Georg Baselitz

Georg Baselitz, “Maniera” (2019), oil and gold varnish on canvas, 64 15/16 x 35 1/16 inches (© Georg Baselitz, photo © Jochen Littkemann, Berlin, all images courtesy White Cube

All of them came to the event of the season, Georg Baselitz’ exhibition at the Haus der Kunst – the politicians, the chic people, the renowned critics and the simple art enthusiasts. Large-format paintings from important phases of his fifty-year work now fill the representative ground floor rooms, with the so-called “Black Paintings” and the equally black monumental sculptures as the latest work productions starting in 2011 at the center of the show. They deliver the iconographic focal points of the conception. Baselitz exemplifies a very German artistic fate like no other. Born in 1938, his childhood came ata most precarious time in German history. Hans-Georg Kern, as he was originally called, grew up in Deutschbaselitz in the GDR. He later on significantly adopted his place of origin as a pseudonym. After enrolling for two semesters (1957), he had to abandon his studies at the East-Berlin College of Visual and Applied Arts “because of socio-political immaturity”, and move to the West and study with the Informel painter Hann Trier. There he sees for the first time in 1958 works by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock which outright bewildered him. The ideological antagonism between the two social systems forms a fertile ground for his figurative expressive art. Here the West, who celebrates abstraction as an expression of boundlessly liberal sentiment, there the East, where art has political responsibility in the form of socialist realism. Baselitz does not want to associate with any camp, opposes the mainstream, despises conventions and fashions. Just how important the role as an uncomfortable provocateur and heroic outsider is to him is shown by the deliberately staged scandal at his first solo exhibition in 1963 in the Berlin gallery Werner & Katz. The rebellious image, however, is by no means damaging for him: he was able to secure commercial success very early and participated at the Documenta in 1972.

Baselitz’s trademark is the motif of painting the head first. This appeared in 1969. In doing this, he engages in a balancing act between abstraction and figuration – the object of the picture is, so to speak, meaningless, and pure. An autonomous painting can unfold. Even if this – increased by the heavy weight seriousness of his pictorial statements, which are due to the spartanly scarce themes from the basic motifs eagle and figure – has been taken by some critics with a grain of salt. They were convinced Baselitz like no other through his monstrously powerful painting and his severe eruptive brushstroke. Okwui Enwezor rightly applauds him in a speech for his “immense power as an artist”.

Naturally, Ulrich Wilmes’ overview show, which was developed according to the thematic guidelines, begins with the first iconic pictorial creations in which Baselitz, who sees himself as a restless character, never satisfied with his art, later on continues to work his way through. The focus is on “The Great Friends” from the 1965 series of “heroe pictures”, created under the influence of Italian Mannerism: unpolished, torn-off figures with tiny heads and open trousers in front of a gloomy landscape of ruins. And, of course, the first eagle fluttering upside down in the famous image “Finger Painting Eagle” from 1972 – this symbolically heavily charged motif is central to Baselitz’s iconography. It captivates the enormously vital, gestural application of paint, which is still largely committed to the subject. On the other hand, the first portrait of his wife Elke from 1969, a largely realistic, if upside down, portrait, as well as “Schlafzimmer” (1975), is more conventionally perceived than the homogenous color surfaces in red, blue and yellow, of course upside down , sitting file of Baselitz and Elke shows.

Overstacked in one of the adjoining wing rooms are a series of Adler pictures from the later 1970s: in an energetic duct no longer to be intensified, the picture unfolds noticeably distant compositions focused on the colors black, blue and white. All other rooms grouped around the representative central hall are reserved for works of the last creative decade. With the remix pictures starting in 2005, Baselitz deals explicitly with his own work history, varying earlier picture inventions under completely new aspects. This self-confident act of recollection evidently releases him at the same time from the compulsion of absolute independence and originality. Manifold references are now revealed, especially de Kooning and Pollock, then many other

Edvard Munch and Piet Mondrian, whose specific image concept must be used to somehow de-ideologize a swastika, e.g. at “Modern Painter” (2007).

All in all, however, one becomes almost painfully aware, especially in front of these pictures created in 2007, which pick up the motifs of the hero pictures, that this confused desolate type of man (individually or in a small group), who frequently wears a Hitler Schnauzer – like In general, the constant force of the strong image effect – in this forced accumulation sometimes can hardly stand.

The works evolve to more experimental and liberal. Instead of the former opaque tonality, transparent and often even radiant colors gradually dominate. Very loose webs of lines emancipate themselves more and more from the underlying, body-related color surfaces. In the exhibition catalog, the curator aptly describes this pattern of fractures, in which the unity of the object is broken up both formally and in terms of content: “The corporeality is almost completely dissolved in rapid coarse streaks of high transparency. In addition, the physiognomic details in nervously dripping lines in a remix style are almost decomposed. This is very revealing of his process: The lines are very rarely only contour lines, yes, much more likely they are growth lines as in plants. He says in an interview: “In medicine, there are charts of nerves, vessels, tendons, bones, muscles – that is how my lines should be.” The dynamic, loosely-elegant, interwoven line weaves in the picture “Va loch so erd munch” from 2013 is driven to its finish showing three inverted, naturally nude men in bright red ground with dotted horizontal stripes. In the case of the “Flugelhornist Gracie Irlam” from 2012, the lineages are partially so confused that it almost takes on a pathological direction.

At the same time, total condensation is accomplished in the Black Paintings, which in their sonorous effect counteract the exaggerated monumentality of the middle chamber. On the identical high rectangles, the eagle motif is now recognizable only in the texture of the impasto applied colors. Baselitz has mixed colors with black until a dark, fine melody of brown, blue, gray, black with minimal bright sprinkling has emerged – is there an allusion to the Black Square of Malevich or the “Black Paintings” of the Abstract Expressionists?

The massive, invariably black-patinated bronze sculptures that stand around a bit erratic, as well as the Black Paintings, draw attention with meaningful titles, such as “BDM Group” (2012), “Sing Sang Zero” (2011), the pair of performing groups, are only attributed by the artist’s cap and the usual high heels . “Zero Ende”, thelast work from 2014 represents a kind of seven-ringed dumbbell with skulls at the ends.

Critics and experts are unanimously enthusiastic about his wonderfully carefree pictures. Forty years later, the artist surprises us with a radically new pictorial concept, which aims to eliminate all visible contrasts in an almost minimalist reduction. All bursting with energy that keeps his practice present, looking like a wondrously soothed membrane.

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