Every serious student of German art recognizes that Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) occupies a pivotal place in the transition from late nineteenth-century naturalism to Expressionism. As the critic Hilton Kramer phrased it, he is the “hinge on which a rich inheritance undergoes a profound metamorphosis into the peculiar stringencies of the modern era.” Some have compared Corinth’s place in German art history to that of Manet in France, others have likened him to Rodin or Van Gogh. Few artists of any nationality traversed a comparable array of styles and epochs. Schooled in the conventional academic manner, he began his career by crafting stereotypical historical pieces and ended by leapfrogging over the budding Expressionists with his own unique brand of expressive realism. His achievement thus encapsulates the entire genesis and triumph of German modernism.
Yet despite the monumental sweep of Corinth’s career and his profound and undeniable influence on his younger colleagues, the artist remains surprisingly little known in the United States. His work was shown here as early as 1937, twelve years after his death, and in 1943 and 1947 the Galerie St. Etienne mounted extensive exhibitions. When, in 1950, the dealer Curt Valentin organized a traveling show that toured the nation, it was hoped that the exhibition would “gain for Corinth his rightful place in our picture of European art.” However, all these laudable efforts failed to produce any lasting resonance. In 1964, upon the opening of a major Corinth retrospective at New York’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, Hilton Kramer could again write, “it is now the hour for his great work to enter into its rightful position in our histories, in our museums, and, above all, in that part of our lives where art . . . really counts.” And again, the promised apotheosis failed to materialize.
There are several reasons why Corinth’s work has never thus far captured the American imagination. The most obvious and frequently cited one is his German background, which in the aftermath of two world wars was repugnant to viewers in a former enemy nation. Still, such prejudices have not prevented numerous Expressionists from gaining a strong following in America’s museums and sales rooms. Corinth’s Germanness is a factor only to the extent that it is inextricably intertwined with his deep roots in a nineteenth-century tradition which, until recently, was thoroughly rejected by most connoiseurs of modernism.
Corinth was a plodding and unlikely artist. His birth, in 1858 in the East Prussian town of Tapiau, was inauspiscious at best. Culture and refinement were unknown concepts in his family, which was dominated by his loutish and at times violent stepbrothers (the artist’s mother, thirteen years older than his father, had brought five adolescent sons to the marriage). An indifferent student, Corinth first knew happiness when, in 1876, he convinced his father to let him leave highschool for the Königsberg Art Academy. Here he began some eleven years of artistic training, tracing a checkered path from Königsberg to Munich to Antwerp to Paris and back again, finally, to Munich and Königsberg. At the Académie Julian in Paris, facing nationalistic hostility from his French competitors, he was granted admission to the prestigious Salon, but denied the “honorable mention” he so dearly coveted. Over the ensuing years, he gathered a small share of favorable reviews and awards (even, in 1890, an “honorable mention” in Paris), but he lived off the income from his family’s property; only in 1895, at the age of thirty-eight, did he sell his first painting.
Though Corinth, like many artists of his time, eventually came to earn a good living from his portraits, and his oeuvre included a broad range of subjects, from landscapes, nudes and still lifes to genre pieces, his schooling and subsequent professional experiences taught him to expect the most accolades for elaborate figural compositions depicting traditional religious, historical and literary themes. It was with such works that he gradually made his reputation, first in Munich and then in Berlin, where he moved in 1901 to seek his fortune with the recently founded Secession. Firmly rooted in the academic naturalism that constituted the core of Corinth’s lengthy training, these paintings had a blowsy sensuality and a contemporary immediacy that some critics found disrespectful to the loftiness of their ostensible themes. Corinth’s increasingly vigorous impasto--influenced by French Impressionism--equally placed him within the ranks of the current avant-garde, to the occasional disgruntlement of more conservative forces.
Corinth believed that historical and literary subjects had meaning only insofar as they reflected upon real life, and, conversely, that the mysteries of life could be explained and understood through the repetition of these age-old stories. This personalized approach was greatly enhanced following the artist’s 1903 marriage to one of his students, the painter Charlotte Berend. Berend proved a willing model, eager to assume whatever guise--nymph, costumed seductress, or simply wife--her husband’s whim commanded. The sometimes irritating bravado of Corinth’s work from this period (he liked to depict himself in armor, as conquering hero, or as a paunchy and bleary-eyed bacchannt, lording it over the nubile Charlotte) denotes not only the artist's happy homelife, but his very real triumph over the German art scene. In addition to teaching, the scope of his activities had expanded to include stage design and book illustration. By 1910, he himself had authored no fewer than three volumes: a teaching manual, a biography of the artist Waler Leistikow, and a fictionalized autobiography. A member of the Secession’s executive committee since 1902, he was named its president in 1910.
This seemingly idyllic existence was irrevocably shattered when, in December 1911, Corinth suffered a stroke. Though he made a good recovery, he remained physically weakened and, more important, emotionally scarred by his brush with death. His enemies within the Berlin art world spread vicious rumors about the degree of his incapacitation, and in late 1912 he voluntarily relinquished the presidency of the Secession. His lovely wife, then just thirty-two, began for the first time to feel the difference in their ages, and his portraits of her diminished both in frequency and in intimacy. However, whatever this branch of Corinth’s repertory lost was more than compensated for by the energy he thrust into his self-portraits, still lifes, and, especially, into the landscapes that he painted on the Walchensee (where, after a vacation visit in 1918, the family built a house). His brushwork, freed at last from the optical schema of Impressionism, achieved an emotional frenzy that accurately reflected the artist’s ruminations on death and decay. These last works overpowered in strength and eventually number (more than half the artist’s oeuvre postdates the stroke) the more ambitious figural pieces of Corinth’s heyday. Indeed, the brooding melancholy of the late period--heightened by the artist’s despair over Germany’s defeat in World War I--represented the flip side of his prior ebullience. And though Corinth himself, fighting to reaffirm the validity of his earlier career in the face of approaching senescence, disavowed the innovations of the rising Expressionist generation, in a very real sense he matched their angst-laden probings step for step. When he died in 1925, he was widely hailed as one of the major figures of his age, and virtually every German city held a commemorative exhibition.
Perhaps only today can the full significance of Corinth’s accomplishments be properly appreciated in the United States. Not only have the recent Neo-Expressionists taken his legacy to heart, but revisionist scholars now readily acknowledge the substantial contributions of nineteenth-century academicism to the modernist tradition. What seems contradictory within Corinth’s career--simply because it is the career of a single man--is in fact mirrored in the history of modern art as a whole.