Description & Technical information

This large watercolour was drawn in New Guinea in the early months of 1914. Nolde and his wife Ada visited the island – the southeastern part of which was, at the time, Germany’s main colonial territory in the Pacific – in 1913-1914 as part of a scientific expedition organized and funded by the German government. Unlike Paul Gauguin in Tahiti before him, or Max Pechstein in Palau at about the same time, Nolde seems not to have gone to German New Guinea with the romantic idea of seeking an alternative way of life, but rather for the purposes of study. As the Nolde scholar Jill Lloyd has written of this period, ‘Like most Expressionists, Nolde displayed a growing interest in the art of non-European cultures during this period...Nolde’s enthusiasm for what he imagined to be the pure and childlike qualities of ‘primitive’ peoples, and his admiration for the expressive vitality of non-European art, reached a peak in 1913 when he decided to join an ethnographic and demographic expedition to German New Guinea. His journey overland through Russia, Manchuria, Korea, Japan, China, Manila and the Palau Islands resulted in a series of lively sketches, depicting the people and situations he encountered. In New Guinea he painted large, luminous watercolours of native heads...’

In a letter sent while on his journey, Nolde wrote, ‘All these countries are so unique, the people, the animals, the plants, everything is so strange, not always beautiful, but always interesting.’ The artist painted only a few oil paintings during this trip, and the bulk of his output was in the form of watercolours and drawings. Many of these were confiscated on his journey back to Germany, when war broke out, and were only recovered by the artist from a warehouse in England in 1921. 

The watercolour portraits and head studies that Nolde produced in New Guinea are invariably frontal images that are direct and reflect the artist’s personal encounter with the subject. Nolde’s autobiographical recollections of his time in New Guinea show how closely he studied the inhabitants, and recorded their appearance: ‘The other natives put white paint onto their foreheads as a sign of mourning. At dances they covered their bodies with light-coloured dots and lines, sometimes also blue. They rubbed lime into their hair to rid it of bugs, which made it a curious brown or rather brownish-red. All that made their appearance even more interesting.’

On his trip to New Guinea, Nolde developed a watercolour technique of translucent layer of colour over outline drawings in pen or brushed ink. The present sheet, previously unpublished, is a particularly fine example of his head studies of native subjects of this period.

As Peter Vergo has written of the artist’s trip to the South Seas, ‘Nolde’s most vivid images brought back from the Pacific remain his figure drawings and watercolours, particularly the powerful series of watercolour heads, both male and (occasionally) female. These, for the most part represented singly, are often shown wearing the characteristic headdresses and ornaments of the New Guinea tribespeople, “as colourful as parakeets, with flowers and brightly coloured feathers in their hair”, according to Ada Nolde’s recollection.’8 Jill Lloyd adds that, ‘The South Seas journey, which terminated with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, was a turning-point in Nolde’s art. Coinciding with the end of the heroic years of first-generation Expressionism, it marked the end of the artist’s engagement with modern, urban subjects. Nolde’s objections to colonialism, which he believed detrimental to the pure racial integrity and creative originality of indigenous peoples, confirmed his mistrust in the progress of modern civilization. From this time Nolde drew inspiration more exclusively from the recurrent cycles of nature, peopling his paintings with primitivist figures from the Bible, from fables, or from the wells of his imagination.’ 

Dr. Manfred Reuther, director of the Stiftung Nolde, has confirmed the authenticity of this hitherto unknown watercolour, which had remained in the same private collection since 1921, only a few years after it was drawn.

Date:  Early months of 1914
Period:  20th century
Origin:  Germany
Medium: Watercolour, Gouache, Brush, Black ink, Rice straw paper
Signature: Signed Nolde. at the lower right.

Dimensions: 52.2 x 37.1 cm (20¹/₂ x 14⁵/₈ inches)
Provenance: Acquired by a private collector in December 1921
Thence by descent until 2015.
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints