Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism
News — 11 Aug 2021
The exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism goes on view in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from 4 September. The work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956) is famous for its unconventional portrayals of people, landscapes and objects rendered in bold colours and energetic brushstrokes. Kirchner's artworks have long been public favourites in the Stedelijk Museum's collection. But how do we look at these works today from a postcolonial perspective? This major exhibition zooms in on the stories behind the subjects portrayed in their work. It examines Kirchner's and Nolde's art within the context of the history and ideologies of the time, and explores its ties with people, cultures and objects from outside Europe. This is the first in-depth examination of the relationship between the two Expressionists’ distinctive visual style and the colonial reality from which it emerged.
In the German Empire (1871-1918), Kirchner and Nolde encounter non-European people and objects in ethnographic museums, at colonial exhibitions and in the entertainment industry, which employs numerous people of colour. Nolde even travels to Papua New Guinea (then part of the German colonial empire, and known as German New Guinea). The exhibition examines the work of both artists against the backdrop of the cultural-historical context in which it originated. It tells the story of the appropriation of other visual cultures, stereotyping in art, imbalances of power, and focuses on the people and art works that play such a key role in the work of Kirchner and Nolde.
In the art of Kirchner and Nolde, people of colour are often portrayed sensually, in a barrage of brilliant colours. The artists gave more importance to the expressive power of colour and form than offering a detailed portrayal of people or objects. Up to now, there has been little research into the individuals and artefacts featured in their paintings. This exhibition tells both the art-historical story, and that of the people and objects portrayed:
Meet Jupuallo, for instance, whom Nolde painted. Ada, Nolde’s wife, chose Jupuallo and another young man, to work for the couple during their stay in Papua New Guinea. According to Ada and Emil Nolde's recollections, Jupuallo communicated with them in pidgin German (‘Unserdeutsch’), was ‘taken out of the bush’ to serve as a German soldier, and became a domestic servant when he proved unfit for military life. Or meet Sam, Milli/Milly and Nelly of whom we know only their first names. These Black women and men worked as nude life models for Kirchner, who created scenes of the ‘other’ in his studio using furniture, sculptures and fabrics he had designed to mimic art from non-European regions. Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism places these and countless other stories in the spotlight.
In addition to paintings, drawings and sculptures by Kirchner and Nolde, the exhibition displays photographs, posters, books, documentary material from the period between around 1908 and 1918, and many works by non-European artists. The Expressionists were fascinated by the aesthetic features of art from regions in Africa and Oceania, but paid little attention to the objects’ cultural background and significance. These pieces, from the collections of institutions including the National Museum of World Cultures and Wereldmuseum, Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin and Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, feature prominently in the exhibition. Among the artefacts are a figure with child from Congo, a Tatanua mask from New Ireland and an Uli figure from Papua New Guinea from Nolde's personal collection.
Beatrice van Borman, curator Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: “This exhibition would not have been possible without the collaboration of a great many external experts. In addition to a permanent advisory group consisting mainly of anthropologists and cultural historians, we also sought the advice of historians, musicologists, linguists and artists from various parts of the world. Their input allowed us to stage a layered and polyphonic exhibition, which is not told purely from an art-historical perspective. As far as I'm concerned, this is the format of the future!”
Rein Wolfs, Director Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: “History is constantly in flux because of the way we view it. In recent years, institutions around the world have been decolonising. The Stedelijk also looks at the past from a broad perspective, and examines the impact of colonialism on the present. In this exhibition we look at two great pioneers from the last century. We provide visitors with the tools to see their work from different angles and draw their own conclusions.”
Architect Afaina de Jong is developing an exhibition design tailored to the exhibition. The rooms will be transformed into a series of different colour worlds, which encourages the visitor to look at the works from unexpected angles. The design also includes videos in which a variety of experts including artist Enotie Ogbebor, anthropologist Andi Zimmerman and sociologist Natasha Kelly reflect on the works of Kirchner and Nolde from a contemporary perspective.
A varied events programme gives visitors a chance to dive deeper into the themes raised by the exhibition. For visitors wishing to prepare for their visit, there is a short lecture at the weekend with an introduction to Kirchner and Nolde, which also touches on the development of Expressionism in the context of colonialism. The audio tour homes in on the stories of the people portrayed in the works of Kirchner and Nolde, and the documentary material. A series of online talks invites a variety of experts, including cultural journalist and writer Wieteke van Zeil and Stedelijk Museum head of research and artist Charl Landvreugd, to discuss complex social issues and address the impact of the past on the present.
Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication that unpicks the historical background and cultural setting of the work of these two Expressionist artists. The book contains texts by historians, anthropologists, art historians and other experts, who elucidate a range of issues and topics highlighted in the exhibition. The book is created in collaboration between the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Brücke-Museum Berlin, publisher Hirmer Verlag and publisher W Books. 256 pages, published in four languages (Danish, English, German, Dutch). Available in the Stedelijk Museum shop for 29.50 euros.
The exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism is generously supported by Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne. The exhibition is organized by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in collaboration with the Statens Musuem for Kunst, National Gallery of Denmark and with cooperation from the Brücke-Museum, Berlin. The exhibition is curated by Beatrice von Bormann (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) and Dorthe Aegesen (Statens Museum for Kunst).