'I begin with an idea, but as I work the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea I preconceived ... and the picture that fights for its own life.'—Georg Baselitz.
Struggle, along with the human condition and a smattering of controversy: this is what sits at the heart of work by painter, sculptor and printmaker, Georg Baselitz.
One of Germany’s most distinguished painters, Baselitz has enjoyed a career spanning almost 60 years, battling with his canvases and occasionally audiences along the way. From being thrown out of his East Berlin art school for ‘political immaturity,’ and having his first exhibition shut down due to an obscene painting referencing Adolf Hitler (The Big Night Down The Drain / Die große Nacht im Eimer, 1962/3), to his upside-down paintings and his comments on female artists (they can’t paint, apparently), he’s always taken the role of the contentious, and at times, crotchety outsider. It’s a position he relishes, and one that has come to define his work almost as much as the expressionistic, tortured and feverish lines of his figurative forms.
Baselitz is part of a generation of artists, including Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo, who hailed from the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the wrong side of a divided Germany. Born Hans-Georg Kern in Deutschbaselitz, Saxony, he later changed his name to reference his city of birth in order to protect his family from the wrath of the Communist Apparatchik after he was thrown out of school for not falling into line. Until he arrived in West Berlin in 1957, as a 20 year-old student, his life had been lived under the regime of the Nazis, and then the communist rule of the GDR. Weighed down by such history, it’s no surprise Baselitz has spent a lifetime exploring Germany through his artwork. ‘I wonder if bad experiences are necessary for good paintings. It was certainly true in my case,’ he mused in an interview earlier this year with a British newspaper.
In West Berlin, a drip feed of artistic influences from Willem de Kooning, German Expressionism, and Cubism trickled down, shaping his work into the distinctive neo-expressionist style he developed, informed by a language of personal and national history. In the ‘60s, at a time when post-war baby boom America was in thrall to pop art, Baselitz filled his canvases with frenzied brushwork and murky colours, depicting distorted, and sometimes fractured, grotesque figures. These paintings were less a celebration of humanity than a confrontation with the ugliness of it: with trauma, war and the darkness of the human psyche. While the West championed consumerism, Baselitz doggedly attempted to express the incomprehensible, dredging up unresolved issues of his country’s past through symbolism and the figure.
Breaking with painting conventions in 1969, Baselitz created his upside-down paintings, which were to become a hallmark of his work. Landscapes, figures and symbols are inverted, the viewer’s experience of the work is disrupted, shifting attention away from the figurative towards the materiality of the paint instead, emphasising the surface rather than what is represented. Not that Baselitz luxuriates in the materiality and sensuality of paint, rather he uses it to suggest anxiety and tension: splattering, smudging, layering and scratching into the paint. Likewise his sculptural works are physical and expressive, giving the appearance of being brutally hacked with chainsaw and axe, the wood carved and forced into little more than a crude ‘outline.’
Currently exhibiting for the first time at White Cube Hong Kong (30 October–5 December 2015), Baselitz presents us with two series of previously unseen paintings, as well as a selection of prints and a large sculpture, which revisit and rework familiar themes and motifs. Across a series of black canvases paying homage to Otto Dix’s 1921 woodcut Street Noise (Lärm der Strasse), the reduced form of disembodied black legs swirl with momentum in a shape somewhat resembling a swastika. The works are a continuation of a series he painted for Glyndebourne opera festival earlier this year. In a large bronze sculpture cast from wood, a bundle of roughly hewn legs appear held together by several rings on a bench. In another new series, large works seem bisected as the top or bottom half of the gestural and figurative paintings are left blank. They recall Baselitz’s fractured and fragmented bodies of his earlier paintings, but the colours are brighter and the brushstrokes freer and lighter, and the body, outlined sketchily in loose black lines, is punctuated with splatters. These works appear less burdened by the heavy weight of history than the paintings that heralded his arrival as one of Germany’s leading post-war artists.
Exhibition view: Georg Baselitz, White Cube, Hong Kong (30 October–5 December 2015). Courtesy White Cube. Photo: Vincent Tsang.