One German Painter's Many Faces
ALTHOUGH little known in the United States, Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) was one of the best-known German painters of his generation. He was a contemporary with the French Impressionists, and art historians called him a German Impressionist. He retained such Impressionist characteristics as a love of plein-air drawing and painting, a loose, fluid style, and a vivid color sense, all of which are demonstrated in his engaging watercolor of Amsterdam.
However, current critical assessment makes a more precise judgment of his work by pointing out that his was more of an intermediate style between the German Romanticists like Caspar David Friedrich with his lonely, brooding landscapes and the German Expressionists like Emil Nolde with his intense color, deliberately awkward figures, and highly charged emotional and personal statements.
Looking at Corinth's "Amsterdam," we can find both a dark brooding and a personal, almost emotional sense, although we might have a hard time defining the emotion.
German art has never attained the popularity of French and Italian art in this country. This may be partially explained by the fact that, in general, European - and by extension, American - taste in art derives directly from the Greek and Greco-Roman standards of a poised and restful harmony.
The primitive and archaic Germanic art forms of the Middle Ages differ from the forms of classic Greek art in that they contain strong and violent movement. This movement often distorts or obscures the organic form.
"The Flood" was the title of a series of lithographs. To the black drawings reproduced from the stone, Corinth added his dashing, brilliant watercolor by hand. The composition reproduced here, "The Flight Into the Ark," from a distance, looks like a very abstract pattern of amorphous shapes and rushing lines. Viewed up close, the animals flee desperately to the already tilting ark. Only the pair of tigers cut off by the lower edge of the composition maintain the placid two-by-two demeanor we commonly ass ociate with illustrations of that Biblical event. It is as if the artist were saying, "Yes, I know the usual depictions of this episode, but that is not the way I feel it would have been." The birds, giraffes, elephants, and others are in a frenzy to reach the tense, welcoming figures of Noah and his wife who stand behind the only light area of a darkening sky.
It is possible that in 1923, when the "Flood" series was done, the artist, who was affected by pessimism throughout his life, may have felt that a flood was impending which would devastate Germany. Corinth's series on Frederick the Great published a year earlier is interpreted as an expression of disappointment in the Weimar Republic. In the political upheaval that was to come there would be no ark of safety for many.
Lovis Corinth was born and raised in a small farming village in East Prussia. His father was a prosperous tanner and farmer. The rough-and-tumble rural atmosphere remained with Corinth in some of the earthy expressions of his later years.
At 18, he began his formal art training at the academy in Konigsberg. From there he continued at the academy in Munich and did his year of military service before journeying to Paris, the mecca of all artists at that time. His best-known teacher was the very academic salon painter, Adolphe Bouguereau. Corinth learned to paint the human face and form at the Academie Julien. He could have seen the Impressionist group exhibitions and, had he wanted, met the leading French Impressionists.
The young artist decided that he would not return to Germany until he had a painting accepted in the most prestigious exhibition of the time - the Paris Salon. Three years later, his goal accomplished, he departed for a stay in Konigsberg and then moved to Munich where he settled into his first major creative period. He had a wide range of subjects: religious and secular history painting, portraits, genre, landscapes, and still life.
But critical acclaim eluded him until he was 42 years old, when his version of "Salome" was a success at the second annual exhibition of the Berlin Secession, although it had been rejected by the Munich Secession. The Secession, as might be deduced from the name, was a group of progressive artists exploring modes outside the conservative academic canons.
It was the Berlin Secession that gained increasing attention as a vital exhibition ground for the painters who would be recognized as the standard bearers of the various avant garde movements - French Impressionists, Nabi, Cubists, and young German Expressionists.
As was natural, Corinth moved from Munich to the more congenial atmosphere of Berlin where he exhibited regularly and became an important member of the Secession. He received numerous commissions for portraits and founded an art school for young women emphasizing the painting of the human form in portraiture and nudes. A happy marriage resulted with one of his students, Charlotte Berend. Around that time, in addition to painting and teaching, he wrote an artist's manual, a biography of a fellow painter, and a fictionalized autobiography of his own early years. He expanded his creative efforts to book illustrations as well as set designs and costumes for Max Reinhardt's famous theater.
At the height of this success Corinth experienced a severe stroke which he took several months to recover from. He was left with a shaking right hand, but this, which ordinarily would have been a calamity to a painter, only reinforced his determination to maintain his standards of productivity and excellence. His hand steadied as he took hold of his brush, pen, or etching stylus, his concentration heightened and his output was undiminished. In the ensuing 13 years he produced nearly 500 paintings, over 8 00 prints, and dozens of drawings and watercolors.
Many of these print portfolios were commissioned by various Berlin publishing houses. The eight lithographs of the "Flood" were of this nature. During this period, he executed numerous self-portraits in lithograph and etching in which he depicted himself gripped by varying intense emotions which reflect his Angst, his wrestling with mortality.
After his stroke he had written, "My entire life passed before me, a life which in this lonely battle seemed more precious now than when I was young and strong." His family had always been important to him, and he drew strength and comfort from his wife and children. This is reflected in an expressionistic portrait of his daughter, Wilhelmine, as a child in a green dress. He printed a cycle of 14 etchings of his family life; the house where they lived in Berlin and the undistinguished village where they summered were celebrated, drawn directly with great vitality on the etching plate.