EXHIBITIONS: All in the best possible bad taste

Lovis Corinth painted wildly, crudely and badly. Yet, as the Tate's new retrospective shows, that's what makes this unlikely artist unforgettable
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There's a sort of early modern art so bad that it comes out on the other side and begins to look quite interesting. The paintings of Lovis Corinth, now commemorated in the Tate Gallery's major spring exhibition, are of this type. Their coarseness of feeling, egotism and provincial self-satisfaction are a wonder to behold. Corinth blunders into every error of taste one can think of. And yet, behind all the fal- sity and ill manners, something genuine emerges: it's his sheer gusto for pigment allied with disregard for the proprieties. These things make Corinth unforgettable.

He was one of those people who are born to paint, being hopeless at anything else and happy to be driven by an unreasoning desire to cover canvas as quickly as possible. Corinth scarcely finished one picture before he started on the next. He painted thousands of them, often in two or three hours apiece, and the Tate shows only a tiny proportion of his total output. His art is the work of a strong man with a conventional mind. Physically, to judge from photographs and his numerous self-portraits, Corinth was a huge, heavy, jowley person, built like a truck driver or a labourer. People remarked that he reminded them of agricultural life and manners; certainly he did not behave like an aesthete. He liked prosperity too - and was not content to nourish a vision on short commons.

He was in fact the son of a farmer who had a prosperous business as a tanner on the side. The Corinth family homeland was in East Prussia, not far from the old Russian border and also close to the provincial capital of Konisberg. Lovis Corinth was an art student there for four years between 1876-1880, supported by his father. Corinth senior had by then advanced from farmer to bourgeois, and the exhibition opens with his rather proud and loving portrait, quite an achievement for a young man. Other works of the 1880s - when Corinth also studied in Munich and Antwerp - are less convincing.

His ambition was to be a history painter and to produce grand mythological scenes. But you need a clear model for such art and Corinth floundered between the example of Rubens and any number of minor German and Swiss academicians.

Perhaps Corinth was too bull-headed to understand about influence, and he never thought that advanced contemporary art had much to teach him. It is remarkable that he lived in Paris for three years in the mid- 1880s without noticing the impressionist movement. In later years he said that Impressionism was "known only to a few". In fact it had been the dominant tendency for a decade and more. Corinth is said to have been a leader of Impressionism in its German form. The Tate exhibition makes it difficult to accept this theory. Light and air entered his paintings, but that doesn't make him an impressionist. He reminds me not of any French painter so much as his Belgian contemporary Ensor, who scarcely ever left his native Ostend and never visited Paris.

Ensor and Corinth share a florid and flashy manner ultimately derived from Rubens, but I think that Corinth was mostly impressed by Bougeaureau, that king of the Paris salons, reviled from this day to our own as the epitome of icy academicism. Bougeaureau was indeed an awful artist, but he was undeniably a technician. Corinth could not imitate the Frenchman's drawing or his enamelled surfaces, but he did appreciate, and copy, his disposition of naked women. And he was far less coy about sensuality, as perhaps we would expect from an earthy Prussian. Basically academic subjects were therefore made new by a kind of leering attitude, slathering brushstrokes, vile dun-to-yellow colour, bags of nudity and an attitude to the classical ideal that bordered on caricature.

Paintings such as Bacchantes Returning Home, with Bacchanal, the two versions of Salome, the Temptation of St Anthony, all done just before the turn of the century, could never have been painted and exhibited (nor conceived, I think) in London at the same date. Of course they have fin- de-siecle motifs in common with much other European art of the period. But Corinth could not be suave about such matters.

He flung a plethora of vulgarities into his subjects, vulgarities which include borrowings from other artists and a quite crazy personal energy - as though he had been sent beyond taste by something within himself which he could neither understand nor control.

And it's at this point that one begins to suspect that Corinth's "worst" paintings are actually his best. The more he transgresses taste, the more one is struck by his bizarre reinterpretations of the rules of good behaviour within art. He could not redefine those rules. That was for modern artists of greater vision. But he could rail against the old rules, his immense and bovine spirit charging against unmovable precedent, pawing at his models and shouting at his male sitters (for he made quite a lot of money via portraiture), trampling through butchers' shops, meadows and crucifixions.

There's one simple thing wrong with these paintings. They are not big enough. This applies especially to the pictures that I claim are good at being bad. Bacchantes Returning Home ought to be enormous. Then we could really relish its grasp of lubricious nonsense. Only one painting of the nude goes quite enough over the limits. This is Nana of 1911, Corinth's tribute to Zola and deliberately the painting of a fat, ugly woman. Perhaps Corinth's nudes have been a little under-represented in the Tate's version of a show devised by German museums? It may be that his brand of sensuality was too rural for the connoisseurs of Millbank. Here's one contemporary description of the artist at a dignified Berlin occasion:

The rhythm of a polar bear with small red eyes slid over Berlin's parquet floors. He saw a lot of bankers and a lot of bankers' wives, who swayed in front of him in high spirits. It became one of the great delights of the Berlin winter season to watch him dance. At dinners he always had two carafes of wine in front of his plate. If one half closed one's eyes, naked limbs seemed to stir beneath a shaggy pelt. A girl fainted!

Alas, the bear suffered a massive stroke in 1911 and was never the same again. The only truly moving experience of this exhibition is following Corinth's self-portraits from the first room to the last. He painted his own features on his birthday every year, tracing his decline. Some show him with a naked model, others with a glass in one hand and the other on his wife's naked breast. Charlotte Corinth, much younger than her husband, seems to have been a good match. Their daughter Wilhelmine, 97 this year, was in London last week to see her father's retrospective.

After the stroke, Corinth's paintings lost their energy but did not gain in thoughfulness. One picture memorably stamps in fury at the coming helplessness. It's his self-portrait as The Blinded Samson, the last good-bad pictue in the show. The last rooms are sad, and lack the pre-stroke character, but the self-portraits always have something to say. I also like the portrait of the art critic Julius Maier-Graefe, a very superior intellect who saw that the non-intellectual Corith had got something. And, hors catalogue (but listed as no 196) there's a sensitive painting done in the south of France when Corinth was a convalescent. It might have come from another hand and brush altogether. Physical weakness had betrayed Corinth into an imitation of French painting: a nice picture, but still an imitation.

! Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 4 May.

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