Belgium, Private Collection.
Already before 1850, Philologists and Philosophers were the first to reread ancient myths as something other than simple fables. Instead these scholars saw them as the expression of still irrational human thought which reflected, or more precisely, was the survival of primitive forgotten feelings and fears on the part of the Ancients which could be deciphered and even understood. Near the end of the 19th century, freed from academic conceptions and in search of new sources of inspiration, artists too turned towards these myths in order to find, not subjects, but emotions and symbols which brought them closer to the pagan origins of art, to the initial pure condition of men confronted by the power and complexity of Nature.
Far from the debauched and brutal acolytes of Bacchus painted by Rubens or Boucher’s licentious satyrs and gamblers, fauns at the turn of the 20th century were those of Antiquity, a mix between the Greek Pan and Roman Faunus. As sylvan ancestral divinities, they fled men and never let themselves be seen. Peaceful, naïve, laughing, and debonair, they lived in distant grottos or nearby springs. They protected herds, foretold the future and spent their time pursuing nymphs in the shelter of the trees in the forest, and above all, singing with and catching birds. They represented untamed Nature before the arrival of mankind, the fertility of her soil and plants, the natural gentleness of animals, the blitheness of simple life, the wisdom, and also sadness of a mistreated being, and the nostalgia for a time which would never return.
German artists, in their desire to celebrate Nature, but to whom German mythology only offered malefic elves, dwarves living underground, and trolls, appropriated the character of the faun and deliberately made him live in dark Northern forests. It is scarcely surprising that Lovis Corinth made one the subject of his painting which, judging from its style, can be placed very early in his career.
Originally from Eastern Prussia, Corinth entered the Königsberg Academy of Fine Arts in 1876 and then pursued his artistic education in Berlin and Thuringia, at the Academy of Munich in Ludwig Löffitz’ class, in Antwerp under Paul Eugene Gorge, next in Paris, first at the Julian Academy and then in the studio of Adolphe William Bouguereau. As he didn’t meet with success in France, Corinth returned to Germany in 1891 and first settled in Munich, then, in 1901, in Berlin. A member of the Berlin Secession (he was elected President in 1915,) at the head of his own school of Painting, he exhibited a lot and was soon considered one of the most important German artists of his time.
Corinth’s oeuvre reflects his life, nourished by diverse contradictory influences which are always assimilated in a style of perpetual renewal which becomes more and more expressionist. In Königsberg, he painted landscapes and portraits. In Munich, Corinth became fascinated with naturalism. In the Netherlands, he studied Frans Hals and Rembrandt. In Paris, he discovered the female nude and was enchanted by the exhibitions of Meissonier, Bastien-Lepage, and Wilhelm Leibl, while ignoring those of Courbet and Manet. Back in Munich, he left the studio to work outside, and then sought to impress critics with his scenes of slaughterhouses. Corinth won several prizes for his religious paintings whose great dramatic intensity broke totally with traditional iconography. In Berlin, with Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt, he was one of the “Triumvirate of German Impressionism” before proclaiming that German painting was the most progressive in Europe and should break away from all external influences.
Our Faun could have been painted in Munich after Corinth’s Parisian sojourn. One senses Jordaens’ old men, the joyous drinkers depicted by Hals, Bouguereau’s nudes with their brilliant highlights, the peasants of Bastien-Lepage, and the broad brushstroke of Leibl. The beatific smile of a toothless mouth, the ram’s horns growing out of his forehead, and the satyr’s tangled beard are in complete contrast to the profound sadness of his eyes and the delicacy of his hands which imprison the thistle finch, a small apparently wounded song bird. Thus while Christian symbolism does not quite seem obvious, it doesn’t altogether disappear. The painting also may be reminiscent of Acanthis who, inconsolable after the death of her brother Anthus, was transformed into a thistle finch by Apollo and Zeus. The whole composition vibrates with a decided and broken brushstroke, and blazes with oranges, browns greys, reds, and opposing blues superimposed and bouncing off each other. This image mixes myth and reality while simultaneously being satirical, expressive, and tragic, the way Corinth liked them. Often his close relations and friends served as models for his figures.
• Lovis Corinth, Entre impressionnisme et expressionnisme, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2008.
• Horst Uhr, Lovis Corinth, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1990