Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Once a year, Lovis Corinth took a good look at himself and painted exactly what he saw. Tom Lubbock applauds the bare-faced honesty of an unjustly forgotten German master
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The Independent Culture
In a small late etching you find the artist at work. He's at work on the picture you're now looking at (or will be if you glance at the top of the opposite page). The lines are hesitant, scratchy. He looks up at us - at his mirror - pausing to observe: an old, crumpled, large- eyed face, with a harassed, trying-to-concentrate expression. Then you notice he's not alone. A gaping death stands behind his shoulder, and its skeletal hand grips his elbow, joggling his drawing arm. Seeing that, you find not only fear but tense impatience in his look: just let me finish this.

In 1911, at 53, having established himself as a top Berlin painter, Lovis Corinth suffered a stroke. He survived, but with some paralysis and trembles. This print comes from 10 years later. It's an extraordinary little image, funny and sorry and clever in the way it combines self-portraiture with the Dance of Death, so that death interrupts the very picture in front of us, in mid-stroke; and in the way it makes a story of its own troubled handling, the touch of death on the artist's arm. It's an allegory of time running out, but also of an art that draws a strength from conscious weakness.

With Lovis Corinth, it's right to begin with the end. That's where his strength lies. His best pictures are all from his last five years, the portraits and self-portraits especially. It's hard to think of another fairly long-lived artist - he died in 1925 - of whom this is so clearly true. And if Corinth was properly known, these are the works he'd be best known for. You'd likely know them already, if only from reproductions. You wouldn't need, so long after his death, the Tate Gallery's big "life's work" show as an introduction.

It's an irksome situation. I'm half inclined just to write about the late pictures - or to say, go round the exhibition backwards. That would give the right emphasis, the right introduction to an artist who of course isn't properly known, or much known at all, outside Germany. For with any artist who's any good and unfamed, chronological development isn't the important thing: the important thing is to start with the best, and take it from there.

The cause of Corinth's unfame is partly that he doesn't fit the art history bill. His work falls inconveniently among the usual categories of late 19th / early 20th century art - Impressionism, Realism, Symbolism, Expressionism. Maybe that makes him sound like a single-minded loner. But the real problem is that he's too gregarious. If you do take this show in its intended sequence, from the 1880s onwards, you soon see an artist all over the place: very ambitious and confident of his powers, but very prolific and very eclectic. Style-wise, Corinth was never a vangardist. He had a go at everything that was going. And it's often hard to believe that these paintings, striking individually, are works from the same hand.

So in the first room you find an exciting woody landscape, a vivid blur of chocolate brown, spring green and orange, high-speed impressionism as if from a train. Go to the second room: a mythological subject, done in a sort of painterly caricature, with big feet and girning faces, a hearty joke to be sure, but also just hearty, and it can't be meant to be quite as farcical as it comes out; and a repulsive high-definition deposition - simpering, sexy fin-de-siecle kitsch.

Then in the third you meet a Reclining Nude on a pale blank background, hardly reclining, thrown violently into foreshortened contortions, a very original and abject pose, but with the flesh rendered in neat and even brushstrokes; then a startling contre jour group portrait, its shadowy forms picked out in shimmering lights.

There's no doubt that Corinth could do what he wanted, with paint, and no doubt that he knew it and wanted to do it all. His expressionist manner is sometimes truly brilliant with its skimming translucencies. But altogether the performance becomes an exercise in unresting mastery: super-artist at work. And what a masquerade of over-self-assertiveness you find in his many self-portraits (painted annually on his birthday). Here he is, arrogant and full-length in crusader armour, or close-up with a look of self-importance bordering on outrage, or half-naked, the fat-man as sex- god, the chest- and belly-hair swirling over the great torso like Van Gogh cypresses.

Or there are the self-portraits-with-woman, a Corinth speciality (all featuring Charlotte Berend, his much younger pupil, model and wife). You see him merrily groping her tit, a wine glass raised, or smocked and erect, brushes and palette in hand, with her, nude, paying homage to the breast of the mighty art-master, or again, in smart hat and shirt-front, with her leaning faithfully on his shoulder. What does he want to be? Outsider or insider? Wild-man or culture-hero? Boho sensualist or proud hubby?

He wants to be everything: the complete German artist.

Then the stroke fell; then defeat in the First World War, which Corinth had supported as a big push for German culture - and, over those years, what's been called his "eleventh-hour conversion to modern art", which he had generally opposed. What to make of it? The Nazis, who didn't mind some of the earlier stuff, saw a decline into degeneracy. Some of his younger Expressionist contemporaries saw tardy bandwagon-jumping. As to Corinth's post-stroke disability, there isn't in fact much sign that he lost his touch physically. He can still turn on the old brilliance, and the old heroic arrogance, from time to time. But the touch gradually becomes much freer.

And therefore wilder? You'd get that impression from what's sometimes said. "A charged, violent, emotional style"; "violent and pessimistic ... crude and Expressionistic" (quoted from two general surveys). I don't see that at all, and the judgement seems to follow a simple stereotype. Free brushwork plus German equals violent, agonised, apocalyptic. But there's more than one way to lose self-control. You can lose it for the sake of added self-assertion, to fill the world with your wildness. Or you can lose it to resign mastery, to allow that the self and the world are not there for the grasping. That is Corinth's way in the work from the Twenties: the negative way. If it was mere stylistic opportunism, he found something rare.

Look at the last death-facing self-portraits from 1924 and 1926. They're not heroic, but nor - it would come to the same thing - are they raging or agonised. There are no poses or gestures, either in the figure or in the paint, which goes on in dumb and almost hesitant jabs and blodges. These are Corinth's first truly inquiring pictures. They're self-portraits of someone who isn't sure who he is, admitting a doubt that the earlier ones so insistently denied, who's willing now to present a faintly ludicrous character.

1924. The figure fills the frame in a rather oppressive way, but not to dominate so much as to bring forward this lump of a body and head with its bulbous, gently battered features, materialising uncertainly into a nearly oafish expression: is that what I look like? 1925. It's closer- up on the head, which lurks against the picture edge, and turns to us in three-quarter view, showing a sharply hollow cheekbone and big, sunken eyes, one peering with anguished attention, the other losing all focus. The mouth doesn't know what it's doing, as if trying to form a forgotten word. And, in a mirror behind, the face is reflected in profile - with an expression between dead calm and dead vacancy. "A unique act of leave- taking from the world," his widow called it in her memoir. It is a heart- breaking picture.

When you come to these final works - and see also the portrait of Georg Brandes, the Cowshed, the Still-Life with Flowers, Skull and Oakleaves, and almost all the late prints and drawings - you see the point of Corinth. The preceding work becomes interesting mainly because it's by the same man who did these. (Having it there makes for contrast and comparison, which is useful, but comparison with other Expressionists would be more useful, to show the difference.) So these pictures deserve to be famous now, to be circulated. It's a pity the Tate has chosen one of the earlier self-homages for the poster it has on sale To 4 May, Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1 (0171-887 8730)