The museum's famous work is beloved locally. But recent revelations about the painter cast it in a sinister light.
What do you do when you discover a popular masterpiece in your museum was created by a fanatical Nazi?
That’s the predicament facing leaders at the Columbus Museum of Art since they learned in April that German impressionist Emil Nolde was not persecuted by the Nazis, as he claimed after World War II, but actually was an anti-Semitic Nazi supporter.
“A lot of people rewrote their history after the war,” says Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the museum. “Nolde did that, saying how aggrieved he was because of the Nazis. That was the personal story he put forward. But now we know he continued to have Nazi sympathies for the rest of his life.”
Nolde’s “Sunflowers in the Windstorm,” painted in 1943, is one of the gems of the museum. It was acquired in 1991 among 78 impressionist and post-impressionist works donated by Howard and Babette Sirak, hailed as the museum’s first major collection of importance. In an October 1991 article about the Sirak Collection’s public unveiling, Columbus Monthly pointed to “Sunflowers” as one of the standouts.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“It was one of the great masterpieces in their collection,” Maciejunes says. The couple didn’t know that although the Nazis publicly ridiculed his art as degenerate, Nolde was a loyal party member. The story of his persecution by the Nazis was widely believed, and the painting came to represent strength in times of trouble. It’s so beloved locally that at least one couple got engaged in front of it, a group based a Downtown mural on it, and students from Columbus College of Art & Design created a set of hats using the painting as inspiration in 1999.
Nolde’s secrets began surfacing after the foundation that manages his archives opened them to independent experts in 2013. Three years later the foundation admitted that his past had been whitewashed. In April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel removed two Nolde paintings from her office after a prominent art historian questioned their suitability in a government building.
But Maciejunes doesn’t believe CMA should part with its Nolde. Instead, she plans to have labels added near the painting to explain the artist’s newly revealed past. “Rather than keeping it in the dark, I’d rather have it up and have people talk about how they feel about it,” she says.
Maciejunes is also considering moving the painting to a new gallery called the Center for Art and Social Engagement, which emphasizes the isolation and connectivity of human beings.
Art historian Melanie Corn, president of CCAD, believes adding context to the painting’s labels is the right approach. “Like CCAD, the museum is an educational institution, and we want to help folks engage in critical viewing and critical thinking and have those difficult conversations about artists and artwork,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we should excuse the behavior, but eradicating the work isn’t helping us have the conversation.”
Plenty of other artists have questionable pasts, Corn says. “Just as an example, I doubt that Pablo Picasso would survive the #MeToo era. But if we completely extract all male artists who are known to have behaved in inappropriate, sexist ways, we’d be wiping out much of what’s hanging in our museums.”
She believes the artist’s work opens the door to conversations about how one’s conduct and attitude, as well as the social norms of the times, influence art.
“I wouldn’t love hanging out with Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso, but I recognize their importance as artists and appreciate the work they produced without excusing their behavior,” she says. (Both men were womanizers, and Picasso, particularly, was known for his emotional abuse of women.)
In the same light, CCAD professors don’t stop film students from watching movies or television shows by discredited stars or producers such as Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, Corn says. “People are complex and can be terrible and brilliant at the same time. But we can look at what this behavior may mean for the films they produced or were in.”
Maciejunes says the dilemma of the Nolde painting is comparable. Knowing what she knows now about the artist makes her think differently about his art. Similarly, her views about Woody Allen movies shifted after accusations surfaced that the famous director had sexually assaulted an adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.
“The information impacts the decisions and choices you might make,” she says. “The Nolde now is a painting that encourages people to grapple with a challenging conversation.”
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