Emil Nolde’s Incredible Alchemy of Spirit, Life and Sense


Emil Nolde, “Sonnenblumen” (“Sunflowers”), 1930

Who on earth could see the sunflower’s stigma/stybus (the heart or the head) of bright blue color? Usually it is either browning orange or when seeds ripe, black. But Nolde’s intuition has a surprise for us – it perceives the face of the sunflower’s head encircled by yellow petals as aggressively dense and bright dark-blue. Why? Simultaneously, the discernable patches of the blue in the painting represent the sky as reduced to the background of the sunflowers, not like usual the top of the world patronizing plants and humans. Nolde’s sunflowers are given here in a close-up, as the center of the world, while the sky has lost density of its blue – became pale as if it is dried up of its blue juiciness. May be, the sunflowers have drank the blueness of the sky transforming heaven into a pale echo of their two bright sad eyes?

What two bright sad eyes? May be, it’s possible also to see in Nolde’s painting the red lips – sunflowers’ twisted mouth. But we should not follow American mass culture’s childish route of animated cartoon that sterilizes everything by making it a reflection of simplified plots. We have to forget about the sad eyes, twisted mouth, and nose of the flowers (the face of the bouquet) and return to them not as slaves of our perception. We have to take flowers in all their otherness. We have to let this otherness resonate with our being without using perceptional projections-clichés. Nolde himself leads us by making the centers (the faces) of the sunflowers unrealistically blue and simultaneously by making the patches of the sky very pale as if the sky has lost its density to the intensified blue of the sunflowers’ faces/hearts.

It looks like Nolde in this painting is interested not so much in sunflowers as heliotropic plant but in them as a kind of sky-flowers which through assimilating sky’s blueness and making it even denser – make sky incarnated on earth, make it more of a sky when it becomes part of an earthly flowering – earthly life.

By looking at the two lower sunflowers we see that not only their faces but their necks are also dark blue as if they are growing not from the soil but from the sky, as if they are rooted not in the earth but in the sky. It is as if flowers were alchemically accumulating the energy and the meaning of the sky, not that of the earth and sun. Does it mean that according to Nolde’s intuition, the essence of the sky is itself earthy, from the earth, not in the sky?

Does it mean that earth is the painter of the sky compressing sky’s essence by metaphorizing it (representing it by the means of the earth – incarnation and life)? Earthly life paints the sky with brush of flowers. Then we don’t see the painting – but only the brushes carrying the paint of the sky. So, where is the painting? – It’s the very feeling in Nolde as a demiurgic creator (and in us, viewers of his painting, who through identifying with him identify with creative energies of earthly life adding vitality to the monumental sky), who can participate in the mystery of creation.

Nolde’s sunflowers (especially the upper right one and the one beneath it) enrich our world with their blood-purple coloration. Blood added to the sky (of the flowers) is already not only signifies life of earthly flora but the warm life of fauna. Incarnation of the sky-spirit into the fleshy life of the earth is completed by the effort of a painter as an alchemical creator of the transformation of the spirit into life and sense.


Impressionistic version of Nolde’s painting “Sonnenblumen”

This version of Emil Nolde’s painting doesn’t inspire us like the first version did to make interpretation. Painterly speaking this painting is no less of a virtuoso work. It is full of air and trembling of the living which “infect” us through the magic channel of aesthetic perception. But it is completely “phenomenal”. It doesn’t directly incarnate the essence. In it the essence died in the process of being incarnated, it is transformed into a non-graspable connotation that can be attended only by feeling. This painting doesn’t enrich the alchemical practice of creation while the first one as an intellectual art creates between noumen and phenomenon an additional category of an essential phenomenon – an art between spirit and life: an existential art of earthly meaning, of sky inside the earth, of heaven inside life.