A reflection on an Expressionist work by Emil Nolde leads one viewer to speculate on the history of artistic practice and depictions of race.
By Nicholas Whittaker ‘19
Emil Nolde’s painting The Mulatto hangs on the first floor of Harvard Art Museums. From a black wooden frame, she looks out: the mulatto. Or, when I myself look again, I realize: She is not looking back. Her eyes are glued shut, black paint crusting her eyelids together like day-old pus. Her eyes thus plucked out, I am invited – dare I agree? – to gaze on.
I see skin bruised by massive globs and swaths of purple-pink paint. I see lips bright-red, smiling (I think it is a smile); the white teeth are thinly painted over the red smear, so that the red bleeds through the white. It looks like she got in a fight. Her hair crests around her in an afro, the kinks bound back by an aquamarine hair scarf. Around her neck she’s got gold; a necklace, gold balls beaded on red string, a deep blue stone, deep as the ocean, the Atlantic dangling from her neck. Where did Nolde find this Black beauty?
The mulatto is encircled: once by the necklace around her throat, once by the band tight on her forehead, once by the halo of curls on her scalp and once by a great thin gold line, too big to fit in the frame. Four times encircled.
But the lines don’t hold. The circles are broken. There’s a smear of gold from one of her gold beads all the way down her upper chest; the pink of her forehead dashes over the green-blue of her scarf. And her hair is dissolving; its black fibers become, through some weird alchemical crisis, a kind of green vapor as they bleed into the red-gold field behind her.
The mulatto can’t hold herself together; the paint, or the painter, doesn’t let her. There is no fineness in the brush, no dedication to the subject, no desire to bring her together for the viewer. There is only brutality, with a kind of crude beauty: One sees the wide brush stroke that stitches together the mouth; a patch of congealed whipped paint looks like a massive scar on her cheek; the field behind her feels like its hurried brush strokes are holding back a scream.
In this brutality of the brush, Nolde is not alone. One need only look at the rest of the German Expressionist gallery, look at Kirchner and Heckel and Klimt and Munch. We might think of Expressionism as a way of doing violence to the object; that is, unlike Impressionism, which tries to capture the impression of the thing, Expressionism is about tearing apart the impression of the thing. In 1918, Randolph Schwabe wrote that Expressionism is active, where Impressionism is passive. The Expressionists are doing things to their subjects, rather than just (as Impressionism claims to do, if we can truly believe that) letting the thing tell them what to do.
Expressionism is an expression. Of what? Of the artist. This suggests that Expressionism gave up presentative art’s pedantic desire to become what the photograph by now could easily do (capture the object perfectly), and had given up Impressionism’s’ serene bent towards meditation. Expressionism does not seek to represent the world, but “the tension between self and world.” Expressionism is the triumph of the artist over the art.
What, then, is Nolde telling us? What does the mulatto mean to him?
Next to the painting, there is a placard that reads: “Nolde cultivated an interest in non-European peoples and cultures, believing them to possess elemental ‘authentic’ qualities ... he raised objections to colonialism on the basis that it was detrimental to the racial integrity and creative originality of so-called primitive cultures.”
Nolde is a proud racialist. He believes that the races are real, that to have a race is to be different. But he does not believe (or so he would have us think) that this is grounds for hate, or for a racial hierarchy. Rather, he (like W.E.B. Dubois before him) believes that the value of each race lies in its difference. He believes that Black folks are different from white folks, but that this difference is to be celebrated, that it is the specific “creative originality” and “authenticity” of the Black race that ought to be protected. Protected from what? Protected, of course, from violence, from colonization, from destruction; such a thing would deprive the world of Blackness.
Look back at The Mulatto. Look, and see Nolde’s greatest fear. For the mulatto is the doom of race, the end of Blackness (Nolde seems to believe). For the mulatto, and The Mulatto, hold a secret question: Is race real?
For the mulatto is the place where race falls apart, where racial “integrity” becomes meaningless. If “integrity” means honesty, authenticity – but also structural integrity – the ability to hold oneself together, then in Nolde’s eyes the mulatto has neither. The brush literally tears the subject apart, rending the mulatto into copper and pink mist. The circles around her break apart. Nolde is terrified, terrified not only of losing these mysterious “values” he assigns to the Negro but of losing the Negro, of losing race, altogether.
The Mulatto is on the first floor of the gallery, which is reserved for modern and contemporary art. In the floors above, you will not find the anxious brushstrokes of Expressionism. The Mulatto signals a change in artistic practice, one that mirrors and is driven by a deeper shift. It exemplifies a triumph, as I said, of the artist over the art. But here it betrays what I think of as Nolde’s staggering defeat, the sense, one that has been seeping into the bones of the white Western world, that something irreplaceable has been lost. Call it “meaning,” call it “purpose,” call it “God,” give it whatever high-minded philosophical diagnosis you wish. For the mulatto, her closed eyes (now) betraying a kind of smugness, it’s simply this: Blackness can no longer be defined by our masters.
Nicholas Whittaker ‘19 concentrates in philosophy and writes on arts, culture and theory. He is a contributor of opinion pieces, such as this one, to the Harvard Arts Blog.