The time and place of Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s birth may have been what molded this abstract artist into the internationally known painter after World War II. Nay was born in Berlin, Germany in 1902, and although very little is recorded about his youth, his art education is known to have roots in the Berlin Art Academy. He took classes there from 1925 until 1928, and his instructor there was German Expressionist painter, Karl Hofer. His experiences before, during and after World War II motivated his works and brought him awards for his creativity and talent.
His later years as an artist were influenced by the manner of L’Art Informel, but he was inspired in his early years by artists Henri Matisse, Nicolas Poussin, Caspar David Friedrich and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. In 1931 he was given a scholarship that afforded him a trip to Rome, where he spent 9 months studying at the Villa Massimo. It was during those months in Rome that he began indulging in Surrealism as a way of expressing his ideas on canvas.
A few years later he was recommended by the museum director in Lubeck to receive a work grant to travel and live in Norway. It was 1937 when he arrived on the beautiful Lofoten Islands on the Norwegian archipelago, with rugged coastlines and small fishing villages. The grant that afforded him the trip was provided by artist Edvard Munch. Two separate series of paintings by Nay, capturing the fishermen and the Lofoten region, are called the Fischer- und Lofotenbilder, and they marked a turning point in his growth as an artist. Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler chose that year to ruin Nay’s career.
It actually wasn’t anything personal against Nay; it was against all the modern German artists whom Hitler didn’t approve of. Hitler held an exhibition showing “Degenerate Art”, the works of artists whom he deemed to be a bad influence on art as a whole and the German motherland. Two of Nay’s paintings were included in the exhibition, and from that day on Nay and his fellow modern artists were banned from even buying paints, or painting again. Less than three years later Nay was called into the German army to fight in France, which for him it was actually a lucky break, when he was stationed inside the French borders.
A French sculptor gave use of his studio to Nay, and while Nay was posted in the area there he was able to paint in secret. Once Hitler was defeated and the war was over Nay was free to paint again in Germany. His works from the initial period after the war are paintings called Hekatebildern (1945-1948), Fugale Bilder (1949–51), Rhythmischen Bildern (1951). The latter was made while he was living in Cologne, and it was his first attempt to use colors only as a figurative value and to be completely non-representational.
In 1955 Nay gained international notice in his solo show in New York, which was held at the Kleeman Galleries, and in 1956 at the Venice Biennale. He also participated in the Kassel Documenta art fairs, started by artist Arnold Bode in 1955. It was scheduled approximately to occur every five years, and Nay participated in the first three of the events which were held in 1955, 1959 and 1964. His modern abstract paintings such as Scheibenbilder and Augenbilder earned him recognition for his innovative use of vibrant color and modulation of space. Ernst Nay died in Cologne, Germany in 1968, and his legacy of artwork made him very famous; he has since been one of the main representatives of German art, both in his homeland and around the world.