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Throughout my artistic training, I've known many artists of great importance, with very interested creative processes. Since it is my specialty, my main focus is on painting, especially the painters of the 20th century. This is when art begins to take a new direction towards experimentation, exploring the importance of the creative process and imagination in artists, moving beyond the typical representation of reality. This is why artistic movements and ideas of the 20th century like Abstract Art or Abstractionism, Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, and Orphism, among others, have captured my attention.

In this article I will make a special mention of an artist who has excelled a lot in the period after Second World War, when new forms of abstract art begin: Ernst Wilhelm Nay.


He is a painter of German origin (Born in Berlin on June 11, 1902), son of Johannes Nay, senior civil servant, and Elisabeth Nay. He was greatly influenced by Informalist Art, his first artistic interest in life . He began learning about the trade of books (being an assistant in a bookstore), at the same time that he realized his first works of portraits and autodidactic landscapes. In 1924, he approached Karl Hofer, a German Expressionist painter, and studied under him for four years until 1928.

Over the years, he made several trips between Paris, Norway, Rome, and Berlin, while he dealing with different techniques of painting, such as Oil and Watercolors, mainly. Also, his art underwent many changes from Realism, followed by the semi-abstract works within the series "Hecate" and "Fugale", until he finished with a complete transition to Abstract Art, with a predominance of rhythms of colour, discs, circles, and eyes in his works besides the dynamism, until the end of his life, when his works had a simplification of colours and forms, albeit no less interesting.

He was a man very affected by the First and Second World War, whose father passed away in 1914 and the Nazi movement repudiated all the modern art considered outside the traditional conceptions. In Painting this begins from Impressionism and any later movement is cataloged within the "Degenerate Art", which represented a great difficulty for Nay while working in his native city. That is why he moves to Norway where he installs a workshop and begins his first works in watercolors, with hundreds of drawings representing Norwegian fishermen. And later He would travel to Rome where He was finally able to obtain the artistic freedom that he wanted so badly, entering into abstract art.Being now one of the most recognized artists in his country, he died in Cologne (Germany) in 1968.

Hiking in their creative process

If there is one thing that attracts me to any painted work, beyond the subject it shows or any other aspect of it, it is definitely the Color, more so if it is bright and lively, not strident tones or soft tones. When they harmonize very well between them and are pleasing to the eye instead of being flat or degraded. Color is what moves my sensibility, I enjoy seeing and working with color in my works of drawing and painting. The works with that color that I have described call me when I see them and that is how I stopped to look at Nay's work while reviewing books dedicated to the Art of the 20th Century in the painting workshop. Now we will know a little more about his work, where Color is the main characteristic in his search for the pictorial essence of the work.

  • Landascaping and Portraits:

As is often the case with many artists, he also began his artistic work with landscapes, portraits, animal figures and other elements of the reality that were his first practices, although his true interest in abstract art would be defined over the years. Due to the problems of the First World War, his mother was not entirely convinced that he should devote his life to art, which he was practicing on the sly while working as an assistant in a bookstore to obtain money.

Bildnis Gertrud Sauerbrey Sandweg Landschaft mit Sandbergen
The use of color was quite simple, according to the object or actual person being represented but he also did many drawings and grayscale practices. He even tried to add some abstraction to his works and his most used technique was the Oil on Canvas.

* Animals and Surrealism: In the beginning of 1930, he began to draw figures of animals with some abstraction, influenced by Surrealism (an artistic movement that emerged in the 1920s, which explores the dreams and subconscious of the human being, translating these ideas into a work). At most, Nay's works at this stage had a symbolic meaning by mixing mythical elements with them and using colors that contrasted harmoniously with each other. Their color palette was very limited, having two or three colors, mostly dark tones (red, brown, black) and some light tones (light blue, pink), besides white.

Weiße Kuh Vulkanlibellen Mann und Kuh

* Drawings: As said earlier, in 1935 traveled to Norway and established a workshop near the coasts of the Baltic Sea to witness the work of the sinners who frequented the zone. And they became the main element of his drawings, creating an innumerable amount in just one year, and making use of ink, pencil, and watercolors, that complement his work with Oil. These are non-detailed drawings, which show only the most essential of the form (quick sketches and even show that tendency to the abstraction of figures and forms), the strokes are free and it is possible to observe an exquisite valorization of the line which is a very useful and an exemplary reference for those who focus their practice on drawing.

Fischer und Segelboote am Strand Fischer Segelboote Segelboot am Strand

  • Abstraccionism

From 1937, he made his first steps towards Abstractionism. His freedom was limited, however, because of the financial and psychological pressures that were faced by the artists in that same period of the Second World War. A dark and hostile atmosphere is pervaded Berlin, so Nay had to stay in Norway again, and it was Edward Munch who gave the opportunity, at the request of a friend.

In this stage we can find his works classified in several different series:

*Lofoten: A result of the inspiration gathered in his travels across Oslo and the Lofot Islands north of the Arctic Polar Circle. Although he tried to represent the mountainous and coastal landscapes and the people he saw, he applied a unique technique of abstraction with colors, lines, and semi-abstract forms that are related to reality. His palette of colors was expanded, including colors such as yellow, green, red, sky blue, pink, orange, among others. It was the stage that remarked his talent and sensitivity with the color.

Ausfahrt der Fischer Frau im Sund Frauen am Raffsund Die Sonne

The same work applies with watercolors and gray scales

*Hékate: At the time from 1940 to 1945, Nay was deployed on military service to the South of France, and soon to Great Britain. During a stop at Auray he continued to wear watercolors and drawings. Later in 1942, he met the sculptor Pierre de Térouanne and obtained at his disposal his workshop and some painting materials thanks to which he makes some smaller oil paintings and uses the Gouache (technique similar to Watercolor) for the first time. And in 1943 he made an official trip to Paris, having the opportunity to visit Wassily Kandinsky and it is possible that the painter was an inspiration for Nay, since from that moment he is fully occupied with abstract art.

Before it happened, Nay was affected by the pressure and anguish caused by the post war while looking for the artistic freedom he has longed for. From this began a series called Hekate, which gets its name from the mythological reference and one of the works of this series is called "The Daughter of Hekate".

Tochter der Hekate I Thaïs und Anna

It stands out for the great variety of colors, abstract forms (without contours or limits, it is a color that moves freely through space and with certain musical connotation. You can also see some subtle reference to the human figure, chessboard patterns and other geometric and abstract shapes) and color gradation. The Yellow becomes the most used color until his final works.

In 1946 he attended the first post-war exhibitions at the gallery Günther Franke in Munich and Gerd Rosen in Berlin, several individual exhibitions and he participated in the 1948 Venice Biennale.

Relative to the "Figure", they represent their most important and definitive step to Abstract Art, since it eliminates all reference to reality and is replaced by figures such as triangles, circles and spirals. Another musical connotation is present, by its focus on the leaks transforming and reversing the forms so that it seems fleeting combination, another reason for the name of this serie.


The work above, called Verwandlung (1950), belongs to the Figurale serie. It consists of geometric figures (as triangles) and semi-abstract, containing colors that make harmonious contrasts with each other (we find colors like the yellow one that is most used in his works, blue, red, yellow ocher, brown, gray and White). It has an interesting mixture not only of color, but also of inclined and curved lines, and the impression that the figures and colors form whirlpool in the central left part of the work, as if directed towards that point. All colors are flat.

Figurale - Nausikaa Der Hirte I Der Hirte III

*Rhythms, discs and eyes:
His works from the 50s to 1964 were saturated with rhythms of color through stains, free lines and abstract shapes to which is added the discs and circles that became the central theme of his work.

  Rhythmen Blau und Rot Rot im Zentrum Stellar chromatisch

He have developed a deep interest in circular forms, in his constant attempt to find new ways to approach his art. Here he experiment with more bold and spontaneous brushstrokes and keeps the richness of bright colors, and included a new element in his work that would remain until the end: the eyes.

  Radial Mit grüner Scheibe

During the later stage, from 1965 to 1968, his works underwent a great change. There was the diminution of the palette of colors that keeps the tones bright, clean and flat. There was a synthesis of form that maintained their abstract essence, and thanks to which the color was distributed in an orderly manner by space. He used a vertical format at all times, taking advantage of the white color of the canvas as background to complement it, and it was no longer placed by a paintbrush from a paint cube. He repeats some patterns, but that, and all the elements mentioned, they lend the work an attractiveness beyond its simplicity.

Polychromatisch II Rotfiguration Rot - Grün - Gelb Grün II

Throughout his artistic career he has had the opportunity to participate in various exhibitions such as: the Retrospective exhibition on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary in the Haus am Waldsee de Berlín (1952), individual exhibitions in several German cities, individual exhibition in the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale (1956), He participated in the "German Art of the 20th Century" exposition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1957), had an individual exhibition at the New London Gallery in London (1958) and on the Knoedler Gallery de New York (1961). He is also known to have traveled throughout the United States, visiting New York, Boston and Washington.

In 1962, a great retrospective was held for his sixtieth birthday at the Folkwang Museum in Essen.

Between 1963 and 1968 he attended more solo exhibitions at the Knoedler Gallery in New York, special exhibitions for drawings and watercolors, as well as continuing his travels in the United States and later in Mexico. He  also traveled to Morocco, New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, etc. His last trip was to Berlin for the Uhlmann Exhibition (1968).


In spite of being a painter well recognized and remembered in his country of origin, he is not well known in other territories but it is worth reviewing his work. One of my main interests in the area of painting is Abstraction and that is why Nay is an excellent reference for the same
and also for his treatment of color in different gradations and contrasts, applying rhythms. He was continually experimenting with various pictorial techniques and trying combinations with the objective to find himself as an artist, so he has an extensive portfolio, which is wonderful, and I can see the great enjoyment he had for what he did. He never stopped working on his art despite all the difficulties that presented itself, such as his family's rejection of his artistic career, the contempt of the Nazis for modern art, the pain and suffering caused by the war, and society in general and more. He fought and went ahead, achieving the desired artistic freedom and revolutionizing his painting to the purely abstract. A great example in the artistic growth and worthy to admire as a person for his pronounced efforts.

That is why Ernst Wilhelm Nay is a remarkable artist and their work should be better known in the world, that goes unnoticed among a large number of artists and deserves to be reviewed for all the work done with color and its incredible evolution from the real to the abstract.


Thank you for reading this article and I hope you have learned a lot from this amazing abstract painter! =D



Comeclarity1982 Featured By Owner Mar 6, 2017
Hey, this is very nice. The fact that there aren't many nice people writing nice comments here is really strange to me. The article is a treasure Heart

Still, I couldn't find answer for the question that is bothering me the most now - why (and how) this transition from 'realistic' to 'abstract' happens? I'm sorry if my question is naive - I am an illiterate redneck of sorts :blush: . It always makes me wonder how most people appreciate only 'realistic' art (or rather what they think is 'realistic') and some are able to see deeper than that. How these latter ones are different? What happened to Herr Nay that he gave up classical approach and started create pictures that were appreciated much less then and even persecuted?
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