Great Works: Large Poppies, by Emil Nolde

Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren

Flowers can be pugnacious presences. They catch you unawares. They can set the teeth on edge at the breakfast table. If you were to have made such outrageous remarks as these to Claude Monet, he might well have begged to differ. What is more, the notion that flowers might be violent presences seems to be slightly at odds with the idea of garden-making, which is much about the taming and the prettifying of nature by humankind.

Think of Monet again, for example. Monet was in the business of making and organising gardens – think of his great garden at Giverny, for example – and he often seemed to be quite pleased not only to control the way that flowers worked upon us, but then to show us the pleasing fruits of that control in his paintings. He was in the business of engineering very particular aesthetic effects. Flowers often seemed to be dancing to his tune.

Not so Emil Nolde, in a painting which dates from some way through his long career. Nolde had not contrived this garden for painting's sake, he happened upon it as a subject quite by chance. The subject seized hold of him. It led him on to new and ever more colourfully energised imaginative elsewheres. It helped to lever open the doors of perception.

Nolde has often been described as a German Expressionist, and this painting seems to encapsulate, to a degree, the spirit of Expressionism. It possesses an extraordinary subjective vigour, a very particular angle of attack. Unlike Impressionism, Expressionism does not soothe or narcotise us. It does not lull us to sleep. We never coo over it. It is often a brutal wake-up call, a mosquito in the inner ear. This is one of the reasons why Hitler and his nasty bullies didn't like it – or other equally dangerous manifestations of the individual spirit. Subjective violence of this kind was a great threat to National Socialism. At a stroke, it threatened to put paid to their bloody version of harmoniousness. This is why Nolde, in 1941, was charged with degeneracy and forbidden to paint. How did he respond? He began to make very small paintings, in secret, tiny watercolours which he called "unpainted pictures".

In this painting, the flowers seem like they might punch out our eyes. These ranks of poppies, deliciously bloodily smeary, seem to be approaching us, almost increasing in size as they do so, sweeping in from the left in great massings, faces tilted upwards to buttonhole our gaze, like ranks of determined soldiery. They will forever be in movement, we feel. Notice that it is a diagonal movement we are witnessing, and that very trajectory seems to increase and bulk out, the size of the space at which we are looking. To a degree, our sense of being under threat is magnified by the low angle of view.

This is in fact a small garden on an island, but it does not feel small. We have no real notion of its size, although it also feels large because it seems to contain such clamour, such a riot of energy. Its very hectic indefinition causes it to expand in size as we endeavour to make some sense of its shape, its proportions, its features. Surely we are not seeing it in its entirety at all – this is a mere corner, albeit a colourfully noisy one. We can never know for sure. All we experience is some overwhelming sense that it is in the throes of engulfing us.

There are motifs here – a stuttery, ochreous path down the left, for example, or that female form just about rendered in radiant yellows, whites and smearings of pink, which happens to be Nolde's wife – but they are always sketchy ones. They are designed to do little more than prove to us that we are somewhere rather than nowhere. Some painters begin and end with botany. Having lovingly observed, they then strive, just as lovingly, to replicate. The extraordinary intricacies of nature are more than enough for them.

With Emil Nolde, it was quite otherwise: nature seized him by the throat. It was an overwhelmingly radiant and totally unignorable presence. These flowers said to him: this is your subject. It was only much later – at least a decade on from this painting – that he started to take an interest in the wondrous minutiae of botany.

About the artist: Emil Nolde (1867-1956)

Although Emil Nolde learnt much from the masters of Impressionism, and later came to be regarded as an important figure in the German Expressionist movement, he was reluctant to commit himself to groups. His paintings often feel solitary – we find ourselves peering at strange mythological beings of the artist's own invention, whose impulses seem to antedate those of humans. Colours engulfed his palette, so much so that it would be easy to buttonhole him as "rhapsodic".

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor