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Sunflowers in the Windstorm

Updated on September 19, 2012

Sunflowers in the Windstorm was painted in 1943, while World War II had taken hold of the majority of the globe. German artist Emil Nolde had been forbidden by the Nazi government to paint at the time he created this work of art. The Nazis believed Nolde’s style of painting was too emotionally expressive and preferred idealized art that promoted party policies, detested Nolde's emotionally expressive style of painting, which they labeled "degenerate." In defiance of the order, Nolde painted in secret anyway. Most often he painted watercolors; only on rare occasions did he dare to paint in oils, for fear that the smell of the pigments might betray him. Sunflowers in the Windstorm is one of just five oil paintings he created in 1943 (CMA Pocketbook Guide).

The subject matter of this painting is three Sunflowers. They are curled over, clearly being blown by a strong wind with a dark, ominous sky as the background. The sunflowers retain their bright yellow color and seem to almost fight back against the wind and the purple/black clouds lurking above. The storm seems to be sweeping heavy clouds in from the sea, as you can see the silhouette of small sailboats in the bottom right corner. My original interpretation of this piece was a sort of irony, juxtaposing sunflowers (which connote brightness, warmth, and happiness) along with a dark, stormy sky, clearly overtaking the flowers.

I believe Nolde’s depiction of the subject matter gives the entire work its meaning. The bright yellow petals are curling and the strong stems of the flowers are clearly swaying in the wind, possibly representing humanity’s struggle to endure oppression. In a more optimistic light, however, one may interpret the sunflowers as being strong and unbending, symbolizing the human spirit in the toughest of times.

Emil Nolde uses formal elements such as line, shape, and color, to convey a sense of hardship and trial. I believe this work is driven mostly by color, with the bright yellow sunflowers in the foreground first catching the viewers’ eye, only to be drawn to the dark purples, blues, and blacks of the stormy background. The shapes of the three sunflowers are somewhat defined, while the clouds are just dark swirls of color approaching a gold sunset.

Upon first viewing this painting at the Columbus Museum of Art, I was immediately struck by it. I stood there awhile pondering its possible meanings and realizing I had never seen anything quite like it. I have seen many painting of flowers, but nothing with this kind of darkness also portrayed in the same work. It was especially shocking with the three sunflowers, which, as I mentioned before, connote things like joy and happiness, being overtaken by a storm overhead. It left me with a slight sense of sadness but also an understanding of the reality of life, that it isn’t all laughter and peace, but that there storms and gales that try to knock us over and take away our joy.

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