Emil Nolde

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.  

Entartete Kunst by Chris Hall

Program for the "Degenerate Art" Exhibition in 1937.

The Entartete Kunst exhibition has held between 19 July to 30 November 1937 in Munich, Germany.  It was organized by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, as part of their culture programming.  The exhibit was meant to educate the public as to what kind of art would be approved, or in this case, not approved in Nazi Germany.  Also in Munich, coinciding with Entartete Kunst, was The Great German Art Exhibition.  It was a showcase for art approved by the Reich.

Images from Entartete Kunst.  Click image for more more information.

Of the 5,238 works confiscated from German museums, 650 were selected for the Entartete Kunst exhibit.  The work was specially selected to reflect what the Nazis thought were works demonstrating decadence, weakness of character, mental disease, and racial impurity.  The day before the exhibit opened Hitler delivered a speech where he declared “merciless war” on cultural disintegration.  Over two million people visited Entartete Kunst, an average of 20,000 people a day, making the exhibit the world’s first blockbuster art show.  For whatever its worth, The Great German Art Exhibition proved to be less popular with the public, if attendance is a factor.

Nazi approved art from the Great German Art Exhibition.  Click to enlarge.

112 artists were chosen for Entartete Kunst, including works by Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Emil Nolde.  After the exhibition, more art was confiscated.  Many of these works were sold off to foreign collectors, while as many as 5,000 works of art were burned on 20 March, 1939.  

Nazis burning art and literature.

Kirchner and Nolde by Chris Hall

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as Soldier, 1917

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge).  Kirchner and many of his compatriots sensed the tension in air of pre World War One Germany, and they reflected it in their work.  When war broke out, Kirchner, fearing being drafted into infantry, decided to enlist as an artillery driver.  During the war he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into a hospital.  The post war years were likewise unkind to him, and he became depressed with the growth of Nazism and the condemnation of his work.  639 works of his was confiscated from German museums and galleries.  Many were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 and were subsequently sold off or destroyed.  In 1938 Kirchner shot himself in a cabin outside Davos.  

More work by Kirchner.  Click to enlarge.

Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde, Still Life With Carved Wooden Figure, 1911

Emil Nolde, another Die Brucke painter, had a better fate.  He managed to sit out World War One and his work met with success in the 1920’s.  Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1920, shortly after Hitler.  Despite his support of the party, from 1935 on his work began to be confiscated from German museums, with 1,052 works removed in 1937 alone.  Nolde’s work was featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst exhibit, with 29 pieces, more than any other artist in the show.  In 1941 Nolde was told he was not allowed to paint anymore, even in private.  Despite the order, Nolde continued to paint in private, mostly watercolors on scrap pieces of paper.  He called these works his “Unpainted Pictures.”

More work by Emil Nolde.  Click to enlarge.

I was heavily influenced by both of these artists early on.  I liked their use of color and their championing of subjective expression.  I also empathized with their stories.  In Kirchner’s case, I related to his sensitivity to the environment, and in Nolde’s case, I liked that he felt compelled to paint, despite the risks involved in defying the Nazi government.