Lovis Corinth, who died in 1925, at sixty-seven, has long been a hazily known figure for the wider museumgoing public in this country. But at least in New York, artists and art writers, in my experience, have kept aware of this German artist’s landscapes and portraits because he had an uncommon feeling for the sensuous properties of the different mediums he took up, and, even more, because there can be a rare jabbing urgency to his touch as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker. In his best pictures, we follow an artist who moved at such apparent breakneck speed to fix in place the feelings that brought him to his subject that his images seem almost literally to tingle and vibrate as we look at them.
But Corinth also holds our attention because there is a gripping biographical component to his work: as he aged, his art became increasingly audacious. A little like Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston at comparable stages in their lives, he evolved in his fifties and sixties into almost a new artist. He became, in fact, the charging, seemingly impulse-driven creator some of us have responded to.
Based in Munich in the 1890s and in Berlin from 1901 on, Corinth all along had the ambition of being a modern-day Rembrandt, Hals, and Rubens rolled into one. Working with a highly accomplished brushy style, he was a perceptive portraitist, and he also made occasional landscapes and city scenes. He was capable of strong and frankly carnal female nudes and, less appealingly, images of full-bodied women in various states of undress that probably seemed obvious even at the time. His greater effort, though, went into frequently large paintings based on stories from the Bible and a range of literary sources, and these works, which might be about the temptation of Saint Anthony or Christ’s deposition from the cross, were also highly eroticized—and rather bombastic.
They are not academic waxworks, though. They are stranger and goofier than that. With his 1909 Homeric Laughter, First Version, for example, where Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and other gods are impersonated by mugging, all-too-contemporary models, or his 1900 Salome, Second Version, where a whorishly luscious and bejeweled Salome examines the freshly chopped-off head of John the Baptist, we are not sure what the artist believes about these raucous burlesques. This keeps them from feeling dated. Yet they aren’t pictures we especially want to return to.
Then in December 1911, at the age of fifty-three, Corinth suffered a stroke that kept him from any work for a while. His left arm and leg never fully recovered, and his right hand—he was right-handed—might thereafter shake uncontrollably. Yet this hand moved quite serviceably when he painted or wrote, and for the remaining fourteen years of his life, at a time when most artists realize that their major discoveries are behind them, Corinth found himself taking up new …