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Degenerate Art

Tate Modern, until 15 May. A very personal encounter by Daniel Rounding.

As most of you will know, in the 1930s the Nazis even wanted to stamp their version of the 1000 Year Reich's new world order onto the visual arts. Anything even remotely crude or abstract was branded degenerate and unfit for public display. As an example, in pre-war Germany the critical finger of the party politic pointed towards Paul Klee, and in 1932 he was stripped of his teaching post to die as an exile in Switzerland during 1940. Entire public collections produced by these so-called degenerates were removed from galleries and museums, and destroyed. Remnants of these outlawed artforms were paraded from place to place and mocked by the authorities. The scale of this repression, including a brief history of this socially grotesque slice of 20th century art history, is on show in one room of the third floor at Tate Modern.

Among this showing is one painting by Emile Nolde. This artist is someone I discovered in 1998 via an unusual synchronicity, (meaningful coincidence!). Meaning for me take notice and observe the facts and images contained therein... Wow, what treasure, what a supreme delight it was pulling back the pages to reveal the life, times and work of one of Europe's least celebrated expressionists. I felt like being in the company of a kindred spirit. His values, life style, habits, painting technique, passion for nature, all had a deep resonance within me. He was a nice bloke too by all accounts.

But since that initial discovery I'd never been able to see any of his work in the flesh, despite the fact there is a museum dedicated to his work in Germany near the Danish border. The promise of a sighting at Tate Modern was too good an opportunity to miss. Stepping into that space was a memorable experience, my eyes immediately alighting on the unfamiliar but immediately recognisable Nolde. Forget the choirs of heavenly angels, this virgin encounter didn't have the intensity of a religious experience. Something equally as profound happened though, I was peacefully happy and excited all at the same time. OK, it was my 50th birthday the day before, and I'll be the first to admit I'm getting dafter in my old age, but I couldn't help feeling a sense of child-like pleasure at this first encounter.

So what was I looking at? Nolde's 'The Sea B', 1930. A dark and wildly elemental seascape devoid of anything immediately recognisable. Powerfully painted with vigorous brushstrokes, and equally unrestrained use of colour. Filling the canvas is a large almost black cloud richly textured set against glimpses of a yellow, green and orange sky. Underneath, a sea frothing with two gobs of white, and oh eee-yes, looking for all the world as though it had been applied with no mixing. Straight from the tube, onto the brush, onto the support. Love it! The feeling of wind and storm radiated from the work. A trademark Nolde.

Among the other standout artists in the same space was Oskar Kokoschka. All three paintings of his, predominantly figurative and covered in thinly applied oils, were just so amazingly colourful. Also eye-catching was a solo Edward Munch, The Side Wind, 1907. A very intense painting, with a huddle of figures clutching at each other. Walspurgis Night, a mysterious and darkly painted monotone gouache by Paul Klee rewarded after a few moments of quiet contemplation. Painted during his exile in 1935.

Despite all the other glittering stars in that same room I kept coming back to the Emile Nolde. So there's now an added imperative to visit the Nolde Museum at Seebčll, close to the Danish border. See

For me this was a very telling exhibition, loaded with politics and lessons from history. Could it happen again? Could it happen here? Already we've witnessed religious right wing extremism expressed via the so called neo-conservative Bush administration in the USA. A government quick to point the finger at anything resembling a bogey man, and equally as quick to use strategies of dominance to further their own agendas. Sound familiar? And we regard them as close allies. Hmmm, makes you think doesn't it?

How many skips would it take to fill with all of Ipswich's versions of 'Degenerate Art'? Or maybe the population's overall disengagement from their own creative processes, preferring instead to be entertained by the arts, already means the arts has lost out to the sciences. Big debate or what?

May 2005.


You can see works by Nolde on the official Emile Nolde Museum website. The site also has information about visiting the Museum in Denmark.

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