As part of the citywide Ring Festival, LACMA is presenting "Myths, Legends, and Cultural Renewal: Wagner's Sources." It's basically the latest rotation of the Robert Gore Rifkind collection of German Expressionism, augmented by some contemporary costumes and an installation by Achim Freyer, designer of the Los Angeles Opera production. Freyer's interpretation of Wagner has been damned for being unserious, disrespectful, populist, and dumbed-down. But in the LACMA show, Freyer is outweirded by a set of 16 shamelessly lowbrow postcards created by Emil Nolde. They raise interesting issues about high v. low art and the commercial value of being grotesque.
Nolde, of course, is one of the great German expressionists. More than that, he's a paradox, the card-carrying Nazi who was damned by his party for creating "Degenerate Art." The postcards date from a much earlier, pre-expressionist phase of Nolde's career (though he was around 30 when he created them). After hiking in the Swiss Alps, Nolde did a painting, Mountain Giants, presenting the mountains in human form. Nolde wrote,
"The picture went to the annual exhibition in Munich in 1896. [Ferdinand] Hodler's picture "Night" [pictured below] which established his fame, was also there. But my "Mountain Giants: was soon returned, rejected… In those days there was a general and stormy derision and ridicule about each of Hodler's pictures. 'And his colors are as ugly as can be possible!' What help was my contradiction and my firm conviction that his sinuous, pushing, wry bodies are part of the character of the mountain folk, just as the firs on the mountain slopes are gnarled and grown oddly."
Nolde went on to monetize "gnarled and grown oddly." Using local folklore of mountains resembling weird faces — and drawing on local traditions of grotesquerie, such as the gnomes featured in garden statuary and beer steins — Nolde created funny pictures of mountains for the magazine Jugend. When they got a good reception, Nolde produced lithograph postcards in editions of 100,000.
In Emile Nolde (1980), Peter Howard Selz wrote of the postcards, "Their crude and simple anti-art quality, which made no demands on intellect or esthetic sensibility, so captured popular taste that the edition was exhausted in ten days, earning Nolde 20,000 Swiss francs. As soon as he could, he gave up his teaching job and left for Munich to become a full-time student of painting."
The tradition of mountains looking like something else is universal. In southern California we have Eagle Rock. Magritte's Domain of Arnheim (existing in several versions, one below) is another take on the "Eagle Rock" theme. It's tempting to say that Nolde's mountains prefigured surrealism. But painters had been playing such games for centuries.
Artists at all levels of seriousness bank on the popularity of the weird (just look at YouTube). What's unusual is Nolde's success in making weird art pay, followed by success as a so-called serious artist. There aren't too many other examples of that. Among the expressionists, Lyonel Feininger did newspaper comics early in his career. In the more specifically grotesque vein, Robert Williams' early rat finks for "Big Daddy" Roth are an example. Then there's R. Crumb, who never set out to be a artist but is now shown in smart museums like the Hammer. Williams and Crumb never strayed too far from unserious grotesquerie. But come to think of it, the iconic mask paintings of Nolde's maturity — a high point of Expressionism — are basically grimacing mountains translated into the idiom of serious art.