Laura Gascoigne

Nobody paints the sea like Emil Nolde

Plus: a nautical show in Hastings shines a light on some little seen treasures from the national collection

Nobody paints the sea like Emil Nolde
‘Sea With Two Smoldering Steamboats’ , c.1930, by Emil Nolde
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Hastings Contemporary, until 25 September

Emil Nolde – Anatomy of Light and Water

Bastian Gallery, until 30 June

In April, ten years after opening its gallery on the beach in Hastings, the Jerwood Foundation gifted the building to the local borough council. Thrown in at the deep end without a permanent collection, Hastings Contemporary, as it is now known, has to sink or swim on the strength of its exhibition programme. How to please local audiences while attracting outsiders? For a seaside gallery, nautical themes are an obvious answer: this summer’s offering is Seafaring, a dip into two centuries of maritime art from Théodore Géricault to Cecily Brown.

What’s the worst that can happen? Shipwreck. The show opens with three recent canvases by Brown inspired by romantic paintings of the subject. Landlubbers love a good disaster at sea: when Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819) was shown in London in 1820, 40,000 rubberneckers came to gawp. The Hastings gallery has had to make do with a reproduction of the Louvre’s second most famous painting; in its place we have Turner’s ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman’ (c.1818), commemorating the sinking of the Halsewell in 1786. Panicking passengers throng the heaving deck, but massed humanity was never Turner’s strong point. Géricault took more trouble with his figures, making plaster models of friends such as Delacroix posing as the dead and dying. The example here on loan from a private collection is in some ways more macabre than the painting.

The mood lightens upstairs with vintage ads for transatlantic liners. Towering over us in a 1935 poster by Cassandre, the ‘pacquebot de luxe’ Normandie looks indestructible, though the title of Chris Orr’s spoof of the genre, ‘Small Titanic’ (1933), reminds us that nothing is unsinkable. Wrecks haven’t lost their dramatic appeal, but modern artists paint them on a less epic scale. The three sailors clinging to a capsized lifeboat in Richard Eurich’s ghostly ‘Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship’ (1942) are more believable than Turner’s 50, though not as haunting as Norman Wilkinson’s ‘The Sole Survivor’ (c.1940s), with its bloke in civvies scanning the hazy horizon on a homemade raft with only a corpse for company. It was Wilkinson, a traditional marine painter, who invented dazzle camouflage during the previous war. Edward Wadsworth painted the hulls in dry dock and recorded their appearance in his vorticist engraving ‘Dazzle Ship’ (c.1918) but Wilkinson, who wrote angry letters to the Times about Picasso, was responsible for this very British form of abstraction.

The pleasure of regional themed exhibitions is that they ferret things out of national collections that you never see in London. The Tate owns five paintings by the wonderful Eurich, none – apart from this one – currently on display. Until relatively recently, Eric Ravilious suffered similar neglect. The war ministry turned up its nose at his ingenious lithographs of life aboard a wartime submarine in 1940, but five examples from the series – along with his watercolour ‘Midnight Sun’ (1940) – are highlights of the show.

Ravilious used a minimum of water in his watercolours, applying colour in hatched strokes with a fine dry brush; if you relish your watercolours wet, you’ll lap up Emil Nolde’s seascapes at Bastian Gallery. Nolde grew up on the Danish-German border between the North Sea and the Baltic, but he was in his forties when, in 1910, he experienced a storm on a small fishing trawler that revolutionised his view of the sea. ‘Were a breaking wave to wash me overboard…’ it made him wonder, ‘could I then paint the sea even more powerfully?’

He could hardly have painted it more powerfully than in the 17 watercolours in this show. Nobody paints the sea like Nolde: he makes us aware not just of the vastness of its surface but of the depths beneath. He paints it as a living body of water as old as time, ‘still in its original state, the wind, the sun, indeed the starry sky almost just as it was fifty thousand years ago’. Brown has titled one of her paintings ‘Oinops’ (2016-7) after Homer’s epithet for the sea (see below), but ‘wine-eyed’ applies far better to Nolde’s paintings with their pools of woozy efflorescent colour apparently dredged from an imaginary deep. You could get drunk just drinking in his seas and the bateaux ivres that float on them; Brown’s choppy water, by comparison, is a Jacuzzi.

© Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

The iridescent palette of Nolde’s seascapes recalls ‘The Ancient Mariner’s ‘water like a witch’s oils’, and ‘painted witchcraft’ is how the Nazis described his work in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Coming from a farming community that fervently hoped Hitler would save them from financial ruin, Nolde had joined the Danish Nazi party in 1934 and never came to terms with the National Socialists’ rejection of his work. But we have the Nazis to thank for his extraordinary late watercolours, the fume-free medium to which he was forced to turn in 1941 after they banned him, aged 74, from making art at all.