Visions in floods of full colour

26th January 2008 at 00:00

Although a major figure in 20th century German art and one of the greatest visionary artists of his age, paradox seems to have been an unavoidable part of Emil Nolde's career.

Feted by the modernists for his near-abstract and sometimes riskily executed floods of paint, Nolde's choice of subjects and media, as ca n be seen by the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, remained deeply conservative. Collage, photomontage and constructivist techniques were as unattractive to him as modern technology.

An ecstatic celebrant of his Teutonic origins in the sea-faring volk of the North Schleswig region, he was, perhaps inevitably, sympathetic to the ideology of the Nazi party which he joined in l934. But his abbreviated forms, saturated colours and recurrently Christian themes were anathema to the frigidly academic, usually neo-classicising tastes of Goebbels and the Ministry of Culture and consequently he was branded a degenerate artist and forbidden to paint.

The so-called unpainted pictures, originally done in watercolour and in the relative safety of an isolated house with uninterrupted views, betray no diminution in Nolde's creative powers. The water colour and oil versions of the very placid "Bright Sea", both painted in the 1940s, undoubtedly reveal a more benign nature than the engulfing turbulence of the 1913 "The Sea" but all are reflections of the pantheism epitomised in "The Great Gardener".

Having attained the expression of his mystical vision, Nolde's subjects and style changed so little that this exhibition (the most comprehensive to date in Britain despite the near-absence of printmaking, a medium in which he excelled) appropriately settles for a thematic rather than chronolgical arrangement. This not only clarifies Nolde's use of the grotesque and his interest in non-European art but concentrates the impact of persistent themes, such as luminous flowers or frenzied dancers; both achieving their intoxicating effects through a near autonomous use of paint as much as the things represented. They are an experience not to be missed Until February 25. For information on related workshops, telephone 0171 522 7855

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