Last Self Portrait by Lovis Corinth

The most affecting self-portraits, of course, are those made in the artist's old age. The face that once held knowledge of life now holds the knowledge of extinction. Munch's desolate Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, Lovis Corinth's Last Self Portrait, Bonnard's humbling portrait of himself in the bathroom mirror: for these artists such pictures mark the conclusion of the project of self-realization, an undertaking that appears to yield at its end an absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond the self and its death. By contrast, Van Gogh's late self portraits show a greater and greater objectivity, a kind of offering up of the ego to what is eternal in art itself, what Cumming brilliantly calls the "aura" of his paintings. "It is difficult to know yourself," Van Gogh wrote once in a letter, "but it isn't easy to paint yourself either."

...Look at Lovis Corinth. Painters don't only have eyesight that can go wrong. They have hands too. And in 1911, in his early fifties, Corinth had a stroke. He recovered from it, and lived almost another 15 years. But his work never forgot it. After that, his painting has the shakes.

...Two years later, very near the end, there is the Last Self Portrait.

It shakes all over, and you can interpret these shakes in various ways. The artist's hand can't hold a brush steadily. The artist's eye can't grasp the solid world before him. This way of painting emphasizes the decrepitude of the old artist's flesh. It declares the befuddlement of the artist's mind. And all these effects could be perfectly conscious and controlled choices.

But with any picture, and especially a picture like this, talk about control and loss of control misses the point. The process is all reciprocal, reflexive. In the Last Self Portrait, Corinth is acknowledging and no longer resisting and, all the same, dramatizing his debility. The eyes are skew whiff and lose their focus. The mouth can't mouth properly. The highlights glitter all over the place. The face is made of jabs and blotches. The eyebrows fly.

At every point, the picture goes in and out of breakdown. That is its performance. It's about what it is to lose, and what it is to keep, one's grip. It keeps on not quite totally losing it. It holds together by going with the forces of disintegration. It renounces mastery but it doesn't give up on art. Using the momentum of a useless limb, it makes a new wild dance.
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