PRINT May 1986


GERMAN ARTISTS COME FROM a tradition of caution in dealing with color, a tradition in which works are often sketched in before any paint is applied. This method has a long history: during Albrecht Dürer’s second visit to Venice, in 1506, he was told by Italian colleagues that although his engravings and drawings were excellent, his paintings looked “colored in.” What they meant was that he used paint merely to fill in his drawings, and not in the way that Giorgione, Palma Vecchio, and Titian did, as the point of departure. Dürer never adopted the Venetian style, and even in later centuries impasto painting—the use of thick masses of oil paint—directly on a blank surface for the most part remained foreign to German artists. Interestingly, at certain times German and American painting have shown parallels—clearly evident, for example, in the austere stiffness of the paintings of both countries in the ’20s, with the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany and artists like Charles Sheeler in the US.

At the turn of the century, when German painters still sought this kind of control in their use of color, and when academicism still reigned, there appeared Lovis Corinth. Compared with German art up to then, his canvases seem to have been painted by the great paw of a lion. Pigment dominates them to such an extent that it is almost as if he intended to make up for its earlier neglect in German painting. Never before had a German artist worked like Corinth; he seems to have wallowed in the paint. His paintings flicker with gesture, and he loved the thick pulp of oil. Long bands of color alternate with short brushstrokes interrupted by dots and smears. A bright white emerges from dark zones of brown blue, glides into pink, and then over to green. Blending colors on both palette and canvas, Corinth would smudge what appeared to him too detailed with a few loose, wide strokes before ending with a couple of light dabs of the brush. He was fascinated by complex streaks of layered color, which merge together in his paintings, fluctuating haphazardly between ocher and lemon yellow, or between crimson, the bluish brown of caput mortuum, and cobalt blue. This mash of color is the expression of Corinth’s rustic, even earthy sensuousness. His painting can be as muddy as the early spring slush he remembered from the farm where he grew up, and as strong and bright as an East Prussian summer.

The dull color scale of Corinth’s more turbid works was sometimes a source of criticism. His colleagues called him a “Malschwein,” a “painting pig,” a name that many young artists today, sixty years after his death, would bear proudly, like a title. He was continually criticized for his smudging of hues, which was held against him all his life, although it now appears as deliberate as it once looked careless. The Modernity of Corinth’s art was obvious, but he received little recognition for his escape from stylistic closure. Only in recent years has the significance of his painting gradually dawned on the world. His greatness, of course, lies in the very mire of his colors, and in his dynamic compositions.

The son of a farmer and tanner, Corinth was born in 1858, in Tapiau, East Prussia (today a part of the Soviet Union). When he was eight he was sent to live with an aunt in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), where he went to school. At 18, he was accepted by the Königlich Akademie in Königsberg; four years later he moved to Munich, where he spent two more years studying at the academy there before becoming a professional artist. Around 1900 he moved to Berlin, where he met German Impressionists such as Max Liebermann and Walter Leistikow, and founded an art school for women. A year later he married his first pupil, Charlotte Berend, who would become a well-known painter in her own right.

Corinth was elected chairman of the Berliner Sezession in 1911. He was famous by then, though still controversial. In the winter of the same year he suffered a stroke, which left him with a slight disability that made it difficult for him to guide his hand. This only intensified his characteristic painterly gesture, allowing the dramatic script of his work to emerge. It was after 1911 that Corinth really hit his stride. He made no direct break with his earlier painting—everything that was to come is latent in it—but in his effort to overcome the results of his illness, and in his realization that the time left to him might be short, he surpassed himself. He completed the paintings that now receive our greatest acclaim between 1911 and 1925. His most successful works are Ecce Homo, 1925; Susanna und die Geiden Alten (Susanna and the elders, 1923); Der rote Christus (The red Christ, 1922); Reichpräsident Friedrich Ebert, 1924; the numerous landscapes of Bavaria, around the Walchensee lake; and many still lifes of flowers, which disintegrate lavishly into a thousand colors before the viewer’s eye. Corinth often painted portraits, including those of the painter Leonid Pasternak, the art historian Julius Meiergräfe, and many of himself. He worked incessantly, as if trying to add something absolute to his already enormous opus.

Often, paint seems to flow in an upward drift from left to right over Corinth’s paintings, like a broad, foaming current. Amaryllis blossom, the snow-covered Walchensee landscape, the artist’s own image reflected dimly in a mirror—all are washed over by this torrent of pigment. Corinth’s work ostensibly belongs to the school of German Impressionism, and is often discussed along with that of Liebermann, Max Slevogt, Wilhelm Trübner, Fritz von Uhde, and Carl Schuch. But in fact it goes beyond the limits of Impressionism; stylistically it may be Impressionistic, but what it asserts has more to do with Expressionism. It is really between and beyond “schools” of art as often defined in art histories.

There was no thing overtly dramatic about Corinth’s life. He was not forced to emigrate, or to cease painting, as were many artists during the Hitler period, not long after his death. (The Nazis pulled two hundred of his paintings from German museums, and showed seven of them as examples of “degenerate art” in a notorious Munich exhibition in 1937. Interestingly, the works from before 1911 were unaffected by these edicts.) Corinth had achieved recognition by the time he was in his 30s. His portraits of his family describe various sorts of domestic happiness: his wife nursing their baby, the children playing, the whole group lined up to pose together. He enjoyed life, smoked cigars, drank a lot of wine, and often painted himself as Bacchus. What could have caused him, during the triumph of German Impressionism, to stand apart in the way he did?

One possibility may have to do with his psychological makeup, and particularly with the mood that followed his stroke. However, he did not so much change his style after 1911 as develop traits already present in it; he was surely influenced by the events of that year, but he had set the direction of his art before it. Another answer lies in his colors, in his umbers, caput mortuums, ochers, and blacks—the colors of the soil, of his memory Corinth’s works were never elegant. As a young man he painted scenes of local slaughterhouses (probably inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn), and a number of rural burlesques, with satyrs; he painted cows in stalls and at pasture, opulent nudes, friends and family in the rooms of his father’s farmhouse. He never disclaimed his origins in the country, never severed his roots in the East Prussian soil, even while living in cosmopolitan Munich and Berlin. One immediately senses his painting’s connection to the earth. The farmer’s simplicity, the dirt inevitably tracked from yard and stall into the house, the clumps of mud that cling to one’s boots as one walks over the fields—all these became his art. Impressionism is often described as an art of light, but Corinth’s is one of the land. He was not a city painter visiting the country to catch a few fine impressions.

Corinth’s complex relationship to Expressionism, then and now, is another part of the story. It’s true that a distinction must be made between what a painter of a particular time consciously attempts to effect in his or her art and the similarities with it that we find in later styles. Corinth seems to have a proximity to the informel, for example, but he would have seen the abandonment of representation as a definite loss. Yet he was indeed prescient in taking a certain path, which we now identify as Expressionism. Beginning with Oskar Kokoschka and Ludwig Meidner, who are in many ways indebted to him, Corinth’s style has been influential up to the present day—up to the version of expressionism in the work of the neue Wilden in Germany and of others elsewhere. Fifteen years ago, when, for example, my own paintings were criticized as bearing a similarity in brushstroke to Corinth’s, it was not considered a compliment to be compared with him. Today, German painters scurry for such judgments. One can see from a glance at current German neo-Expressionism what makes Corinth so attractive to these artists. It is dirtiness, the dirtiness that Impressionism repressed, and that Corinth was willing to excavate; today’s painters too need to paint dirtiness, whether in Anselm Kiefer’s German-history paintings of mud and straw, or in the messiness of the world around the Berlin painters. His colors dominate the neue Wilden’s palette, and they seem to smear out of principle. Their painting is looking for something in its impression of indistinctness; the sense of foreboding it brings is at least an echo of what resounds through our confused age.

Corinth died after a second stroke, in July of 1925, in Zandvoort, Holland, during a journey he was making to revisit the paintings of Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Klaus Fussmann is an objective painter who lives and works in Berlin, and is a professor at the Hochschule der Künste there.

Translated from the German by Barbara Fussmann.