Wednesday, July 23, 2008

From Left to Right

Critics dissect many artists into almost different people based on “periods.” I know of only one artist differentiated by which hand he painted with—Lovis Corinth. Born July 21, 1858, Corinth painted realist works with an almost sinister Symbolist feel such as Self-Portrait With Skeleton (above, from 1896) up until 1911, the year he suffered a stroke (perhaps hastened by his chronic alcoholism). Left with a partially paralyzed left side, including his painting hand, Corinth learned to paint with his right hand within a year with the love and support of his wife Charlotte Berend, herself an artist and Corinth’s former student. Painting with his naturally dominant left hand, Corinth worked in a mostly realistic style that borrowed from other movements such as Symbolism and Impressionism. Along with his friend, Max Liebermann, Corinth brought some of the first stirrings of Impressionism to Germany. Unlike Liebermann, however, Corinth saw the world in darker tones, recognizing the pain of life he experienced so closely firsthand.

The right-handed, post-stroke Corinth began to paint in a highly Expressionist style. Although almost an entire generation older than most other Expressionist artists in Germany, especially the artists of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke, Corinth felt compelled to play the younger man’s game of angst and outrage. Corinth’s Cain (above, from 1917) strikingly depicts the pain and the defiance of the Biblical character. Painted in the midst of Germany’s involvement in World War I, it may also serve as a symbol of Germany’s own fratricidal guilt in ginning up the war fever that soon consumed all of Europe in the flames. Corinth watched an entire generation of young men, including many of the fine young Expressionist painters, die in the war. Already manic-depressive, Corinth’s natural pessimism grew even deeper during the war years.

Corinth died in 1925 while making a pilgrimage to Holland to see the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals, and many other beloved influences. In that final year, Corinth painted his son in Thomas in Armor (above, from 1925), perhaps a satiric comment on a world that sends young men to battle. Trapped in an ailing body, Corinth turned inward and turned his art upside down, replacing finish with raw emotion. Like his beloved Rembrandt, Corinth painted himself over and over throughout his career, in all kinds of settings and in all moods, from bacchanalian to bleak. Corinth died before the Nazis’ ascension in Germany, so we’ll never know his judgment of them, but we know their judgment of him. When the Nazis wrote up the list of “Degenerate Art,” only those works by Corinth after 1911 were deemed improper, as if the paralysis from his stroke had actually killed the artist rather than freed him in a whole new way.

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