22 MARCH 1997, Page 47

Exhibitions 1

Lovis Corinth (Tate Gallery, till 4 May)

A mass of contradictions

Martin Gayford There are artists whose work is not best Shown in a straightforward chronological retrospective'. And, as one walks round the mammoth exhibition currently at the Tate Gallery, it is hard not to think that the German painter Lovis Corinth was one of them. Seldom has Millbank seen such a strange mélange of the good, the vulgar, the opulently run-of-the-mill and the absolute- IY great. It is one of the misfortunes that most of the examples of the last of those appear in the final three or four rooms of Me show, when many visitors' — and crit- ics' — patience will have already been exhausted.

Corinth — pronounced Corint, by the W, ay — was clearly a bewildering, and oewildered, mass of contradictions. His velY name, `Lovis', with its suggestion of `In the Woods near Bemreid, 1892 by Lovis Corinth Merovingian barbarity, hints at the com- plexities of his personality (all the more so since it was his own choice, his parents hav- ing christened him less memorably, Franz Heinrich Louis).

One sees him in the self-portraits of around 1900, a massive man, looking utter- ly lost, gazing into space. In one, repro- duced on the poster and catalogue cover, he encircles a naked model — in fact, his wife Charlotte — in his arms, brushes and palette in either hand. Another, even more extraordinary, the 'Self Portrait with Glass', he is in more extrovert mood — naked to the waist, clad in vaguely Dark Ages hood and robe, his chest a mountain of muscle, blubber and swirling bodily hair. (Through- out his career, self-portraits, of which he painted huge numbers, including one on every birthday to mark the passing of the years, are among the most riveting of his works.) Corinth in person seems to have looked like a throw-back to the heroic ages. The critic Julius Meier-Graefe described him as appearing in the early years of the century like 'Samson, Armin the Liberator, the tamed Hun'.

Meier-Graefe — subject of a magnificent Corinth portrait — got him right as an artist too. 'He appears to reel along, com- bining the valuable and the worthless, Parisian virtuosity, the carnival spirit of Munich, juicy history painting, boisterous genre subjects and, alongside this, an extraordinary emotional and intellectual tenacity. It often appears as if the academic painter is here playing with the formulas, as if the master of the banal were making fun of his own era through exaggerated banality.'

In the end it was that 'emotional and intellectual tenacity' that won through. But for a long time, Corinth's art seems to swing — or reel — between drastically diverse modes and styles. Even in the early phase of his career, before he moved to Berlin in 1901, there are hugely exciting paintings such as the 'Butcher's Shop at Schaftlarn an der Isar' of 1897, with the glistening joints of meat painted in a few swift, juicy strokes of a loaded brush in a way that anticipates Soutine (sadly the even finer 'In the Abattoir' of 1893 is not included in the Tate exhibition).

But in the same years as Corinth painted remarkable self-portraits, and fine pictures in a late 19th-century realist vein, he was also producing garish Victorian crowd- pleasers such as 'Bacchantes Returning Home' (1898), 'Odysseus Fighting with the Beggar', 'Salome' (1899), and the ghastly `Deposition' (1895). In their novelistic treatment of classical and religious themes, and billiard-room sexiness, these are not too far from the kind of painting that in this country we associate with painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, kitschiest of Royal Academicians. Indeed, at one point Corinth was the pupil of Bouguereau, slickest of the Parisian salon-pleasers, and for long a by-word for all that was worst in the academic art swept away by Impres- sionism and Modernism.

The only difference is that Corinth seems wilfully to push these pictures beyond the borders of good taste. The realism so stri- dent, the eroticism so flagrant, the melo drama so coarse that it is almost as if — as Meier-Graefe implied — he was sending up this genre even as he was working in it. Perhaps Corinth's fundamental problem — shared with many painters of that date — lay in not being French. The younger German painter August Macke wrote of Corinth and his contemporaries, that 'In France success stands behind the most dar- ing experiments carried out by younger artists, but then these always venture for- ward with tradition behind them. In Ger- many every venture is a fragmented experiment carried out by a confused per- son who has not mastered the language.'

Certainly, Corinth seems to blunder along, fighting through as a result of sheer emotional urgency. The term 'pioneer of German Impressionism' — the subtitle of the Tate exhibition — is a misnomer. There are paintings by Corinth that could be called 'impressionist' in the loose way that we sometimes talk of Steer or the Newlyn School as 'British Impressionists'. But these works of opulent Edwardian realism are actually among the dullest that Corinth produced. They belong to the peri- od between his marriage to Charlotte Berend in 1903, and the serious stroke he suffered at the end of 1911.

This was probably the period of greatest happiness experienced by Corinth, a man who wrestled daily with deep depression and suicidal impulses. Perhaps that explains the air of placid Edwardian opu- lence that many works of those years have, especially those of Corinth's pretty young wife and infant children. Even then, howev- er, he was capable of paintings of awkward intensity such as the massive, disquietingly fleshy 'Nana, Female Nude' (1911).

But it was that stroke that really stoked up the intensity of Corinth's art. From then on until his death in 1925, his brush seems driven by a blizzard of powerful feeling, the paint settling in dabs, and flurries. The late portraits — 'Georg Brandes', 'Thomas in Armour', and 'Friedrich Ebert', for exam- ple, and again all the self-portraits — are among the most powerful of the century, the sitters at once phantasmagorical, and far more insistently present than before. The landscapes tend to be of a lower emo- tional wattage, but there too a high wind often seems to blow. The dome of the Schloss Freiheit, Berlin, from 1923 rears back at a crazy angle like one of Leon Kos- soff's views of Christchurch, Spitalfields.

He even found ways to turn his salon subject pictures into a variety of visionary allegory. That is true most of all of `Ecce Homo', painted a few months before his death, in which Christ — representing suf- fering humanity — stands between a brutal soldier with a knife and a white-coated Pilate who looks as if he has just emerged blinking and uncertain from a scientific laboratory. The rest of the 20th century indeed turned out like that. But alas, this, Corinth's masterpiece, is not in the Tate show. In fact, the absence of several paint- ings that show Corinth at his greatest, and inclusion of many that do not, is the exhibi- tion's greatest flaw. Even so, for those with the patience and tenacity to winnow it out, there is much magnificent painting here to see.