For over 60 years, Georg Baselitz has tested the boundaries of contemporary art and actively shaped a new identity for postwar German painting. Though primarily credited with reviving German Expressionist painting in the 1970s, he also works in print and sculpture. The most iconic of Baselitz's works are his upside-down paintings, which he began in 1969 and continues making to examine historical and personal themes to the present day.Read More
Born in Nazi Germany in 1938 and raised under the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Baselitz's penchant for controversy began early his career. In the 1950s, he was expelled from his East Berlin art school for 'socio-political immaturity'. After relocating to West Berlin to continue his studies, Baselitz once again invited public scandal during his solo exhibition of 1963 in which two of his paintings were seized by public prosecutors on the grounds of obscenity. One of these paintings, Die große Nacht im Eimer or The Big Night Down the Drain (1962–3) depicts a young boy who was not only holding a phallus but also sporting an Adolf Hitler hairdo. Claims of Nazi references returned in 1980, this time in a wooden sculpture Baselitz that was then showing at the Venice Biennale. Aside from political controversies, the artist has also come under fire for his condescending remarks regarding female artists. Baselitz is not an artist wary of controversies, however, commenting in his 2015 interview with Ocula Magazine that 'I'm not to blame for this attitude of the audience, because ultimately my job is very controversial.' For Baselitz, social backlash is a necessary part of an artist's life.
Perhaps it is his nonchalance towards controversy that has enabled him to constantly confront the boundaries of contemporary art. In 1969 Baselitz began creating his iconic 'upside-down' paintings, in which his subjects—figures, landscapes and symbols—are painted upside down. His upturned subjects distort the viewer's expectation of figurative compositions, instead calling for a closer examination of the surface of the paint. Marred by splatters and layers of paint, Baselitz's paintings emit an expressive and intense quality.
Baselitz's works are known to engage in dialogue with art history and amongst themselves. Of the artists who have impacted him, including Otto Dix, Egon Schiele and Frank Auerbach, the Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning's influence reaches as far back as 1958 when Baselitz saw his works as a young student in West Berlin. In the exhibition Farewell Bill at Gagosian London (13 February–29 March 2014), the artist paid homage to de Kooning's gestural figure and explosive colours through his own monumental paintings that explored the fluidity of forms. Similarly, the paintings Baselitz created for Wir fahren aus (We're off)—an exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London (27 April–3 July 2016)—derive inspiration from Dix's The Artist's Parents (1924). Baselitz depicts himself and his wife Elke emaciated, nude and seated in similar positions as Dix's aged parents but upside down. The paintings were also a reinterpretation of his own work, Bedroom (1975), another painting that features the artist and his wife. Submerged in a foggy surface spray, the aged bodies of the couple allude to the notions of mortality, physicality and time. These themes are reflected throughout another series of drawings and sculptures also created for the exhibition. This reflection exemplifies Baselitz's 'remixing' process wherein a motif is reinterpreted repeatedly across different media.
An international reputation has not stalled Baselitz's conviction to challenge the mainstream and thus take risks. This ethos is reflected in his latest works; in 2015, Baselitz presented half-painted paintings that depict either the lower or upper half of a body. These paintings in turn recall Auerbach and Schiele's figural paintings. While similar to the artist's earlier paintings of fragmented bodies, the new paintings utilise a brighter colour palette and lighter brushstrokes. Disrupting the viewer's experience of painting in a way reminiscent of his upside-down paintings, this new body of works expresses Baselitz's concerns over the boundaries of composition and gestural figuration. That same year, the artist also shared his attitudes towards painting with Ocula Magazine: 'To fail is still a problem. There is still the feeling of being in infancy. There is little solidity that supports my work, quite the contrary, I feel I am still in a very fragile state.'
Baselitz has exhibited internationally in countries across Europe, the United States, China and South Korea. Major retrospectives of his work include Georg Baselitz: A Retrospective, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2007); Baselitz as sculptor, Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2011–12); and Georg Baselitz, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1995). Baselitz represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and participated in documenta 5 (1972), documenta 6 (1977) and documenta 7 (1982). The artist currently lives and works in Munich, Germany, and Imperia, Italy.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018