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One German Painter's Many Faces

By Margaret Tsuda / November 23, 1992



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.

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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.