Water, water paints, water edges

Emil Nolde (1867-1956) created around 8000 watercolours. Many of them show the sea and the sky in different weather and light situations. 53 works on this theme are on display in the Museum Kunst der Westk├╝ste until 6 January 2019. And one of them is of special interest to me in this article.

With his atmospherically dense (water) landscapes, William Turner has created something remarkable in this technique, Wassily Kandinsky – to put this together very briefly – even the compositions considered to be the first abstract paintings ever: Sound-full-sounding structures of lines and colored surfaces. And Nolde, who as a trained furniture carver actually comes from the line, is probably somewhere in between. The abundance of his watercolours alone gives him an extraordinary position.

What exactly does “watercolour” mean at Nolde?

In 1953, his second wife reports on her husband’s method of working and mentions tempera colours that he liked to use.[1] Jutta Keddie’s recent text, written from a restorative perspective, also shows that Nolde often combined the highly water-soluble watercolours with other paints: In addition to the more opaque tempera and gouache colours, inks and inks were also included.

If someone now – let’s say essentially with watercolours – paints sea pictures again and again (God knows Nolde has also painted other landscapes, not least countless flower pictures, fantasy creatures or portraits in watercolours) one can expect two things: A variety of variations in the combination of the elements. And manifold variations in the combination of planes and lines. Nolde seems to play through some combination methods.

In many of his leaves the water is structured with horizontal, often energetic lines. This area clearly differs from the “ephemeral” materiality of the air and was probably applied last. In other cases sky and sea – or sea and sky – get a rather uniform coloration. If this is the case, the painter likes to add a dark horizon line to the sheet afterwards – only to invalidate this separation through light reflections or the like.

He usually seems to have done it that way

But not always. At least with regard to the elements themselves, the composition in “Sea with Four Small Steamships” is unbroken: Sea and sky are represented in this late creation from 1946 as if in a single movement. And yet we are presented with a multi-layered space.

There the dark blue or purple clouds of the shadowy steamers spread inexorably into the water-sky continuum colored in delicate yellow and pink tones – and thus give it structure and depth at the same time: the powerful dark cloud balls at the front right of the picture appear closer and more material than the swathes thinning further upwards. The altogether paler, blue-reddish swaths of paint on the left follow this rhythm in an attenuated, yet parallel orientation.

In front of the light background, the darker water edges, some of which lie several times on top of each other and in which the color pigments have condensed, also show to advantage. Especially on the right side, where the three steamers live up to their name, they lend the composition a seemingly light-filled, vibrating voluminosity.

But we zoom out of the picture again, take a step back and set out for new sea images, light impressions, colour explosions. We still have some leaves ahead of us.