At One with the Universe

Michael Hofmann

  • Emil Nolde: Colour Is Life
    Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 21 October

Imagine a Nolde picture, and what do you see? Perhaps a flat, brooding landscape, nine-tenths sky, with maybe a windmill or a hulking farmhouse sunk along the bottom edge. Deep lustrous colours – oils, unmixed, swirly and thick – within a wide and solid matt-black wood frame. (Nolde made them himself: he had no use for the ornate plaster gilt of a backward-looking early 20th century.) Or waving, blowsy flowers, an infinity of oranges and reds. Or an agitated sea with an oblique crack of sunset or divine mercy in it, the pure element, neither land nor shipping, nor anything else. Couples, young, old, male, female, mixed – the parallels that meet at infinity. A group of conspiratorial individuals, heavily bearded and hatted, exclusionary, farmers or Russians or uncles. Sketches from café life or the pleasure factories of Weimar. Orgiastic dancers hoofing it among candles or draped around poles. A scriptural scene, caricatural Levantine faces – hook-nosed, thick-lipped, bedroom-eyed – and a child’s Bible’s profusion of red, purple and gold. The woodcut of a bony, haunted-looking prophet, an apt cover for an old paperback edition of Dostoevsky or Conrad. South Sea Islanders, not Gauguin’s delectable milk chocolate girls chapleted with flowers, but bearded and tufty males, authentic cannibals, as the shocked painter noted in his autobiography. Or maybe one of the ‘unpainted pictures’, so-called (in other words, possible studies for subsequent paintings), almost in a now current fantasy graphic style, clouds of varicoloured steam, grotesque creatures, monsters, hybrids, gargoyles, a horsey dinosaur, a loose pig, the paper attacked from in front and behind with colour and wash, the whole thing presumably wringing wet, but better controlled and less murky than one would have thought possible.

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