press release

The early works by E. W. NAY (1902-1968) betray the influence of expressionism, and more particularly that of Munch and the artists of the "Die Brücke" group; then, in the nineteen-thirties, he developed a very personal idiom in which colour became the chief element in a composition, giving rise to a riot of freely symbolic imaginary shapes; this in turn would lead him, after the First World War, to pure abstraction. His mature works are powerful and dynamic, marked by bold and skilful colour contrasts, whose improvisatory freedom is tempered by a sure sense of balance. He is now thought to rank among the most original artists of the German art scene of the twentieth century. Watercolours and gouaches are as significant a part of E. W. Nay’s oeuvre as his oil paintings, and have a strong identity of their own. His works on paper bear witness to the intensity and the aesthetic conviction with which the artist has for decades explored the effects, nuances and random moods of colour. This exhibition spans thirty years of E. W. Nay’s oeuvre and brings together works in watercolour or gouache seldom, if ever, shown to the public. The selection of works focuses on three decisive periods of Nay’s creative output. In the late nineteen-thirties Nay, who had been labelled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, was invited by Edvard Munch to stay on the Lofoten islands in Norway; there he produced many works on paper that would contribute to build the artist’s own idiomatic universe, a world of metamorphoses and variations. During his Norwegian experience the artist became aware of the “cosmic force in nature”, and became convinced that he would be able to achieve a “total synthesis” of the eternal “play” of antagonistic forces. Nay was conscripted in France during the War, where he produced astonishingly ambiguous watercolours and gouaches. Though at first glance they look like idyllic pastoral scenes, a closer examination reveals horrific details. In the last period of Nay’s oeuvre, from 1965 on, the now internationally-acknowledged artist was able to achieve the “ultimate synthesis” he had aimed for, in his works on paper as well as in other media. Rather than seeking to present an exhaustive retrospective of his oeuvre, this exhibition is designed to show, through a careful selection of the artist’s works, the thread running from the early works, through the war years, to the period of artistic maturity, thus underlining the impressive inner logic of his creative itinerary. This exhibition is the fruit of a collaboration with the Essen Folkwang Museum and the Munich Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, and will feature some 80 works on paper from both public and private German collections. It will be the first exhibition dedicated to this artist in France. On this occasion a catalogue containing colour reproductions of all the exhibited works will be published. In addition to articles from respected art historians looking at Nay’s oeuvre from new angles, the catalogue will include contributions from renowned writers and musicians, contemporaries of the artist, whose writings were of great interest to him. Although these texts have no direct relation to the works shown, they nonetheless form an imaginary library of the artist’s elective affinities, and contribute to shed light both on the cultural context of the time and on the artist’s own poetic universe.


Ernst Wilhelm Nay - Watercolours and gouaches