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Published 10/06/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

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Georg Baselitz

Royal Academy of Arts, London
22 September–9 December 2007

Georg Baselitz is a powerful and rebellious painter who admits to being a painter of ‘bad pictures’. He has refused to fit into mainstream art since bursting onto the art scene in the 1960s, yet he has become universally admired. His overbearing preoccupation is Germany’s ugly wartime legacy. Baselitz is celebrated in a major retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, this autumn. Featuring over 60 paintings together with a significant number of drawings, prints and sculptures, the exhibition offers a comprehensive survey of Baselitz’s most important work. In 1981, Baselitz was included in the seminal exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘A New Spirit of Painting’. This introduced his work to the British public; he is an Honorary Royal Academician.

Baselitz was influenced in his early years by the artistic works and writings of influential artists and theorists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett and the French writer and artist Antonin Artaud. Baselitz later became involved with the work of the mentally ill and other outsider artists. He is a collector of African art and influenced by French and Italian Mannerist painting. Printmaking in the German tradition has also played an important role.

When the Allied Forces bombed Dresden in 1945, the young Georg Baselitz witnessed the horrors. One can be forgiven for having a love/hate relationship with the work of one of Germany’s most uncompromising artists, whose self-advertisement and self-aggrandisement exist in parallel with poignant, albeit extraordinarily ugly, images. Every work in Baselitz’s show refers to war, whether it is the black mood, fractured presence or specific references. Waldemar Januszczak finds it hilarious.

Baselitz is as compelling a painter as he is because the ultimate absurdity of war seems never to escape his attention. Even his most notorious painterly act – the ridiculous policy of painting everything upside down – strikes you as perfectly reasonable when compared with Germany entrusting the nation’s destiny to the Führer.1

He considers that Baselitz tackles the overwhelming problem of being German and being loathed, ‘with a fabulous combination of urgency and insolence’. Known as the artist who turned painting upside down at the end of the sixties, literally, he irritatingly has not put it right since. He appears to work in the eye of the storm freed of the spell of artistic icons, and yet he continues to work in traditional media: painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. He has taken risks to the point of recklessness, yet still chooses still life, portraiture and landscape. His are ‘unequivocal declarations of an attitude’, rather than ‘examples or components of a style’.2

In 1963 at his first solo exhibition in Berlin, two of his paintings were seized by public prosecutors on the grounds of obscenity. In 1969, he began to paint his figures upside down. In 1980, he shared the Nazi-era German pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Anselm Kiefer. The sculpture he showed there was crudely modelled, block-like and primitive in style, and it appeared to be making a fascist salute. It caused an outrage. Although the human figure is central to his oeuvre, he never uses a life model. The twisted, distorted, fractured human forms from the 1960s onwards are as shocking in their perception of humanity as those of his forebear in the northern tradition, Hieronymus Bosch. Baselitz, however, endows his work with elements of the absurd.

Georg Baselitz was born in 1938, the son of a primary teacher, in the small village of Grossbaselitz in Saxony, which later became East Germany. His name was Hans-Georg Kern, which he changed to Georg Baselitz when he left East Berlin in 1957. When he was seven, the town of Dresden just 30 km away was heavily bombed by the Allied Forces. The small school where Baselitz attended was also bombed, in spite of having the Red Cross flag on it. The children experienced the horror, huddled in a bomb shelter. The girl who later became his wife was from Dresden. They claim to have talked about the bombing every day since. The tragedy and horror of the Second World War and the aftermath under a Communist regime have obsessed Baselitz ever since. It forms the core of his experience and his art. David Sylvester describes his career as like no other European painter in that his creativeness has been sustained decade after decade.

The outstanding importance of his role seems to me to reside in two attributes, both of them rare. One of them – rare only in our time – is that his work seems free of any theoretical or polemical foundation or justification. It is a delight to wonder and to behold; it is not a notable stimulus for verbal investigation. The other quality – and here is probably unique – is that he is an artist who uses a harsh Germanic iconography (the hunter, the dog, the woman with a whip, the bird of prey) to produce paintings whose succulent, tactile surfaces seem the prerogative of French paintings.3

The work of Baselitz nonetheless presents images of a world possessed, a dreadful fracturing of human values, the collapse of civilisation itself. He distorts the human form itself and in doing so, creates works that are physically disgusting. The paint itself is applied as excrement, pushed and shoved around the canvas with apparent contempt. The contempt is in Baselitz’s scheme of things, disdain for the world, a comment on human nature itself, a searing comment on war and the state of the world: whether it be Vietnam or Iraq, nothing has changed.

What Baselitz could not escape was Germany and being German. Januszczak continues:

Baselitz’s Heroes are said to evoke Germany’s battered spirit in the post-war years. Their shirts are ripped. Their flies are open. Their bits are dangling. It has also been suggested that these are self-portraits, particularly the image of a one-legged soldier holding a palette and brush that is actually called Blocked Painter. But what I like most about these clumsy losers is their air of comic meladrama… If Baselitz is looking back on his pitiful national inheritance, then he is doing so with an explosive mixture of sadness and scorn.4

Thrown out of his first art school in East Berlin in 1956 on the grounds of ‘political immaturity’, Baselitz moved to West Berlin prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. There he saw ‘The New American Painting’, which had a profound impact. In fact, he still refers to the experience of first seeing Phillip Guston and Jackson Pollock. Baselitz instinctively understood the observation made by de Kooning of Pollock, that Pollock had broken the ice. Pollock indeed shattered pictorial space. Guston was represented in ‘The New American Painting’, by works from the mid and late 1950s. They were neither abstract nor figurative, they were elusive and the discernable images fluctuated in focus and dissolution. In this Baselitz was greatly affected. He eventually rejected abstraction as such, but like many American artists was influenced by jazz music, the disruption of underlying rhythm, the dislocation of melody. Baselitz’s work has an affinity with jazz in the sense that many harmonies, sidetracks and levels of meaning all contribute to an art that can be experienced on different levels. Baselitz’s paintings of the late 1950s share much in their structure and woven surfaces, their energy, with Guston and de Kooning especially. He was not impressed nor taken in by the iconic simplicity of Pop Art and he rejected both the Social Realism of the Communist regime in East Germany and the universal purity of abstraction. In doing so, Baselitz became an outsider on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He had an irreverent sense of humour, and was more interested in the art of the insane than of modernist Europeans. He was drawn to the grotesque works of Grünewald’s ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’, Chaim Soutine’s fleshy distortions and Gericault’s studies of hands and feet. Baselitz also depicted feet – ugly, distorted images; he described his position at the time as ‘anti-classical’.

The Northern tradition of the ugly and grotesque drew Baselitz naturally. His first exhibition was described as ‘obscene’, ‘pornographic’, ‘revolting’. The titles themselves were provocative: ‘Sex with Dumplings’ (1963) where paint and bodily fluids were shown as interconnected. The painting ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’ shows the artist masturbating in an isolated dark space. The male ego is exposed by Baselitz as a pathetic, solipsistic performance, in which he masquerades as painting itself, the very medium that through history has been perfected to emulate human beauty and perfection. Norman Rosenthal, who organised the Baselitz exhibition, says that:

Exposure of the body and its more embarrassing functions has never been a problem for Baselitz, and this highly charged self-portrait about masturbation has a sense of tragic inevitability. The artist was not making a scandal for its own sake, but, rather, confronting postwar Germany – which he had found too ready to hide behind bland abstraction, too keen to avoid societal and psychological issues – with his own reality.5

Baselitz uses oil paint as if it were shit, and it did not do him much good in the process. Melancholia and illness characterised his personal experience.

Baselitz made images of the hero/soldier which inevitably created loathing in many viewers.

While it is not hard to see these images as referring to Germany’s desperate condition following the war – hulking single figures rise over their defunct landscapes like survivors of a great cataclysm – they could also be seen as surrogate self-portraits, reflecting Baselitz’s self-mocking ambition to reenergize German painting. These heroes, who carry palettes, a symbol of creative freedom and forward-looking energy, find their hands immobilised in animal traps. The ruined landscape could speak of war or the aesthetic debris left in the wake of the stylist onslaught of second – and third-generation abstraction. The Hero paintings posit the contention that if the twentieth century began with elimination of the figure through abstraction, it would end with the re-emergence, but that re-emergence would require anti-heroes who follow unpredictable paths.6

Baselitz’s hulking great figures have massive bodies, small heads and large hands. Michael Auping states that, ‘Baselitz’s further contortion of these characteristics creates an artist protagonist that is as deranged and bold as he is voluptuously pathetic. Contructed from rich accumulations of thick brushstrokes, he presents a tragic-comic Beckett-like character waiting for the painter’s next move’.7

The ‘Fracture’ paintings of the late 1960s reveal Baselitz’s keen interest in forests and trees and the motifs and imagery that have historically been associated with them. In fact, Baselitz considered a career in forestry and had applied to the state forestry school in Taranth. Rural landscapes peoples with woodsmen and hunters are depicted with an earth palette. They are part fantasy and part appropriation; they are divided into segments so that the imagery can be reorganised pictorially. Dividing the picture plane into segments conveyed the fracturing of Germany by the war. Pre-war and post-war Germany and East Germany and West Germany represented the divided national psyche. Fracture paintings represent the violent ruptures and break from historical continuity; they reveal the distress and destruction of Germany’s history. The next move was to turn the image on its head. The first completely inverted picture was ‘Wermsdorf Wood’, based on a painting by the von Rayski work of 1859. The loosely rendered image of the wood was seized on by critics as having political connotations – upside-down trees were seen to represent a country that had been culturally uprooted. The Nazi ban on ‘degenerate’ modernist art indeed created a rupture in German art history, in Baselitz’s words ‘a severing of memory’ from a figurative tradition. What followed was dislocating, ‘It was like one day waking up and abstraction had become the authority’.8 Inversion enabled Baselitz to bridge the gulf between the figurative tradition, stopped in its tracks by the Nazis and abstraction that came to dominate art by the 1950s. Baselitz describes his method:

The object expresses nothing at all. Painting is not a means to an end. On the contrary, painting is autonomous. And I said to myself: if this is the case, then I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait, and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content.

The hierarchy which has located the sky at the top and the earth at the bottom is, in any case, only a convention. We have got used to it, but we don’t have to believe in it. The only thing that interests me is the question of how I can carry on painting pictures.9

Portraiture is central to Baselitz’s oeuvre; he has been making portraits of family and friends since the late 1960s. Elke, his wife of thirty years, is often the subject; she claims this is largely due to her availability and the fact that they have always lived very closely. On one hand then, there is the pictorial calculation required to construct and execute an inverted portrait, and then there is the inevitable emotional content, as a consequence of the long-term close relationship, of sitter and artist. Conflicted feelings seem to characterise the majority of Baselitz’s work – nothing is as straightforward as the artist’s comments about them. Auping observes:

His portraits are about the fact that experience itself is not a pure process, revealing a narrative of distinct and logical episodes. The picture may be upside down, and references to the visible world may or may not be present in a specific picture, but that does not make such a picture any more or less faithful to its subject. There are moments in life when feelings exceed perceptions, when the world inside takes precedence over the world outside; every moment in every life is a confrontation, a meeting of inner and outer, an encounter between self and the thing observed or felt. What makes Baselitz’s inverted imagery so intriguing is the way in which it resists simplification and has the weird naturalness and ungraspability of experience itself.10

Baselitz’s portraits one at a time are disconcerting; en masse they assume a different level of existence. They are powerful and remarkable. The issue of portraiture in the post-photographic world was given profound impetus by Picasso almost 100 years ago. Any portrait since Picasso inevitably addresses the psychology of the sitter and the relationship between artist and sitter. It is important to be aware that Baselitz does not paint a work, and then turn it upside down. He holds the photograph of his sitter in one hand and paints with the other. If an inverted portrait is put the right way up, they simply do not work. Gerhard Richter understood Baselitz’s method when he observed that, ‘Nonsense has been written about Baselitz: by being turned through 180 degrees, his figures are said to lose their objective nature and become “pure painting”. The opposite is true: there is an added stress on the objectivity, which takes on a new substance’.11

Arguably, the most remarkable of Baselitz’s portraits are those of Elke in linocut. Baselitz found the traditionally low status of linocut attractive, as had Picasso and Matisse. The energy that can be achieved in linocuts is achieved by its direct and uncompromising method. The actual cutting and scooping of the lines, and the clear contrasts achieved when it has been inked and printed is both exciting and satisfying. So too are the methods of execution of Baselitz’s sculptures, which he began to make in the 1970s. His preferred carving tool is the chainsaw – primitive, energetic and roughly hewn. David Sylvester observes that unlike Baselitz’s paintings, his sculpture was always wholly Teutonic. ‘They are magnificent frames, rough-cast yet subtle, energetic, robust and moody. He has used these weighty, brooding forms to contain and offset some of the most tenuous and fragile looking canvases he has ever painted, creating a perfect integration of sculpture and painting, the coarse and the delicate, the massive and the vulnerable.’12

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Baselitz increased the scale of his work, making his imagery bolder. Although numerous of Baselitz’s images are overwhelmingly egotistical and male, he produced a remarkable image of Elke in 1994, ‘No Birds (Picture Twenty-Eight)’, in which she dwarfs the surrounding landscape, indeed becomes the landscape itself. Painted with hands rather than brushes, the figure is sculpted in paint; the figure is mother earth, a matriarch, an earth figure who floats across the vast canvas (290 x 450 cm). Flowers that have a myriad of associations are introduced by Baselitz as a kitsch wallpaper, a folk art addition to an already valid image. Teetering between the acceptable and artistic suicide, Baselitz teases his viewers, as only a self-styled loner-cum-self-publicist would. Baselitz is maddening in his audacity as an artist and as an individual. He is incredibly difficult to explain, and while there is very great support for his work in Germany and internationally, he has not inspired an actual following. He is a loner in all respects. In the 1990s his work became more accessible, with the introduction of more lyrical drawn lines in paint, with decorative elements of flowers, and a richer palette. The individuals look more plausible, less mythological, friendlier and more ethereal too. Baselitz is many things at any given time in his career.

Drawing is central to the painting of Baselitz and in certain respects his vast sculptures too. The linocuts especially show the powerful immediacy of the drawn line, and many paintings, especially recent works, resemble amplified versions of small works on paper. Baselitz describes drawing as encouraging an exceptionally ‘… fluid type of space … [where] you can break any kind of order or convention, quickly and precisely’. Recent works resemble vast pen and ink drawings amplified onto canvas.

The curator of this exhibition is Norman Rosenthal, who has long championed the work of Baselitz. It seems a little too apologetic to write the catalogue essay for a major retrospective at the Royal Academy ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, but that in fact was based on the title of the artist’s own manifesto in 1966, ‘Why the Painting “The Great Friends” is a Good Picture!’

Standing within the long tradition of German art, and using time-honoured media, Baselitz has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history, to make them new and fresh in a manner that can only be described as heroic; heroic because his art has consciously gone against the grain of fashion, while always remaining modern. For Baselitz, the artist must be always an outsider, a worker and also, in a certain sense, a prince. Although he is rooted in a German – specifically Saxon – background, Baselitz has succeeded in engaging with art from all around the world. Through both learning and empathy he is able to bring to life traditions quite alien to his experience. He can be read as a highly conservative figure within modern art, but this makes him no less radical, even provocative.13

The Royal Academy exhibition of Georg Baselitz is a most successful one in terms of the hang, wall text and scholarship. The most dramatic galleries are where the ‘45 series’ and ‘Women of Dresden’ were displayed. The ‘45 series’ is a sequence of twenty paintings on wooden panels of equal dimensions. They are powerful images en masse, all produced over a four-month period. The physical feat is most impressive: the wooden panels are incised like wood engraving blocks, or etching plates, but the scale involves an aggressive and rebellious act. Oil and tempera have been applied to the surface, which is then chiselled, in a dynamic manner, not unlike the way Baselitz sculpts with a chainsaw. The geometric carving of the wooden panels reveals the raw untreated wood beneath the paint. The wood is lacerated, like torn flesh; further images are applied in a crude series of splodges, which allude to images of women. The series was made in 1989 to mark the 45th anniversary of the end of the war. As a series, they reveal Baselitz’s aesthetic concerns that were abandoned in many works. ‘Women of Dresden’ (most of the men were at the front when the city was bombed) is a homage to the suffering of women and children in the war, but without any of the profound compassion of Kathe Kollwitz. The crude sculptures resonate with references – from the Expressionist work of the Die Brücke, to the German tradition of wood engraving. They are layered with references to history and art history; they are angry but not moving. Rosenthal has succeeded in presenting a tough body of work, inexplicable in the first instance, in a convincing and enlightened manner.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1 Waldemar Januszczak. Turning the art world on its head. The Sunday Times 23 September 2007. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/ tol/arts_and_entertainment/ visual_arts/article2499962.ece (last accessed 3 october 2007)

2 Andreas Franzke. Georg Baselitz. Munich: Prestel, 1989: 7.

3 David Sylvester. Paintings in Carvings. In: Georg Baselitz: outside. London: Gagosian Gallery 2000: 13.

4 Januszczak. Op cit: 18.

5 Norman Rosenthal. Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter. In: Georg Baselitz. London: Royal Academy, 2007: 3.

6 Michael Auping. Detlev Gretenkort (ed). Georg Baselitz: Paintings, 1962–2001. Milan: Alberico Cetti Serbelloni Editore, 2002: 16–18.

7 Ibid: 18.

8 Ibid: 20.

9 Ibid: 20.

10 Ibid: 22.

11 Ibid: 22.

12 Sylvester, op cit: 13.

13 Rosenthal, op cit: 1.



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