LOVIS CORINTH. LIEGENDER WEIBLICHER AKT.
FLESH FOR FANTASY
DER AKT DES BETRACHTENS, DRAMA DES SEHENS
Von Barbara Vinken Professorin für Allgemeine Literaturwissenschaft und Romanische Philologie an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
1858 Tapiau – 1925 Zandvoort
LIEGENDER WEIBLICHER AKT. 1915
Öl auf Holz, wohl nach 1977
58 × 113 cm
Auktion 411 // LOT 1012
SCHÄTZPREIS € 250.000 – 300.000
There she lies, alluring flesh. Demandingly she offers herself in her lush nakedness. Unmistakably. No hint of shameful hiding, no showing herself startled by the male eye. This woman is no chaste Diana at the spring, no chaste Susanne in the bath. Naked, her flesh shows her desire. Nor does she want to play naively witty, dally, hint, elude. Boucher, for example, lets a white-curled lapdog tail dangle between the dimpled thighs of his beauty, thus making it clear to the viewer what the young women themselves do not quite know.
The nude painted by Corinth is unambiguous: here only the flesh speaks, ruthlessly threatening. In the woman's bloodshot eyes, which seem masked, a glimmer of the expected ecstasy of love shines, glitters. The object of desire is the man - assuming the heterosexual matrix of the motif - who is to be seduced, no actually overwhelmed, by this naked flesh into the act of love. There is only one possible response to this exposure of female desire. He should obey the call; there is no alternative to doing her bidding.
This is no smooth, charmingly trivialising "marzipan Venus", as Zola berated Alexandre Cabanel's famous, most classicist Birth of Venus (1863). Less threatening, lolling prettily in shame, staying off the man's back, this Venus became the template for slick pin ups. Corinth's nude has none of the cool evenness of naked marble statues. No rice powder idealises the flesh into perfectly smooth marble or makes it consumable as plastic-like flesh like pin ups. This flesh is alive, it is to be touched, even it quivers hotly with desire. There is nothing smoothed, nothing coolly sublimated about it. The brushstrokes, clearly visible, underline its materiality. It is not the outline that we see first, the incarnate. The woman's blond hair blends into the background. It is as if nothing here has been detached from its earthy materiality: as the primal ground of desire, round, full breasts and the round belly are in focus. The lap remains in the shadow of lush thighs. Un-ideal and un-academic, greedy, this flesh is shocking in its nakedness. It transgresses the conventions of art and comes close, too close?
"Joseph and Potifar's Wife" is a story from the Old Testament (Gen. 39, 1-20). The Lord God is with Joseph, the Hebrew slave sold into Egypt to Potifar, the head of Pharaoh's bodyguard. Everything works out for Joseph; Potifar trusts him, leaves the management of the house to him and only cares about his food. Potifar's wife, entranced by Joseph's outstanding beauty, has caught a glimpse of the young man and wants to get him into bed: "sleep with me."
Joseph resists: "He refused and replied to his master's wife: You see, (...) everything that belongs to him he has entrusted to me. He is no greater in this house than I am, and he has withheld nothing from me but you, for you are his wife. How could I do such a great wrong and sin against God" (Genesis 39). Joseph treats the situation as a matter of possession and contract: Potifar's wife belongs to the house, is bound by contract. Joseph does not want to break contracts and steal something that does not belong to him. Consumed by desire, Potifar's wife does not give up, and one day grabs Joseph by the robe to pull him into bed. What remains of this in Corinth's nude is a grasping hand and a shadowy, warding hand. Joseph is not willing, leaves the robe behind and makes off. The robe left behind serves the humiliated, spurned wife to portray the slave Joseph as encroaching and to denounce him to her husband. He believes his wife and has Joseph thrown into prison.
Throughout cultures and religions, the Potifar story has remained the archetype of female, unbridled sensual desire for young male beauty. Corinth stages its allure and terror. Thus we find the story from ancient Persian literature and the Old Testament to the Koran. The ravishing beauty of Joseph leads among the women in the 12th sura of the Koran to cut themselves, gone and away, peeling fruit. Until the 18th century, women were considered weaker in the flesh. Willy-nilly, she supposedly succumbed to temptations of which the stronger man was the master. The Bible does not illuminate the tormenting longing for the beautiful Joseph. It was Thomas Mann who first sensitively depicted the search for love in his story of Joseph. In Islamic mysticism, the poet Rumi did not condemn Potifar's wife as a sinful temptress; he sees her as the true lover who wants to leave behind her marriage of convenience in order to find the true, divine beauty that shines in Joseph.
Lovis Corinth was not the first to paint the episode, and he painted it several times under this title between 1914 and 1915. A sketch in Washington and also the painting in the KaiserWilhelm-Museum in Krefeld show only traces of the narrative of the battle of the sexes: like a dark spectre, Joseph fearfully retreats. In the foreground is the lustful female nude. This distinguishes his paintings from other depictions, which often show a half-naked or naked woman in bed, but where the scene is painted in a highly dramatic narrative: a young man fleeing adultery, leaving behind as corpus delicti what the spurned wife uses against him - a legal plea about adultery, attempted rape, guilt and lies. For example, in Rembrandt's work.
Mastery of Mastery:
The Flesh, No Longer Just Beautiful Corinth's female nude, on the other hand, relieved of all narrative, allows only the flesh to count and speak for itself. The drama is transferred entirely to the act of contemplation. Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville are in the tradition of this nude painting. But here the pure carnality, which follows Corinth's example, often enough tips over into the repulsive. Corinth masters the fine line between threat and temptation, between beauty and the depravity of an overwhelming desire, and attests to this mastery with his signature.