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October 2002

Nay-Sayers Refuted

Ernst Wilhelm Nay finally comes into his own

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, one of Germany’s foremost 20th-century painters, was born on June 11, 1902. This year, to mark the centenary of his birth, the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung is showing a retrospective of his work from September 27 until November 24.

Nay was a contemporary, or near contemporary, of Emil Nolde (1867–1956), George Grosz (1893–1959), Otto Dix (1891–1969), Oscar Kokoschka (1886–1980) and Max Beckmann (1884–1950), and yet compared to them he remains relatively unknown. Certainly his style of painting is in a class of its own. Maybe he was, as Werner Hoffmann wrote in his book E.W. Nay, simply a “remarkable maverick” or perhaps the destructive forces of National Socialism, which stunted the artistic output of Nay’s generation, have given us no real frame of reference within which to judge his work.

More than 120 of Nay’s works are on display at the Kunsthalle, covering almost every stage of his development as a painter, from the early years following his studies at the Berlin Art Academy to such final pictures as Rotfiguration completed in 1968, the year of his death. Walking through the exhibition a visitor will surely be struck by the fact that, while they are extremely diverse in style, reflecting clearly defined creative phases, his paintings are all united by one common element, namely Nay’s striking use of color. Everywhere bright azures, acrid reds and stinging greens appear to leap off the canvas. In 1937 the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch invited Nay to visit him. After taking up his invitation the young German spent three months on the Lofoten Islands, which inspired him to paint a series of pictures. In Lofotenlandschaft (Tal am Meer mit roter Wolke) the viewer is confronted with a landscape full of violently contrasting shapes and shadows, black rocks, blood-red clouds and shards of green—a powerful image that seems to vibrate from within. Ten years later, having survived not only political defamation at the hands of the Nazis—a number of Nay’s paintings were seized by the regime and shown in Munich at the 1937 exhibition of “degenerate” art—but also active service in France, Nay continued to conceive vivid and arresting pictures. The series Hirten (Shepherds) may betray strong Cubist elements, but Nay’s style is unmistakably his own. Hoffmann writes, “beneath the beauty of the colorful surface of Nay’s pictures there is always something magical and enigmatic that shines through: the glimpse of a darker realm.”

Cubism is not the only artistic movement that the viewer will find reflected in the artist’s oeuvre, for Nay was open to many artistic influences. Elements of Expressionism are exhibited in his early work whereas his later work is marked by abstraction. It is, however, postwar American art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, that many visitors will be reminded of when looking at Nay’s mature work. Indeed the artist had made the acquaintance of Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell and probably seen paintings by Jackson Pollock on his first visit to New York in 1955. But again Nay was always his own man. Gelbzirkel and Gelbecho, for example, both painted in 1961, have the characteristic dark background and luminous foreground of many Nay paintings and reveal the artist’s undiminished appetite for color.

The last years of Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s life were overshadowed by the increasing isolation in which the painter found himself. While art critics rushed to see the new work of his American contemporaries, Nay’s paintings were often slated or simply ignored (Nay did in fact briefly consider moving to the United States, where his work enjoyed critical acclaim). Abstract art as a rejection of prewar values and a symbol of new freedom was perhaps more palatable coming from the New World than from a German artist of the war generation. Yet the final series that includes the paintings Rotfiguration, Blaufiguration and Schwarz-Gelb is as exciting and innovative as anything being produced elsewhere in the late 1960s. An achievement of this exhibition will certainly be to show not only the singularity of Nay’s work but that the evocation of his time through his paintings rings true.

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