EXHIBITIONS; Dancing to fascism's tune

Expressionist, Nazi, Dane, German, watercolourist and oil-painter - Emil Nolde managed to be all of these things. But was he also just plain stupid?
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EMIL NOLDE'S paintings, drawings and prints (not quite enough prints, though) fill the lower and upper spaces of the Whitechapel Gallery to rather good effect. It is, however, an effect. Notice, for instance, that the paintings almost always seem better when you look at them from a distance. Then the colours glow and there's a feeling that some potent interior experience has been recorded. Examine the canvases more closely and Nolde's palette turns out to be over-pitched. Furthermore there's something inherently wrong with his handling. Time and again the brushwork goes awry. One keeps finding passages that ought to have been scraped off and reworked.

Such faults are typical of northern Expressionist art. With a bit of goodwill, one doesn't feel censorious. Nolde, though, is so insistent. His art didn't evolve, and reliance on the grotesque became a bad habit. More sophistication would have made him a better artist and perhaps a better man. For instance, he might not have been a Nazi if he had gained a bit more international cleverness. But who can say? Certainly there's over-sophistication in the way the Whitechapel advertises Nolde. He presents "challenges to contemporary taste and values - aesthetic, theoretical and political", we are told. He "crosses bridges" into a modern spirit "where wholeness, touch, construction based on colour, subliminal sexuality and spontaneity, and a gauche way of handling space and the body have been valued". Thus Nolde relates to the Eighties artists Baselitz and Clemente, "who benefited from the end of a division between high and folk art, brought about by the discourses of feminism and post-modernism".

This over-interpretation plays down the simple fact that Nolde was a provincial fascist, proud to be unintellectual and stubbornly opposed to any signs of 20th-century progress. He was born in 1867, the son of a farmer in northern Schleswig-Holstein. This was territory disputed between Germany and Denmark. After 1920 it became Danish, and Nolde was for a time a Danish citizen. But he had always passionately desired to be German. He changed his name from Hansen to Nolde because it sounded less Danish. He was an early member of the local fascist party, among whose aims was the return of North Schleswig to German rule. In 1926 Nolde moved just over the border to Seebull, where he lived for the rest of his life. His house became a museum for the Nolde Foundation, which has collaborated with the present exhibition.

It followed from Nolde's political beliefs that he wished his art to be purely German. However, the instincts that made him a modern artist could not be satisfied by German art alone. Van Gogh was a major influence. So was Courbet. Nolde studied for a while in Paris. An interesting early painting such as Home of 1901 is inescapably Scandinavian rather than Teutonic. It has a chilly wistfulness for a distant place. And the paradox of all Nolde's art is that, however much he talked about German soil and his roots therein, he was at his best when expressing homelessness and the wide tracts of the earth's surface where there is no home and no soil - that is, the sea.

Nolde's landscapes are better than his figure paintings, and his seascapes are better than his landscapes. Of the seascapes, one prefers his watercolours. He was an extremely fine watercolourist, though the exhibition does not quite explain how he came by this excellence. Perhaps it was innate. Anyway, the watercolour medium, by its own nature, corrected his vehement, contradictory application of oil paint. Nolde also got strange and lurid colour effects with watercolour that would have looked too bizarre on canvas. Of the oil seascapes, I commend Tug-Boat on the Elbe and Lake, both of 1910. OK, their titles confirm that neither are precisely seascapes. But their shifting and rolling motions, high horizons and general emptiness all belong to marine painting, a traditional genre with only a minor role in the modern art of Nolde's time.

What was Nolde's own role in modern art? His historical importance lies in his contribution to German Expressionism and his membership of that renowned exhibiting society Die Brucke, with whom he showed in 1906 and 1907. Or so the history books say. But we may also think of him as an artist characteristic of our century: personally gifted, emotional, not too bright when it comes to worldly cultivation, confused by democracy, self-willed and constantly creative, maybe because unfitted to do anything else in life. As we know, 20th-century art is not defined by such people (except in popular mythology); but modern art has allowed them to be themselves, and that is no bad thing. Presumably Nolde did not wish to toil as a farmer, as his 19th-century father had done, however much he extolled such a life.

Nolde also enters the official annals of modernism because he was impressed by primitive art. Such an interest was never purely aesthetic, even in such aesthetes as Matisse and Picasso. It appears that Nolde - who I think could never have comprehended the notion of aestheticism - viewed non- European art in terms of his belief in the separation of race from race. In 1913-14 he travelled, as part of an ethnographic expedition, to Papua New Guinea, which at that period was a German colony. Two results are Young Man from Papua and The Family. By contrast, Gauguin (who was obviously in Nolde's mind) seems as lucid as Ingres. The confusion in these north German paintings of people who lived in the South Seas is, in a dim way, instructive. For is it not the clue to Nolde's character that he was stupid?

Basic, ineradicable stupidity explains not only his Nazism, but also his genuine astonishment when his political masters called his art degenerate and then forbade him to paint. "But I'm a Nazi!" he appealed. This part of the Nolde story is grim. Peter Vergo's catalogue essays assemble most of the available evidence. But his instinct, since he unreservedly admires Nolde's art, is to treat the painter as a misunderstood and vilely treated intellectual. Not so. Among fascism's victims were its own unreasoning adherents.

! Emil Nolde: Whitechapel Gallery, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 25 Feb.