During a trip last week to Frankfurt for the opening of The Divine Comedy curated by Simon Njami at the MMK, I went to see the Emil Nolde retrospective exhibition at the Städel Museum. Earlier in the day I spent a very intense morning with the curator of African Collections at the Frankfurt Weltkulturen Museum, Dr. Yvette Mutumba, looking at their current show. I want to write about this show and museum later, but to say that it is a highly self critical and reflexive institution, that questions its legacy, histories and processes as a holder of difficult and problematic ethnograpic objects, material culture and images. Njami’s show, and the morning with Dr. Mutumba brought into sharp focus a number of questions and thoughts about the ethics of representation.
I entered the Nolde show and the first room was titled Das Fremde im Blick. Naturbetrachtung und Fantasie (The Foreign in View: Nature and Fantasy) and included works made during and after his participation in an official ‘expedition’ in 1914 to Neu Guinea, the first territory of the German Colonial Empire. So the obvious observations can be made about his depiction of ideal natural beauty and his exotification of the ‘noble savage’ etc. ad nauseum. But I was struck looking at some of these images, about how he misused dead dirty brown paint to stand in for black skin – the surfaces dull and sucking the light and life from things around them. He felt nothing for these people.
In contrast, and especially evident in his paintings of white women and little girls, the skin color sings, applied in breathtaking virtuosity: blues and greens on the face of a shadow dappled beauty. Bright pinks suggestively following the contours of a pre-pubescent girl bathing in the ocean. Reds, purples, oranges – these paintings are dripping sex.
In Raving Woman, 1919, a ginger haired, yellow bodied woman is sprawled in a zig zag across the surface of the painting. Her body is painted in undefined, broad, even violent brush strokes, whilst her mouth, and visible cleavage sensitively suggest the female sex. Leering, red-faced John’s cheer on from the sidelines, whilst the bucking woman is mounted (raped) by a brown figure, animalistic and dripping blood from his mouth. It is a troubling work. For the violences it represents and misrepresents. For the casualness in which it exists in a polite exhibition in a polite museum. I stand in front of the painting and stare at it for longer than usual. I become aware of the pensioners that swarm around me. Most of the old white ladies notice it, and either snorts or laugh and moves on.
The painting continues to commit its violence unchallenged and unhindered. It brings its early 20th century racism and sexism and misogyny and hatred and violence with it into the present. To use Benjamin’s notion, it telescopes the past into the now.
Can we look and understand this work only contextually? How do we challenge the museum to be critically engaged with the loot stored in its bowels? I am bothered, and slightly excited as I leave the rooms with its Expressionist shit splattered everywhere.
As I wander back, to leave, I notice all the naked women in every room. My eye has been sharpened, and I seek them all out. I decide to walk through every room in the museum and take a picture of every naked woman that I see. I understand that this is also a form or representation. I also crop and select, and I understand this also represents a violence. I have curated these images in a different sequence than how I encountered it. In some cases the difficulty of these images is heightened by what is hanging next to it. This I have omitted in most cases. But here they are.
To further complicate things, I notice images and paintings of men that I am attracted to. I take pictures of them too. I think about desire. I think about the subaltern. I think about sex.
* I have to thank Andrew Gilbert for piquing my interest in Emil Nolde. It made me enter the Städel, and drove me through its rooms. I also want to mention that I was eventually clumsily followed by a stern looking woman with a clipboard. But perhaps I was just paranoid and she had business to do in all the sections of the museum. All pictures taken with an iPhone.