The Presence of Absence in Die Brücke Art Histories.
A Critical Reflection on the exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism
Essay by Lisa Hilli
The Presence of Absence in Die Brücke Art Histories.
A Critical Reflection on the exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism
Essay by Lisa Hilli
Looking twice was something I often found myself doing as an advisor within the development and public presentation of this exhibition. Living in the Oceanic region and in the settler colony of Australia, I had little to no prior knowledge or awareness of expressionist artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. As a descendant of the Tolai (Gunantuna) people who still reside in and around Rabaul, the former non-consensual occupied capital of German New Guinea, I was naive about the significance of these two artists within the Western art history movement of Die Brücke. I don’t view my naivety negatively. If anything, I believe my former ignorance of these two artists esteemed within the eyes of Europe speaks volumes about who these two men painted for, and the positionality of my focus as a Papua New Guinean-Australian artist and scholar with an intersectional lens.
I then look again at Kirchner and Nolde’s work through the eyes of Europeans, both individuals and institutions, who may hold historical or nostalgic attachment. This is where I struggle the most. Kirchner and Nolde’s artworks are unrelatable to me. There’s a disconnection and dis-ease when I look at their paintings. It’s not due to the exhibition’s open intentions in revealing how these artists worked through visual and cultural extraction, courtesy of colonialism, but the result of an unresolved tension in looking at visual interpretations of Europeans looking at my community of Melanesian people. These artists did not paint for Papua New Guinean eyes or applause. I’m not sure that Papua New Guinean people would perceive these artists with the same sense of value that Europeans have, and possibly continue to.
On view at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from September 4 through December 5, 2021, this exhibition examines rather than celebrates two of the most notable expressionist artists of Die Brücke (The Bridge) movement: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. It also signifies a challenging and important shift in approach for a European institution. The curatorial, design, display, and language interventions made among the works enable a retrospective reflection on the colonial, collecting, and art histories of Die Brücke artworks and practices. At the same time, these interventions make visible under-represented voices, bodies, and stories. The exhibition effectively attempts to downgrade two European male artists from a position of authority by priming audiences through the display of one of their paintings in an ethnographic vitrine, without detailing the artist’s name or artwork title (fig.1). While the curatorial intention is bold, it is not meant to replicate the damaging effects that centuries of objectification, categorization, and dehumanization have had on indigenous people and their cultures. The vitrine reduces an esteemed painting to a devalued object, with the optimistic suggestion being to reorder long-clung-to Western art hierarchies. Elsewhere in the exhibition vitrines house predominantly non-European objects or artworks collected during the colonial era, thus embroiling complex and shared histories within the context of expressionist art.
Much consideration, effort, and care has gone into acknowledging the perspectives of those affected by colonialism and implementing various approaches to make the colonial aspect of collection and art histories visible. The Stedelijk Museum engaged advisors from the Oceanic, African, and diaspora communities to support a nuanced recentering of narratives of their colonial experiences historically and in the present. In some cases, descendants connected to individuals identified in colonial images were consulted with and individuals painted or sketched by both Kirchner and Nolde were identified and named. A key tool in the mechanisms of colonialism is concealment, erasure, and omission. In colonies across the globe, conscious and unconscious acts of exploitation, extraction, violence, dominance, and retaliation have been rife in the colonial pursuit of commercial profit, inextricably connected to empire building. The concealment or omission of the dubious provenance of ethnographic objects continues to haunt many museum collections.
In the first room of the exhibition, bronze masks stolen by the British from Benin in 1897 are a reminder of the violent, bloody act of retaliation by the British military against the Kingdom of Benin. Some of these masks “belong” to collections in Berlin and Dresden, exposing interconnections between British, German, and Dutch colonial trade networks inherent to European museum collections.
Artist Enotie Ogbebor’s regal brass sculpture, Global Heritage (2019) is grandiose in scale: the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are two of several global landmarks that adorn its crown (fig. 2). Growing up and continuing to live in Benin City and Lagos, Nigeria, Ogbebor’s contemporary work acknowledges the global influence of these stolen masks within Western art, compounded by dispossession and the ongoing denial of a stolen cultural inheritance. An interview of the artist installed in the gallery highlights this issue:
Imagine if artists or individuals or people in Europe today did not have access to works from the Renaissance or written works by Shakespeare or Dante, or Plato… music by Bach or Handel. If you had no access to all this information, all this creativity from the last 130 years, the European civilization would not be where it is today.
Nineteenth-century archival photographs of people and places in European colonies evidence the harsh reality of colonial exploitation. Being much larger in size, the placement of these photographs within this exhibition aid in decentering the focus of Kirchner and Nolde’s paintings, as well as contrasting the reality of everyday colonialism. For instance, in Nolde’s vibrant painting of a New Guinean family seated on the ground, a woman looks lovingly at an infant in her arms, while her assumed partner stares back at the viewer. On the same wall in the exhibition, directly below is a photograph of two New Guinean men, working in a copra plantation with an imported Asian bullock pulling agricultural machinery (fig. 3). The archival image instils a deeper understanding of how these foreign animals arrived in New Guinea via German colonialism. For me, this experience is heightened by a childhood story my mother often shared with me about how my eldest brother as a toddler would yell “bulla-ma-cow!” whenever he saw these work beasts when we lived in Rabaul during the 1970s. In her reflective review of Regis Stella’s monograph Imagining the Other: Representations of the Papua New Guinean Subject (2007) Michelle Nayahamuni Rooney writes: “Early portrayals of PNG land and people reveal a paradox in the point of view of the outsider. On one hand, white outsiders feared the place and portrayed it as unfamiliar and inhospitable. On the other hand, they were attracted to it and portrayed it as an adventurous place to be explored and exploited.”
Despite the scientifically racist “types” of people that Nolde sketched in New Guinea, the photographs taken in my homeland by his wife Ada are especially poignant for me. Most of Ada’s black and white images capture Papua New Guinean people’s humanity of just being (fig. 4). I wonder if a female with a camera was less of a threat at the time in a German colony? As a fellow female photographic artist, I believe my gender plus lens holds an advantage. These enlarged archival images of sovereign and colonized people are more vulnerable to time than the sculptures, textiles, and painted works in the sense that they will be removed from the walls, possibly disposed of, and carefully selected images will dissolve back into the infinite, less accessible archives.
Significant research and community consultation via advisory working groups undertaken by curator Beatrice von Bormman, has led to rehumanizing images of people painted by Kirchner and Nolde and individuals within colonial photography. These photographed individuals either “performed” at various colonial exhibitions or were shown as part of Human Zoos that took place throughout Europe. An image of Tolai man Pero ToKinkin who traveled to Germany for a colonial exhibition with several others from Raluana and Rabaul is given life, probably for the first time, and humanized by the art institution—itself built on the site of where a Human Zoo was held. This is one of several complex histories that were shared in the exhibition as testament to the negotiating power of indigenous people living and working in the colonies.
The display of objects collected and/or closely linked to colonial networks and institutions, such as the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands, aims to entangle both Kirchner and Nolde’s artworks and practices in a history that in hindsight was disproportionately unequal and racist. Yet by unpacking expressionist painting and the centrality of the German colonies’ influence on it, we can unlearn the imperial, male gaze on ethnographic objects as less than art. Coupled with their appropriations of Asian, African, Melanesian, and Micronesian art, it becomes clear how Kirchner and Nolde eliminated layers of cultural complexity. With works by non-European artists in the exhibition, whose elements are anamorphic, spiritual, cultural, and sometimes whimsical, I am compelled to understand more about them and their society—a curiosity in non-European cultural complexity that is clearly not shared by Kirchner or Nolde, both of whom appropriated indigenous people’s collective and individual intellectual property. Unlike the name taken by the art movement, this was not “bridging worlds” through painting. The exhibition shows that African American Cakewalk performances, then in demand in Berlin, were attended by—and subsequently influenced—Die Brücke artists. The Cakewalk was a competitive, creative, and disguised ridicule of Euro-American slave masters’ ballroom dancing. Born of American colonial plantation history, transported to Europe, the Cakewalk was then adopted and performed by European performers, bridging multiple worlds and experiences communicated through the body.
Museum attempts to account for lack of cultural context are often short didactic texts that follow design and audience engagement conventions. In contrast, in this exhibition at the Stedelijk, voices from relevant and depicted communities share their lived experience on accompanying screens interspersed throughout: for instance, Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang publicly shares a contrary view of tolerated cultural appropriation of Cameroonian material culture within Kirchner’s work. The Tatanua masks from New Ireland in the context of Nolde and Ada’s 1913 travels to New Guinea show creative ingenuity, yet, in my eyes are incomplete: the bodies and names of the makers and those who wear the masks as part of a storytelling dance transforms the wearer into something beyond human. For the viewer, the experience is multisensory, human, and engages the memory. I’m not sure if museums or curators outside the original cultures of these works can achieve a similar experience for their audiences. In 2018 I attended an outdoor cultural performance by the Baining people, who live in the mountainous region of East New Britain. The Baining people are known for their majestic masks, made from all-natural materials and fibers. Some of these gigantic bark cloth masks worn over the head or the entire body, represent a local animal or insect. A separate group of Baining men sang hypnotic songs with unpredictable, unnerving percussive rhythms. Central to this performance was a large raging fire occasionally danced through and violently kicked, sending streaks of red-hot coal embers flying through the dark of the night—a visual and performed metaphor for the fire mountains (volcanoes) of my homelands of Rabaul.
Seeing a Tatanua mask on display in this exhibition, as I’ve seen many other times in countless museums, does nothing to convey the richness and diversity of cultures and people of Papua New Guinea (fig. 5). I no longer want to see the creativity of my tumbuna’s (ancestors) to be used as a crutch to contextualize Western art history implicated by colonialism. A recent exhibition in Venice, Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (2021), uses a similar approach of privileging non-European art or artifacts and occasionally interspersing these with the work of an even greater Western modern artist, Pablo Picasso, reflecting Peggy Guggenheim’s personal curation in her home. I couldn’t help but wonder if the spirits of three wooden carvings from the Sepik in the Peggy Guggenheim collection were tired. Tired of being shown the same way for years, of not being honored the way they were intended. Tumbuna i sanap insait samting lo coffin blo waitman, na mi no harim na pelim ol masalai blo ol tumbuna mekim (I can’t hear or feel the spirit of my ancestor’s creativity when they’re encased in a vitrine). It’s akin to being visually gagged and bound. Materiality collected by Europeans beyond the continental center has simultaneously fetishized “exotic cultural” aesthetic and frozen the view of “other” cultures in perpetuity by literally and visually zooming in on fragmented elements of Papua New Guinean cultures, much like a scientific microscope, through countless exhibitions. Anthropology, ethnology, and museums have much to answer for this hyper focus. A zooming out of a fractured and disproportionate view of Papua New Guinean cultures needs to take place, to show the beauty, complexity, and creativity of the interconnected relationship these ancestral and contemporary objects have with the people, culture, and environments that they came from and were made in. Michelle Nayahamuni Rooney’s reflections on Regis Stella’s monograph emphasizes this: “Indigenous Papua New Guinean self-representations within their oral traditions […] shows how indigenous identities are rooted in and inalienable from land and place. This oral tradition makes indigenous identities and histories vulnerable to domination by outsiders whose written traditions are more likely to retain permanence.”
Of the three iterations of the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition, the Stedelijk Museum has been the only museum to undertake extensive consultation with members from source communities affected by colonialism with a particular focus on German imperialism. This is an overdue and welcome change regarding institutional inclusivity and a move closer to “making space” by decentering dominant cultural art histories so that new and lesser-known cultural narratives can be born. I imagine there would have been risks and challenges to navigate with custodians of Kirchner and Nolde’s work as well as institutional push back and the limitations around “trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools”. This exhibition questions the ethics and application of artists working within the colonial era, whose careers benefited from the violent oppression of indigenous people in German and other European colonies in Africa, Asia, America, and the Pacific regions. It examines European colonialism and is aimed largely at white European audiences, who I hope attend with an openness of heart and mind. If collectors and curators during the colonial era failed to ethically acquire items for museum collections, this exhibition shows colonialism’s relationship to expressionist art history and practices, while simultaneously rumbling with institutional legacies of reluctance and ownership of historical atrocities and immoralities latent in museum collections. Exhibitions like this that make colonial mechanisms transparent reveal how the colonial machine still functions today and encourages us to carefully consider who we celebrate and uphold within art history.
Pulling out difficult pieces of our collective past helps those affected heal, and reconcile intertwined histories and bury them, so that we can all write, speak, sing, perform, and create more just and humanized narratives through art—unhindered by the past. If colonial mechanisms of erasure and omission were used systematically to legitimize empire, the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition holds a mirror up to itself, the institution, and all former European empires by highlighting the presence of absence in colonial, collection, and art histories. Museums hold so much power in cultural narratives, it’s time they used it for good.
 Michelle Nayahamui Rooney, “Imagining the Other: a reflective review”, Devpolicy Blog, November 14, 2016.
 “The world identifies the Baining People through the fire dance, however, there is more to the culture than is commonly known. The Baining People originally occupied the entire Gazelle Peninsula. Through successive Tolai migrations, over the centuries, they have been pushed into the Baining Mountains. The Baining people whose clans include: Uramat, Qaqet, Mali, Kairak and Sibali.” Gideon Kakabin quoted in Facebook post by NGI (New Guinea Islands) Historical Society, January 11, 2016.
 This sentence needs to be expressed in Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin English), a former plantation language developed in German Samoa copra plantations, by Melanesian indentured laborers, carried back as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Pijin in Solomon Islands, and Bislama in Vanuatu. Tok Pisin is one of three national languages in Papua New Guinea.
 Rooney, “Imagining the Other”.
 Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism, Brücke-Museum, Berlin, December 18 – March 20, 2022; Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism Colonialism, September 4 – December 5, 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and Kirchner and Nolde up for discussion, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, April 21 – August 1, 2021.
 Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (New York: Penguin, 2017), 17.