“Masks” by Emil Nolde

Masks by Emil Nolde

~photo courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Where: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.  

“A lot of people look at Masks and are unsettled by what they see,” says Jan Schall, Sanders-Sosland curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson.

Masks was painted in 1911 by well-known German Expressionist Emil Nolde as a reflection of his growing interest in non-Western cultures.  Studying the masks at the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, Nolde was able to capture a variety of cultures all on one canvas – carnival masks in the center and the shrunken head of a Yoruna Indian from Brazil in the lower right, among others.

But in 1937 Germany, paintings like these were labeled “degenerate” by a committee working for Third Reich minister Joseph Goebbels.  Nolde was prohibited from painting further and his artworks were seized by the Nazi party.  Museums were forced to purge these paintings, and some ultimately became part of the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in Munich, which was meant to humiliate the artists whose works were displayed.

But there’s a happy end to this story.  The museum where Masks hung prior to its condemnation – the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany — reconstituted its galleries to their pre-1937 state through the graciousness of museums all over the world for a March 2011 exhibition.  Masks and Schall traveled back to Essen to (re) join the exhibition, too.

See here for more information on the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

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