Emil Nolde, “Crucifixion” 1912. Oil on canvas.

This is an image I often show my students at Cal Baptist when discussing the power of form over content, of abstraction and of symbolism. I first show them an early Renaissance crucifixion scene by Andrea Mantegna – where the whole scene is laid out in strong detail; the city of Jerusalem, the three crosses, and the whole cast of characters in full view. We discuss how our cultural background (both our Western perspective, and our perspective as Christians) informs us of all the meaning of this image. We can tell who Jesus is, who Mary is, the Centurian on the horse, the soldiers casting lots – the list goes on. But then I move on to this image. We don’t have nearly the amount of fine detail. There is no city behind, no angels, no linear or atmospheric perspective. Yet, arguably, this scene is much more potent. Mantegna’s Jesus has the suggestion of death and of blood, but Nolde’s is more explicit. The anguish we see on Nolde’s version of Christ is palpable. The other figures are simplified and  mask like  – I think this actually makes them more relatable as it reminds us of the masks we all wear. We could go on and on discussing how ‘form’ here takes precedent over the ‘content.’ In other words, it is not what Nolde shows, but how he shows it that causes us to react emotionally. On a side note: Emil Nolde was at one point, a Nazi, until the party rallied against Expressionist art, and he found himself as an outsider, unable to create art the only way he knew how. Just goes to show that art with an impact can come from anywhere!


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