Oil on canvas, 1904, by Lovis Corinth (1858 – 1925)
The German artist Lovis Corinth was later to become another victim of Nazi censorship when he too was declared an entarteter kunstler and his work assigned the notorious label of “degenerate.” Eight of his paintings were displayed in the 1937 Munich Degenerate Exhibition as examples of artistic depravity which were deemed “un-German” and the Nazi pawn delegated to curate this travesty, Adolf (appropriately named!) Ziegler, further denigrated them by sticking up labels and text designed to insult and shame the artists and their work. At this point you could argue that to have your work featured in such an exhibit could be seen as a “badge of honour” and proof that you were evidencing the utter disconnect between art and fundamentalism, freedom and totalitarianism. Except some of the artists, like Corinth, were long dead and so could not defend their work while the living artists were publically denounced, fell under the suspicion of the Gestapo, were stripped of their teaching posts, lost their jobs and were banned from being shown or sold. Many sunk into complete penury. Why is it that regimes feel so threatened by a piece of art? Part of the answer lies in the mirror that art holds up to society and to history: the monster risks seeing the true rendition of his hideousness and not the propagandised façade he himself has constructed. Alternatively, authoritarian regimes fear juxtaposition against the sublime and humane and how witnessing truth in beauty can so easily unravel their ideology of hate. What is striking about this portrait of the sculptor Nikolaus Friedrich is that the subject and his work ostensibly seemed to embody what the Nazis felt would promote German “wholesomeness” by way of bodily strength and the depiction of “the figure in action.” Irony seems to have been another failing of the Third Reich: evil is blind to humour.
Admittedly, I was drawn to this painting for reasons other than its dark providence. I contextualise it almost entirely in literary and philosophic terms. For me, it conjures up an unlikely association with a sonnet by the poet Seamus Heaney entitled “The Forge.” The sonnet is about a blacksmith who exemplifies the trope of the “artist as artisan” or “artist as practitioner” or even “artist as labourer”. He is “leather-aproned” with “hairs in his nose” and he “grunts … To beat real iron out …” and yet this same man “expends himself in shape and music” and oversees “The unpredictable fantail of sparks.” In other words, Heaney establishes a sense of the crude in the creation of the refined, the physical in the fashioning of the cerebral, the cosmically hardened transformed to the humanely malleable. These are dichotomies which expose the inured devotions of the artist in his struggle to create form out of the opposing states of matter and nothingness: the paper is blank before Heaney writes about his blacksmith, the canvas is blank before Corinth paints his sculptor; but, conversely, the hunk of wood is entire before the figure emerges from within it. This throws into reflection a question over the manufacture of art: it is not so much creative as combative. It is in essence a struggle to eliminate, to reduce from an entirety of existence, to capture one finite moment out of all infinite moments.
Corinth depicts Friedrich in a pose which captures this very struggle. His right hand is held behind his back concealing a chisel, a blade, a weapon. He is bare chested. His muscular definition denotes that of a wrestler, a brawler, a matador even. He is ready to do battle. He gazes on his work in progress with a calculating, knowing eye. He is about to strike out and inflict a blow upon the wood. He is about to slice into it. He is about to reduce it. But from each strike and slice something is gained and not lost; from each reduction comes construction. Similarly, with each bold stroke of brushwork on his canvas, Corinth refines his subject, rendering it more articulate: he is adding a stroke in order to define a form. While all of this may seem obvious, it goes to the heart of creativity and the philosophical nature of the what it means when artists struggle with their art. From this perspective Corinth and Heaney show us the inner struggle as symbolised by an outer struggle. Making art is seldom graceful, petite, refined, dainty. Rather it is physical, brutal, messy, risky. It is not for the weak of stature, or for lack of resolve: it’s not for “sissies.” The torsion held in Friedrich’s shoulder blades perfectly captures his battle-ready poise while the angular profile of his face, accentuated with his sharp goatee, personifies his steely determination to win out over the art’s sworn enemies: paralysis, inertia and stasis. One wonders what exactly the Nazi regime objected to when deciding to obliterate that which exemplified dedication to one’s craft?
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.