Georg Baselitz Rebellion by Standing Reality on Its Head

Special exhibition "Georg Baselitz: Nature as Motif"
Special exhibition "Georg Baselitz: Nature as Motif" | © Picture alliance

Painting motifs upside-down became his hallmark. Georg Baselitz is less concerned with the recognition factor of his technique and far more with depicting the world as he has experienced it: an upside-down world.

There are artists and writers who struggle with a theme throughout their lives, returning again and again to the same motifs and wrestling with that which eludes depiction. Many soon end up stagnating and become uninteresting. But those however, who continually take different perspectives, discover unconventional means and thereby illuminate their themes in new ways – these artists’ works never cease to ask interesting questions. Kafka was such a writer, Georg Baselitz is such a painter.

The process of painting as process of insight

The fact that Baselitz is not concerned with an interpretation of his subjects, but with the process of painting itself, can be seen in his works: his canvases appear unfinished by means of paint can edges, shoe prints and over-painting. Baselitz rejects clear-cut contours and cleanly-painted figures, since the foreground is taken up by the how and not the what. His first sculpture, which he presented in 1980 in Venice, was entitled Modell für eine Skulptur (Model for a Sculpture), half of which still remained un-carved in the wood block. The “how” enables us to follow the progress of the work and Baselitz’s thought process, which among other things leads to the insight that the “what” can be assertion pure and simple, and therefore absolutely must be called into question.

A German-German-German biography

Even as a child, Baselitz experienced the arbitrariness of such claims to truth. He was born into the Nazi dictatorship as Hans-Georg Kern on 23 January 1938, in Deutschbaselitz in Saxony. His parents were teachers – he remembers the schoolhouse where he lived with them: “A banner was stretched around the building with ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ (‘one people, one empire, one leader’) written on it.”

The next truth was presented to him in the form of GDR socialism. In 1956 he began studying art in East Berlin and concentrated on Picasso, but not the way his teachers intended. When after two semesters Baselitz submitted “his” Picassos of the war years in Paris, they saw only the decadence of the west. Baselitz was expelled from the academy on the grounds of “social immaturity” and continued studying in West Berlin.

But the West also confronted him with “truths.” Pollock and de Kooning were the new heroes, but however much they impressed Baselitz, he was not inclined to emulate them. Baselitz, for whom being a follower had a bad aftertaste, encountered the truths of this world with distrust. Someone that sceptical is compelled to find his own truth – and Baselitz, young and aggressive, set off in search of it. In 1961 he changed his name to Baselitz after his birthplace.
 

Rebellion without penalty

In 1962 he married Elke Kretzschmar and began to do something that “simply no one wanted at all,” he says. No recognition, not exactly a pleasant time, Die große Nacht im Eimer (A Big Night Down the Drain) had come. In 1963, the picture of a man masturbating was confiscated from the Galerie Werner und Katz in Berlin, as was the painting Nackter Mann (Naked Man) that shows a nude with an oversized, erect penis. Baselitz was prosecuted. He was forced to find another way of expressing his scepticism if he was to avoid getting into trouble with the state prosecutor’s office each and every time he rebelled. In 1969 he created his fracture paintings (Frakturbilder): figures he cut up into strips and put back together in displaced order. The irritating effect of madness ultimately led to his upside-down take on reality, which was to become his hallmark: in that same year he painted an upside-down motif for the first time – Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Forest Upside-Down). Rebellion by turning reality upside-down, and it worked: formally, Baselitz overcame concrete meaning and thereby created his own, personal alternative to the ideologically charged debates over realism and abstraction. He turned reality on its head and thereby rendered it abstract – it was this idea that made him famous.

“Strangely upright”

Baselitz knew he was on the right track. Starting in 2005, he began to revise his work and at the same time to deepen it. He then sometimes paints “strangely upright”, as he puts it. He also now finally feels stable enough to quote the great American artists of Abstract Expressionism and squeezes his figures out of the paint tube onto the black canvas, Action Painting without splattering. Negative images arise with reversed brightness values and the black eagles that convey the depressing aura of an oil-tanker accident. On the occasion of his major retrospective exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Baselitz, now 76, finds succinct words for his revisions of the past: he considers his works over and over again and understands that “it could all have been done differently.” And because Baselitz doesn’t stop at this insight, he goes and does things differently.
 

A survey of Baselitz’ work Back Then, In Between and Today – Damals, dazwischen und heute is offered by the exhibition of the same name in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 1 February 2015.