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Lovis Corinth's Art : Surviving Berlin

Lovis Corinth, WALCHENSEE

Report by Rachel Le Goff


MADRID Fundacion Juan March 

LOVIS CORINTH (1858-1925)

Exhibition organised jointly with the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, the show will run until December 1999

On March 20th 1939 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 works of art on paper were burned in a bonfire in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department’s headquarters. The order was given by Goebbels on the insistence of fanatic Nazi Franz Hofman who had been appointed by Hitler Chairman of the 'Confiscation Committee'. His job was to scour Germany’s museums and collections for examples of  so-called ‘degenerate’ art and transport them to depots to await their fate. It took him three years of frenzied activity before the March bonfire which was to be a trial exercise for other conflagrations to come. 
Among those works of art crudely thrown to the flames were paintings by an important German artist who had died fourteen years earlier. Normally it was foreign art that the Nazis objected to - the works of Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Kandinsky - but Hofman had found Corinth’s impressionistic style particularly ‘degenerate’. Corinth’s Inntal Landscape (1910) was according to Hofmann,  “a typical case of how, in one picture, genius and decadence could be combined…The landscape brilliant – the sky decadent!”
(cf. A.Hentzen, Die Berliner National-Galerie im Bildersturm (Berlin, 1971), p.53.)

Paul Ortwin Rave and fellow curators of the Berlin Nationalgalerie convinced Hofman not to confiscate Inntal Landscape. Thanks to them,  it is still in the museum’s collection.
Lovis Corinth 1858-1925
Magdalen with Pearls in her Hair (Magdalena mit Perlenkette im Haar)
Oil on canvas 715 x 476 mm , signed

Painted by Corinth in 1919, the period of creativity after the artist's stroke of 1911 it is surely one of the canvases the Nazis would have disapproved of. This image of a naked elderly woman in the coy pose of a Venetian courtesan is an unorthodox representation of a religious figure. It is more to do with Donatello's harrowing portrayal of the Magdalene (Museo del Duomo, Florence) than with the young and beautiful appearance given the saint by sixteenth century artists and used as the standard model ever since. Corinth's portrayal of the ex-prostitute aged and emaciated perhaps from her retreat in the wilderness yet still retaining enough vanity to adorn her hair with pearls, represents the opposite extreme of the Nazi ideal of Aryan beauty. It was the pink, white and blonde athletic nudes that Hitler had frescoed on the walls of his bunker under Berlin that dictated Nazi taste. 

Purchased by The Tate Gallery, London 1991 

Lovis Corinth, Magdalena 1919

Others took steps to conserve Corinth’s works. Curators across the country tried to hide paintings, drawings, etchings and watercolours by Corinth and  artists on the wanted list. Hofman and his cronies were befuddled by false inventories and staggering delays instigated by those desperate to protect art they understood and admired. 

Prior to the 1939 bonfire, works by Corinth were exhibited in the ‘Degenerate Art Show’ (Munich, 1937) orchestrated by Hitler to educate the public as to what was anti-German and intolerably decadent.  More than two million people rushed to see the show breaking all attendance records in history.  Many more works were locked away in depositories and lost, destroyed or scattered in the period after the war. Some made it to the United States such as his disturbing Self-Portrait painted the year prior to Corinth's death and given to the Museum of Modern Art, New York by Curt Valentin.
The German collector and known patron of Jewish artists, Erich Goeritz, took some of Corinth’s paintings out of the country during this period. In 1936 he gave this painting to the Tate Gallery, London.
The Temptation of St Anthony after Gustave Flaubert, 1908 (Die Versuchung des heil. Antonius nach Gustave Flaubert)
Oil on canvas, 1353 x 2003 mm, signed
Although it is dated to the period before Corinth's stroke, the lascivious nudes and subject matter would not have passed Hofman's test.

Hofman would have seized more of Corinth’s works if he had not been persuaded of the pure German nature of the artist’s early style. He settled on a compromise whereby only Corinth works executed after 1911 were doomed to disappear from sight. Corinth had suffered a stroke in that year and Hofman was able to reason that Corinth’s style change was the result of physical debilitation.

This public humiliation and threat of destruction of her late husband's lifetime achievements must have been quite harrowing for Corinth’s widow who was even coerced into saving his more brilliant canvases in the possession of the Nationalgalerie by trading pictures she had at home from his acceptable early period. Had she not co-operated, we would not have many of his brilliant striking late works appreciated in German museums today and on show in this exhibition in Madrid. 
One of these pictures which Hofman was determined to take but which Frau Corinth traded was Trojan Horse painted the year before the artist died.
Today it is on view in the permanent collection at the Berlin Nationalgalerie.


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