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10 February 2021

How the German painter Lovis Corinth found his many moods reflected in a Bavarian lake

Corinth’s Walchensee paintings proved popular with collectors – but they came at a cost. 

By Michael Prodger

There was nothing half-hearted about either Lovis Corinth or his pictures. Art, he proclaimed, “is an end in itself. It is egotistic like a god, stands there in all its beauty, and allows itself to be worshipped by its true priests.” And there was something of the high priest about Corinth, too: physically large and fleshy, certain in his opinions, bluff in his character. He was a true believer.

Part of his fervency – the absolute need to believe in something and commit himself to it utterly – can be ascribed to insecurity. There was always a contra mundum aspect to Corinth’s personality. He was born in Tapiau, near Königsberg, then in Germany and now part of Kaliningrad province in Russia. He recalled in his autobiography how he consciously lived with both his step-siblings’ antipathy and a sense of inner worthlessness, captured at his first day at school when his fellow students laughed at his East Prussian twang and his inability to pronounce his last name. When he had become a famous artist, he delighted in returning to Königsberg to show that he had amounted to more than them all.

If his rebarbative nature was set early it would emerge later in wholesale dismissals of contemporary art (“I admire the French painting from Watteau to Monet, otherwise there is nothing that can be said to be exceptional”) and unacknowledged self-defensiveness (“The stronger the individuality of an artist, the more he is exposed by the public to misunderstandings”).

[See also: The witty landscapes of Dosso Dossi]

Despite his worldly success, Corinth (1858-1925) was never satisfied. “A constant effort to achieve my goal – I’ve never reached the degree hoped – has exacerbated my life,” he wrote in 1923, “and every job has ended with the depression of having to go on with this life.” Perhaps the sheer volume of his output – some 500 paintings, at least 900 prints and hundreds more drawings and watercolours – was an attempt to find a route that would take him to his goal as well as fight off the depression that at times took on a suicidal tinge. “There is no day in which I have not thought it would be best to separate myself from this life,” he wrote. “For this reason I avoided the possession of any weapon, revolver, or dagger. Nor did I ever own a shaving razor.” For Corinth, art was a literal lifesaver.

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The drive that he found in making pictures took him from Königsberg to Paris, where he trained under the romantic-classicist William-Adolphe Bouguereau; to Munich, where he joined the Secession, an exhibiting society for artists opposed to conservative mores; and then, in 1901, to Berlin, where he started a private studio for female artists. For subjects he took classical and biblical scenes, portraits and especially self-portraits, nudes and still lifes. Little of his work is conventionally beautiful, but it is almost all forceful and hard to turn away from. Over the course of his 50-year career, he painted in a succession of styles: although he remained faithful to the academic tradition of life drawing and careful observation in which he had trained for ten years, he also worked in both impressionist and expressionist manners, with occasional touches of symbolism and mysticism in the mix.

Part of the reason for these shifts was physical. In 1911 Corinth suffered a stroke that resulted in a degree of paralysis on his left side (he was left-handed) and “a monstrous right-hand tremor” (exacerbated by his industrial consumption of red wine and champagne) that “prevent me from doing any calligraphic craftsmanship”. He had to learn to paint again, and the vigorous brushwork he adopted was as much a result of depleted motor skills as a con- scious artistic decision.

[See also: The pared-back landscapes of Anna-Eva Bergman]

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Nowhere was this stylistic boldness more apparent than in his landscapes, and especially those he made at Walchensee, “The Lake of the Volcae”, named after the Celtic tribe that once lived there, around 40 miles south of Munich. In 1918 Corinth’s wife Charlotte Berend, one of his former students and some 20 years his junior, asked for money to build a chalet by the lake shores. It became their retreat and the view from its balcony and terrace would appear again and again in his pictures.

The Walchensee paintings, bright in colour, rapid in handling and humming with emotion, proved popular with collectors. They came at a cost though: for all its Alpine picturesqueness, the lake, said Corinth, was “ominous when the powers of nature are raging… They call it the lake of suicides. Down in the valley stands a small, locked shed in which the victims of the lake are gathered.”

Its darker mood could mix uncomfortably with his own. Charlotte left a chilling description of her husband at those times he intended to paint a night landscape. He would be silent during the day and then become restless as it grew dark. He would refuse food but constantly step outside to scrutinise the view. He would lay out his colours and then, when the time was right, start painting. “Most of the time he needed only 20 minutes, half an hour at the most,” and when he came back inside, he was “bent over and tired. He looked haggard. He stared at me with wide-open eyes. They had a strange and mysterious glow. I could tell that he was still far away.”

Many of the Walchensee landscapes – such as this one, Landscape with Cow of 1920 – are a race against time as Corinth scrambled to capture the light effects and atmosphere of the lake before the weather changed and, with it, the mood. He would lay on paint thickly and scrub away at it, ignoring the niceties of blending or detail and leaving things teetering on the edge of mess. The physical movement of his arm and brush are palpable. At their best, the landscapes have a febrile quality and stand as transcriptions of the painter’s sensations. Here, the intensity of Corinth’s feeling is manifest in the contrast between the serenity of the houses and the alarming tilt of the Walchensee. All the elements of a somewhat twee scene are there, but converted by Corinth’s emotional tautness into something unnerving.

In 1925 Corinth was making plans for his summer trip to the lake, which would follow a tour of the Netherlands to look at the work of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. He never made it back to the Walchensee, catching pneumonia and dying at Zandvoort, on the coast near Haarlem. His death was mourned by his fellow painters, not just as the loss of a significant and singular artist, but because he had long proselytised on behalf of German painting and lectured art students from a “conscious motivation… to bring German art up to the highest level”.

Corinth’s national aspirations weren’t enough for the Nazis, however. In 1937, 12 years after his death, seven of his paintings were singled out in Hitler’s Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition in Munich, and ridiculed for showing “inadequate craftsmanship and artistry”. It was just the sort of review that Corinth, with his deep reverence for artistic tradition and the old masters, would have hated. However, in the midst of the depression of his last years – “Why do I continue to work? Everything is garbage” – it might have been no more than he felt he deserved.

[See also: How Pierre-Jacques Volaire perched his viewers on the rim of Vesuvius]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair