity, ultra-individualism, and love of the soil contrasted sharply with the intellectual, communal, and humanistic work of Die Brücke, and these differences eventually led to Nolde’s withdrawal in 1907.

Following his involvement with Die Brücke, Nolde retreated with his wife, Ada, to the town of Seebüll in his native province of Schleswig-Holstein. During this period, Nolde was briefly involved with the artistic groups New Secession and Der Blaue Reiter (the blue rider). It was also at this time that Nolde focused his attention on the religious, landscape, and flower paintings for which he became most famous. Nolde’s religious paintings of the time include Wise and Foolish Virgins (1910), Christ and the Children (1910), Pentecost (1910), and the nine-part Life of Christ altar (1912); his landscape and flower paintings are represented by such notable works as Tugboat on the Elbe (1910), Blue Iris (1915), Horses in the Meadow (1916), and Nordermühle (1924).

Nolde especially emphasized the countryside and people of Germany in his paintings. His deep conviction that these subjects needed to be painted encouraged him in his work. Nolde’s grotesque portrayal of some of his subjects and his experimentation with techniques reminiscent of African tribal art placed him, however, on a collision course with the Nazi Party after 1933.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933, the artistic community in Germany was pressured to conform to the new government’s art guidelines. In a speech at the Nuremberg Nazi Party rally in 1934, Adolf Hitler outlined his vision for the future form and style of artwork in Germany. According to Hitler, German art henceforth would emphasize only traditional values that corresponded to Nazi doctrine. These guidelines would protect the average citizen from the “degenerate,” mind-poisoning art that the Nazis claimed was sweeping Germany. The goal of the new Nazi concept of art was to prevent the perceived moral degeneration of the German people and to announce the ideals of Nazi Germany to the world.

As a result of Nazi policy, many German artists found that they were no longer free to exhibit their works. In particular, the government attacked modern Modernism;art artistic styles such as cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, and expressionism. The Nazis labeled artists who produced works in these styles “saboteurs of art” and accused them of “cultural bolshevism.” The Nazis were intent upon implementing their party’s policy of making traditional Nordic art—or rather their limited conception of such art—the official German standard, and any artists who did not meet Hitler’s guidelines had their works removed from public view.

Because Hitler opposed modern art in general and Nolde’s work in particular, Nolde faced constant attacks from the government. Nolde’s modern tendencies and his use of what Hitler termed “impure” elements from tribal art made him a special target for Nazi repression. Not everyone, however, favored the harsh tactics employed against Nolde. Disagreement over Nolde’s style created a rift in the Nazi leadership. Nazi repression of Nolde sparked a debate between Alfred Rosenberg, the head of the Combat League for German Culture, and Joseph Goebbels, the president of the Reich Chamber of Culture.

Rosenberg attacked Nolde’s art and sought to have it banned from all German museums, while Goebbels initially sympathized with those who defended Nolde as an example of “indigenous Nordic art” and the Gothic tendency toward “destruction of form.” Soon, however, Goebbels bowed to the will of Hitler and began a campaign against Nolde. By attacking Nolde and other German expressionists such as Ernst Barlach, Goebbels was able to prove to Hitler his ability to manage cultural affairs and to silence rivals, including Rosenberg. Goebbels’s success allowed him to consolidate permanently his political power over Nazi Germany’s art and culture.

In 1937, in preparation for a “degenerate art” exhibition organized by the Nazis in Munich, Goebbels authorized Professor Adolf Ziegler Ziegler, Adolf , the president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, to seize works of art that failed to meet Nazi standards. As a result, a staggering 1,052 of Nolde’s paintings were confiscated from German museums and art galleries. Twenty-six were exhibited in Munich. Of the roughly 16,000 artworks by some fourteen hundred artists confiscated by the Nazis, Nolde’s 1,052 constituted the greatest number by a single artist. He continued to paint, but his art came under close government scrutiny. This scrutiny was particularly ironic, because Nolde had been a member of the Nazi Party since 1920 and fancied himself a painter of Nordic, Germanic, and Aryan art. In fact, it was probably Nolde’s Nazi Party membership that marked him for especially severe treatment; because Nolde’s works did not meet the party’s guidelines for new art, he was slowly forced underground.

Nolde thus became a victim of the new Nazi policy toward art, along with hundreds of other painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians. The Nazi assault on the arts included not only confiscation of art but also book burnings and censorship of music and film. At first, conditions were somewhat tolerable, but any real freedom for artists in Germany was drastically curtailed after 1937, as the attacks begun by Rosenberg, Goebbels, and Ziegler against modern art steadily increased.

By 1940, many German artists had emigrated to other countries. A few, including Nolde, remained to face the wrath of the Nazis. In a letter dated July 2, 1938, Nolde wrote to Goebbels to request the return of his seized paintings and an end to the defamation of his character. Nolde’s argument that his work was “German, strong, austere, and sincere” had no effect. His paintings were never returned to him. Finally, on August 23, 1941, the Nazis progressed from repression of Nolde to outright censorship. Nolde was forbidden to paint, his Berlin studio was closed, and all works still in his possession were confiscated by the government.

The ban on Nolde’s work marked a significant shift in the treatment of the arts in Germany. The already bad conditions for those modern artists who remained worsened progressively after 1941. Forbidden to paint, Nolde worked surreptitiously, using watercolor paints to avoid the telltale odor of oils, which might be detected during the frequent searches conducted by the Gestapo of Nolde’s home in Seebüll. These “unpainted pictures”—more than thirteen hundred small watercolor paintings, completed and hidden in the years between 1938 and 1945—show the maturity of Nolde’s work and his ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Already in his seventies, Nolde knew that he had little time to waste in completing the paintings that were to be the crowning achievements of his artistic career.


When the Nazis succeeded in preventing Nolde from painting and exhibiting his work in 1941, they won a great victory in the battle for control of the arts. After 1941, all aspects of art and culture in Germany were controlled by the Nazi regime. A stifling artistic atmosphere developed; mediocre artists’ works were exhibited regularly, and talented artists’ works were sold, destroyed, or hidden in government storerooms. The disappearance or emigration of the German modern artists attested to the regime’s ferocity in carrying out its program.

The global artistic community was shocked by the Nazi actions against Nolde and the avant-garde and protested vehemently; however, protest was to no avail. Censorship continued, and Nazi art replaced modern art in museums and galleries. Nazi suppression of modern art occurred quickly and forcefully, until no creative artist was safe from attack. Resistance to the Nazification of art was organized, but Nazi control of the government, the Reich Chamber of Culture, and the Combat League for German Culture gave them a significant advantage in numbers and power over small groups of individual artists. The strength of the Nazi onslaught eventually overwhelmed these isolated groups and succeeded in establishing a Nazi style for the arts. All aspects of culture were regulated, from architecture and painting to literature and film. The Nazis left no area untouched.

The heroism of the artists in the face of these attacks was tremendous, but no amount of sacrifice could stop the determined Nazi oppressors. Many artists remained in Germany and were forced underground at a time when their styles were beginning to mature. This group included Nolde and some Die Brücke artists such as Willi Baumeister, Oskar Schlemmer, Alexey von Jawlensky, Karl Hofer, and Ernst Barlach. Other artists, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, and Hans Hoffmann, were forced to emigrate.

The persecution of German artists changed the face of modern art forever. Emigration spread German art to other countries. Hans Hoffmann became the catalyst for a group of artists who would develop a uniquely American style in New York City; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner exerted an influence over art in Switzerland, and Max Beckmann left his mark in both Holland and the United States. The influence of immigrants from Nazi Germany was even felt at the center of the art world, the École de Paris, where Hans Hartung pushed contemporary painting in new directions.

In addition to causing changes in the world art scene by provoking the emigration of artists, Nazi domination significantly influenced the styles of those artists who stayed in Germany. Artists such as Nolde waged a constant battle to produce and protect their works under Nazi surveillance. The use of smaller canvases, watercolors, and other less traditional artistic styles, begun in order to hide works of art from the Nazis, continued even after the end of World War II and contributed to the changing face of modern art. Nazi repression influenced the development of modern art for years to come.

As a result of his persecution by the Nazis, Emil Nolde gained immense respect in the artistic community after the end of World War II. His resistance to Nazi dictates made him famous. He outlived his persecutors and contributed to the developing art scene of the 1950’s. Even at the age of eighty, Nolde produced paintings that were a source of inspiration. He served as an example to other artists that adversity could be overcome and that art could triumph over those who sought to repress it. His irrepressible vigor, his individualism, and his bold style left a lasting mark on modern art. Censorship;Germany

Further Reading

  • Boa, Elizabeth, and Rachel Palfreyman. Heimat: A German Dream—Regional Loyalties and National Identity in German Culture, 1890-1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Study of German self-perception and the role of the idea of a “homeland” in the nation’s culture. Includes a chapter on Nolde’s paintings and their relation to German national identity.
  • Bradley, William S. Emil Nolde and German Expressionism: A Prophet in His Own Land. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. An interesting but somewhat academic study of Nolde’s relationship to the Volkish view of art advocated by the Nazis. Bradley’s book discusses the Volkish tendencies in Nolde’s work and offers a good general discussion of Nolde’s style. Well researched; includes endnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Gosebruch, Martin. Nolde: Watercolors and Drawings. Translated by E. M. Küstner and J. A. Underwood. New York: Praeger, 1973. Discussion of Nolde’s watercolors and drawings. Reprints famous sketches and paintings. Includes a short bibliography of German sources.
  • Haftmann, Werner. Emil Nolde: Unpainted Pictures. Translated by Inge Goodman. New York: Praeger, 1965. A discussion of the watercolor paintings that Nolde completed during World War II. Offers an analysis of Nolde’s technique and the changes in his style. Good reproductions of many paintings.
  • Hinz, Berthold. Art in the Third Reich. Translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. Examines art under the Nazis and the fate of avant-garde artists such as Nolde. Hinz provides a thorough discussion of the political situation in Germany and its effect on the arts. Examples of Nazi-sponsored art are reprinted in black and white. Includes endnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Myers, Bernhard S. The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt. New York: Praeger, 1956. An oversized book featuring a collection of color plates of German expressionist art. Historical background on each artist and his work accompanies the plates. Chapter 17 deals exclusively with Nolde. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Osterwold, Tilman, and Thomas Knubben, eds. Emil Nolde: Unpainted Pictures: Watercolours, 1938-1945, from the Collection of the Nolde-Stiftung Seebüll. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2000. Catalog from a 1999 exhibition of Nolde’s clandestine, Nazi-era watercolors. Includes scholarly essays on the artist and his work. Bibliographic references.
  • Uhr, Horst. Masterpieces of German Expressionism at the Detroit Institute of Arts. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1982. Provides an overview of the major German expressionist artists and samples of their work. Well composed and edited. Includes endnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Vogt, Paul. Expressionism: German Painting, 1905-1920. Translated by Antony Vivis and Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978. A detailed discussion of the origins of German expressionism, with color plates of early works by expressionist artists. Includes bibliography and index.

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