On 28 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Germany then invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, and the First World War had started. Lovis Corinth and his family had only just come to terms with his stroke, when they found themselves living in the midst of war. He and most of the other painters and artists in Berlin shared an enthusiastic patriotism which initially gave them buoyant and optimistic spirits.
This patriotism was expressed quite openly in paintings like Im Schutze der Waffen (In Defence of Weapons) from 1915. The same suit of armour in which he had posed proudly for his self-portrait prior to his stroke now saw service in the cause of his country.
But both Corinth and his wife were growing older, and more tired. Portrait of Charlotte Berend-Corinth (1915) shows a very different woman from that of just a few years earlier. Her brow is now knitted, and her joyous smile gone.
The answer, for Corinth and his family, was to get out of Berlin and enjoy the countryside. In the summer they travelled to Lake Müritz (1915) in Mecklenburg, and Corinth started to paint more landscapes again.
He also continued to paint still lifes, such as this wonderful Still Life with Pagoda (1916), with its curious combination of Asian and crustacean objects.
Each year from 1916 to 1918, Corinth returned to his home village Tapiau, and the nearby city of Königsberg where he had started his professional career, to see the terrible effects of the war on the people. In 1917, he was honoured by them in recognition of his artistic achievements. A substantial one-man exhibition of his paintings was held in Mannheim and Hanover that year too.
Cain (1917) is probably Corinth’s most significant work from the war years, and continued his series based on stories from the Old Testament. He shows Cain finishing off his brother Abel, burying his dying body. Cain looks up to the heavens as he places another large rock on his brother, and threatening black birds fly around.
This stark and powerful painting probably also reflects Corinth’s own feelings of his battle following his stroke, and those invoked when the US first entered the war that year, as its remorseless slaughter continued.
Götz von Berlichingen (1917) shows the historical character of Gottfried ‘Götz’ von Berlichingen (1480-1562), who had been a colourful Imperial Knight and mercenary. After he lost his right arm in 1504, he had metal prosthetic hands made for him, which were capable of holding objects as fine as a quill. His swashbuckling autobiography was turned into a play by Goethe in 1773, and a notorious quotation from that led to his name becoming a euphemism for the phrase ‘he can lick my arse/ass’.
Corinth celebrated his sixtieth birthday in 1918, and was made a professor in the Academy of Arts of Berlin. However, with the end of the war and its unprecedented carnage, disaster for Germany, and the revolution, Corinth slid into depression.
Armour Parts in the Studio (1918) is his best summary of the situation. The suit of armour is now empty, broken apart, and cast on the floor of his studio.
He still managed some paintings of flesh, such as this Girl in Front of a Mirror (1918).
His self-portraits show clearly the effects of the war, and his age. In Self-Portrait in a White Coat (1918) he is becoming more gaunt. He is shown painting with his left hand, and has used the open sleeve to stow some brushes for ready use.
Just a year later, his Self-Portrait at the Easel (1919) reveals a still older man, looking directly at the viewer, grappling with the times.
Magdalen with Pearls in her Hair (1919), one of Corinth’s few works in the UK (in the Tate Gallery), is one of several paintings that he made of Mary Magdalen, a very popular subject for religious paintings. This follows the established tradition of showing Mary as something of a composite, based mainly on Mary of Magdala who was cleansed by Christ, witnessed the Crucifixion, and was the first to see him resurrected. Apocryphal traditions held that she was a reformed prostitute, and most depictions of Mary tread a fine line between the fleshly and the spiritual.
This is Corinth’s most intense and dramatic depiction of Mary, her age getting the better of her body, and her eyes puffy from weeping. She is shown with a skull to symbolise mortality, and with pearls in her hair to suggest the contradiction of her infamous past and as a halo for her later devotion to Christ.
Corinth also kept up his floral paintings, here with Roses (1919).
In the summer of 1918, Corinth and his family had first visited Urfeld, on the shore of Walchensee (Lake Walchen), to the south of Munich. They fell in love with the countryside there, and the following year bought some land on which Charlotte arranged for a simple chalet to be built. In the coming years, the Walchensee was to prove Corinth’s salvation, and the motif for at least sixty superb landscape paintings.
In September of 1919, their new chalet was ready, and the Corinths moved in to watch the onset of autumn. Walchensee, Blue Landscape (1919) was probably painted quite early, before the first substantial fall of snow.
October Snow at Walchensee (1919) shows an initial gentle touch of snow as autumn becomes properly established.
Later in the season, when the ground was well-covered with snow, Corinth painted it in Walchensee, Snowscape (1919).
Lemoine S et al. (2008) Lovis Corinth, Musée d’Orsay & RMN. ISBN 978 2 711 85400 4. (In French.)
Czymmek G et al. (2010) German Impressionist Landscape Painting, Liebermann-Corinth-Slevogt, Arnoldsche. ISBN 978 3 89790 321 0.