Emil Nolde: Anatomy of Light and Water | Bastian

Emil Nolde was a supremely talented painter who made gorgeous use of colours suggesting light. He also had well-documented Nazi sympathies. That’s surely a big reason why he isn’t much seen: this small show of watercolours was the first Nolde exhibition I can recall in London in my years of gallery-going.

As an older man, Nolde spent his summers in Seebüll in Northern Germany, a beach-side town. Thomas Mann country - Caspar David Friedrich country - at least in my head. He sketched the sea at different times of day, picking out waves, clouds, the occasional boat. He did this before, during and after the war in which his ideals were dismantled and destroyed.

emil nolde at bastian - installation view

Nolde was one of the first Expressionists, a member of the revolutionary Die Brücke movement early in the 20th century, and the sense of heightened reality persists to these late seascapes. I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with an installation view rather than an individual work because their impact is cumulative: those gorgeous colours, variations on a theme, complementing each other as the viewer’s gaze passes along the wall.

Look closer, and the scenes dissolve like light through water. The smoky belches of passing steam ships meld into cloud formations. Waves blend into sailboats. Behind the colours, what is there? It’s difficult not to think of the hand that held the paintbrush, the mind that governed the thoughts and chose the colours.

It’s striking that the paintings remain complementary between the first on show (from 1930) and the last on show (1946). The colours, deftly arrayed across Japanese paper, remain beautifully chosen.

Nolde said once that he aimed for “absolute originality, the intensive, often grotesque expression of force and life in the simplest form”. Though actually, these paintings aren’t grotesque - unless you think about who painted them.

Emil Nolde: Anatomy of Light and Water is at Bastian (London). 06 May - 30 June 2022