Nolde, Emil - by Calvin Seerveld
Emil Nolde: Verlorenes Paradies
by Calvin Seerveld
Emil Nolde’s Verlorenes Paradies oil painting (1921) catches in vivid, sensuous colour the aftermath of the fall into sin by the disobedient action of Eve and Adam.
The yellow, orange-haired Eve stares out at us unseeing, listless and disconsolate. Bearded Adam is grim, faced with the long haul of hard labour ahead of him on a cursed brown earth. The serpent curled around a tree, beady-eyed with fang hanging out, separates the disgruntled pair. A saber-toothed lion presses forward out of the background (left), while a couple of red flowers and trees (right) hint at the garden of Eden left behind. Nolde depicts the rough loneliness and tiresome petulence that are the wages of sin for us elemental, agitated humans, world with an end.
Ten years earlier pietist Nolde (1867-1956), grateful for recovering from a poisoning caused by drinking putrefactive water, had painted a polyptych of nine paintings about the life of Christ (Das Leben Christi,1911-1912). They were a vibrant, idiosyncratic narrative centred around a powerful crucifixion scene where an emaciated Christ draped in a red towel and slashed with streaks of harsh green on his body is indeed horribly dead.
Nolde wanted the polyptych to be hung by the altar in a church, not in an art gallery. But neither church authorities nor the art establishment of the day could stomach the close-up, crowded figures in Nolde’s canvasses awash with affronting colours. Nolde was deeply disappointed at the rejection of his artwork by believers wanting Rafaelan beauty, since his art, attuned to the shocking blessing for the poor in spirit (Matthew 5), was his offering of thanksgiving to God for healing.
This later Paradise Lost artwork strikes me as an earthy testimony to the truth of Genesis 3, shorn of any moralistic sermonizing. Nolde shows how stymied we humans can be, when there comes a beginning self-consciousness of the checkmate – or at least stalemate – our own self-seeking ambition to be like God entails.
The misery of our heavy-handed deeds is so uncouth, helpless, dead-ended. Yet our naked, frustrated human vitality cries out for LIFE instead of wasted boredom. I am grateful for this fleshy, serious call from the Scriptures, while revelling in colour, to know ourselves in our brokenness.
These images are not meant as a pleasant, beautiful passtime, no, I would like so much that they are more, that they will elevate and move, and bestow upon the viewer a full sound of life and human being. Emil Nolde, Mein Leben (Köln: DuMont Buchverlag, 1977), p. 161.
Emil Nolde: Verlorenes Paradies, 1921, oil on linen, 106.5x157 cm, Nolde-Stiftung Seebill, Wvz. Urban 952.
Emil Nolde (7 August 1867 – 13 April 1956) was a German painter and printmaker. He was one of the first Expressionists, a member of Die Brücke, and is considered to be one of the great oil painting and watercolour painters of the 20th century. He is known for his vigorous brushwork and expressive choice of colours. Golden yellows and deep reds appear frequently in his work, giving a luminous quality to otherwise somber tones. His watercolours include vivid, brooding stormscapes and brilliant flower paintings.
Calvin Seerveld is Professor Emeritus in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the author of several influential books, including Rainbows for the Fallen World. www.seerveld.com/tuppence.html