Emil Nolde: Journey In Black
The Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection of 200 German Expressionist regularly changing prints includes a lithograph on woven paper by Emil Nolde titled Church and Boat, Sonderburg, 1907. The work is three-colored-blank, ochre and black. Similar to other Nolde works from the same time, it seems to portray an ordinary perhaps grey day with the angular light of sunset highlighting city shapes in starkly contrasting sky and shadow. What is notable about this particular work is that the main subjects of the painting-church and boat along with their reflection in the glassy harbor-are blended rather imperfectly, disconsolately into one single indistinct black area that is the dominant image of the painting.
Exhibited as it is with other high contrast black-and-white works by artists such as Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Lyonel Feininger, Max Beckmann, Kathe Kolwitz, George Grosz and many others, the large black area in the Nolde painting seems an invitation for close examination.
We begin in our field, our scene of writing which is creation-our space of making-the-painting in a primary area of murky blackness that, in my view, because it depicts no internal shapes or formal logic, and, indeed, fails even to be strictly opaque, must be described as improper, off-limits-a horror engulfing the artist's vision and the artist himself. What is the cause of this horror, this hallucination of time and totality we do not know. Perhaps it has no cause other than the artist's own anguish or inability. All we have to go on is the title of the painting, church and boat. The horror, the crime which so disturbs the setting in its implicit wholeness and naturalness, what Roland Barthes calls its largest possible plural is one that not only has affected the community of Sonderburg, but the artist and his endeavor also. We have a church-a source of spiritual teachings; a boat-the means of sea travel-melded into one image. And we have the artist attempting to paint, to elucidate what is before him. The symbolism of a spiritual journey or voyage-one that doesn't necessarily entail leaving the harbor or the city of Sonderburg, one that doesn't necessarily take place on an inclement stormy day-seems obvious. All that's literally recognizable in the painting is a church steeple.
The artwork is no longer able to take place. The artist is silenced. The artist and the city have become alienated from painting, from illumination, that is, from themselves. Tranquility, of origin, of structure, of system, has turned into a disturbing monstrous unknown. Community is structurally locked out. In Nolde's provisional painting, this work of protest that he has, in conscience, against all artistic standards, shifted course, embarked upon and given us anyway, structure is negated. Perhaps it is an economic structure. Perhaps it is the artist's connection with the community that is broken. For artist, possibly for the community also, no images are resolved. There is no indication of closure, no finitude. In this way, the spiritual journey--across the troubled seas of Antithesis-of the artist and the community has begun. As Barthes describes it, the symbolic adventure of the hero, sculptor or narrator. (1)
The journey is a discourse; the discourse is a journey. Tranquil everyday-ness has disappeared, has been lost. There are no relationships, no signifier or signified. The subject has become a sign. There is an unlimited envelopment of the present. Difference and spacing are abolished. The journey, the unresolved blackness is an obscure dream forshadowing a recovered, reconfigured reality of the future. The shapeless black area will become a new object for the community, a new color for mankind. It will result in a new text for humanity, already written. The end of the discourse, the adventure, the journey will be a rejoining, an identity, a rediscovering of origin. From infinite indetermination [the artist will have passed] to infinite determination. (2)
In the MAM online introduction to the Specks collection is the statement:
The Expressionists launched their careers against a background of social unrest and political turmoil. Observing and commenting upon the modern world in which they lived, they produced incisive self-portraits, chaotic urban scenes, joyous landscapes and harsh images of war. Their techniques were as varied as their themes, revealing the hand as well as the mind and soul of the artist.
Also exerting strong pressure on German Expressionism were the startling theories put forth at that time in German science.
The reality of Impressionism is actuality. German Expressionism is based on improbable ideas and observations, even opinions of the artists. Expressionism is an investigation and an interrogation. The realism of German Expressionism is in the artists' ideas about reality. In an experimental realm, Expressionist painters attempt to portray fundamental properties and laws of the universe. They perceive an order in which-because of individuality, subjectivity, the infinite-the grass could be blue, the buildings of a city could be every color of the rainbow.
One of the remarkable things about German Expressionist painting is that, though the height of the movement took place before World War I, the paintings are filled with themes relating to the holocaust of World War II. Human figures are portrayed with a prodding desperate, last-gasp hope for their worthiness. Expressionist exhibits often contain religious works, showing Christ crucified, his sad face worn from abuse. Perhaps Nolde is portraying the city of Sonderburg as it appears condemned by Mankind.
Expressionism experimented with temporality--the past, the future, the moment of the present, the end of time. Simple subject matter-a river, a house, a girl with her doll-the substantiveness of these were often used as symbols of permanence. German Expressionism painted permanence outside of time--what it described as eternal values.
One of those eternal values is the spritual journey that Nolde depicted in his print (one of 29 originals). Proceeding through the rooms of later art movements, the shapeless black area of Nolde and of German Expressionism, this would-be splotch or spill, this black mark of responsibility on the philosophical landscape and horizon of Mankind, reappears in subsequent artworks like a beacon. In the Modernist works of the 20th Century, one is able to recognize again and again Nolde's black splotch of entanglement, loss, dark uncertainty and spiritual exploration. For many works it is a starting point and for American Expressionists it sometimes comprised entire paintings.
Hans Hoffman's color compositions are balanced with black low points. Pierre Soulages Composiiton from 1956 consists of a series of black building blocks ascending and decending in rectangular space. Fritz Winter's Black Action with black, white and red swatches retells progress in a modern city. Willi Baumeister's abstract cityscape is a mixture of black and lighter colors. Robert Motherwell's series of Jackson Pollack-like splashes of black ink on empty white canvas portrays the irretrievalbe temporality, without hiding errant drips, the crashing uncontrolled yet recurring shapes in the first instant of the unknowable medium that is the universe. It is the original sin, the original black mark, the most heinous disconnect of all-God's creation of humanity.
1. S/Z. Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang, New York, 1974, p. 215
2. Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida, Tr. Allen Bass, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, p.275.