Corinth, Lovis: Last Self-Portrait (1925)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Late-Romantic artists put their symptoms into their works. Smetana imitated the noise of his tinnitus in his string quartet From My Life. Mahler gave the opening theme of his Ninth Symphony the rhythm of his dicky heartbeat. Eliot structured The Waste Land like a nervous breakdown (he'd just had one).Munch introduced the obstructive "floaters" he saw, especially a large, bird-shaped speck, to the surface of his canvases.

Of course this is a dodgy emphasis. It sounds too much like the kind of criticism that once saw all advanced art as a symptom of deep sickness. There was the book Entartung (Degeneration) written by the Jewish journalist Max Nordau in 1892, which presented the work of Baudelaire, Ibsen, Wagner and the Impressionists as the effects of mania, phobia, hysteria, neurasthenia, echolalia, and sundry other pathologies.

The ideas were taken up by the Nazis, leading to their famous 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition of "degenerate" modern art, and the too-often quoted words of Hitler, "in the name of the German people, I want to forbid these unfortunates, who quite obviously suffer from an eye disease, from foist these products of their misinterpretations upon the age in which we live".

There are relevant points to make. The pseudo-scientific idea of "degeneration" is complete rubbish. Some 19th-century artists quite liked adopting a posture of sickness or madness, so they were partly asking for it. Many works of art of any period are affected by states thatmay be called pathological, just as they are affected by numerous other involuntary factors. Artworks do not come out of thin air. Artists have minds, bodies, cultures, which to an extent they can't do anything about. Get over it.

There are also works that deliberately imitate symptoms that the artist has first-hand knowledge of, and make something out of them - like in their different ways those works of Smetana, Mahler, Munch and Eliot. But the distinction is not always clear.

Look at Lovis Corinth. Painters don't only have eyesight that can go wrong. They have hands too. And in 1911, in his early fifties, Corinth had a stroke. He recovered from it, and lived almost another 15 years. But his work never forgot it. After that, his painting has the shakes.

In his later work, Corinth paints in a juddery, fractured way, as with a hand that can't quite determine where its brush-strokes will land or what shape they'll be. But what's the term, exactly? Corinth suffers from shakiness? He fakes shakiness? He exaggerates it? He submits to it? He does his best to tame it? It's hard to know how much he's really in control or out of control.

Corinth wasn't the first painter to go that way. Poussin in old age had a very trembly hand. His drawn lines are like a seismograph. His brush strokes are large and imprecise. He's doing his best to cope with a disability. Corinth's shakiness is not like that. It fluctuates. Sometimes, in a portrait, his handling steadies up markedly. Elsewhere it freaks out. You might see it as just an expressive or Expressionist style he sometimes adopts. But Corinth himself certainly connected this kind of handi work with the fate of his body.

There's a small etching that tells the story. Death and the Artist is a self-portrait showing the artist at work, in the middle of drawing, looking up for a moment from his sheet to check his likeness, staring hard out towards us, at a mirror in front of him, before going back to add more lines. It's an idea used by Rembrandt. It shows the momentary pause, the tension of intense, short-burst looking, the hand waiting to get to work again. It involves the viewer closely in the making of the image - the image, of course, at which we now happen to be looking.

Except that Death is present too. A skeleton figure stands behind the artist, appearing over his shoulder, and stretching out a bony arm to grip his drawing arm, to joggle it impatiently. "Come on, hurry up, finish up, I haven't got all day, we're going": that's what Death's gesture says, and the artist's face shows a look that answers, cross but resolute, holding its concentration steadily against the interruption and the pressure: "just let me do this, if you'll just hold on for two minutes..." at which point you notice the effect of Death's impatient joggling hand on the artist's drawing arm, and of the artist's attempt to work on in spite of this impediment. All the lines of the etching are scratchy, joggly, shaky. The etching is a style-statement. It is the physical pressure of death, and the resistance to this pressure, that creates the graphic character of the image. It is a lateish work. Two years later, very near the end, there is the Last Self-Portrait.

It shakes all over, and you can interpret these shakes in various ways. The artist's hand can't hold a brush steadily. The artist's eye can't grasp the solid world before him. This way of painting emphasises the decrepitude of the old artist's flesh. It declares the befuddlement of the artist's mind. And all these effects could be perfectly conscious and controlled choices.

But with any picture, and especially a picture like this, talk about control and loss of control misses the point. The process is all reciprocal, reflexive. In the Last Self- Portrait, Corinth is acknowledging and no longer resisting and, all the same, dramatising his debility. The eyes are skew whiff and lose their focus. The mouth can't mouth properly. The highlights glitter all over the place. The face is made of jabs and blotches. The eyebrows fly.

At every point, the picture goes in and out of breakdown. That is its performance. It's about what it is to lose, and what it is to keep, one's grip. It keeps on not quite totally losing it. It holds together by going with the forces of disintegration. It renounces mastery but it doesn't give up on art. Using the momentum of a useless limb, it makes a new wild dance.


Lovis Corinth (1858- 1925) was much improved by catastrophe. He started with mastery. He painted, with conspicuous authority, wild mythologies, characterful portraits, powerful bodies, and daring nudes. He promoted an image of himself as man of social, artistic, and erotic command. His self-portrait as a sexgod, a naked woman pressing her face into his shaggy chest, is one of the extreme points of the self-portrait genre. Then he had a stroke, and his work was shaken. It lost its pride. It went into a choreographed breakdown, a free-fall. The final self-portraits show the greatest transformation. They surrender command, and are utterly in the thick of it.