“Art shouldn’t develop national rules, but at the same time there’s no such thing as international art. Instead there has always been and still is French, Italian, German, Flemish art and so on. My country is Germany. My origins are in Germany, and as a painter I am what you might call a double German. The tradition of German painting is a tradition of ugliness. From a geographical distance, ugliness may look exotic. That’s what makes German painting seem both exotic and ugly to the rest of the world. German painters have always been better at killing their fathers than French painters. That’s fine by me.”
-Georg Baselitz in conversation with Heinz Peter Schwerfel, 1988
Michael Werner Gallery, London is pleased to present an exhibition of major works by German painter Georg Baselitz, one of the most important painters of the second half of the twentieth century. I Was Born into a Destroyed Order begins in the 1960s and surveys the first three decades of the artist's career. A selection of seminal paintings, works on paper and sculpture will be on view.
Georg Baselitz was born Hans-Georg Kern in the Saxon village of Deutschbaselitz in 1938, into the destruction of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation and partitioning of the artist's homeland. As he explains in a 1995 interview, "I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn't want to re-establish an order: I'd seen enough of so-called order." In 1961 he adopted the name of his hometown, and as the art historian Richard Shiff keenly observes, "this action announced the presence of his birthplace in everything he would go on to accomplish: person and place were one." From his origins of destruction and disorder, Baselitz creates a body of work that, in his words, does not develop over time, but instead "each painting destroys the old one."
This exhibition features works from 1960 to the mid-1990s. On view will be works from Baselitz's "Pandemonium" series, an early "Hero" painting as well as important paintings from the "Fracture" series. Baselitz famously sought to separate representation from content by inverting the figure or motif, and the exhibition will include one of his first inverted landscape paintings from 1969. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Baselitz continued to experiment with abstraction by rendering the figure upside-down. The exhibition will include some of the artist's most significant paintings from that time as well as an extraordinary block of 22 works on paper from the artist's "Saxon-Motif" drawings of 1975.
A few years after Baselitz’s groundbreaking exhibition at Galerie Werner & Katz in 1963 in Berlin, the artist was awarded the prestigious Villa Romana Prize, which led to his first travel to Italy. During his extended stay in Florence, Baselitz began work on an important series known today as his “Hero” Paintings.
In “Das Bild für die Väter”, a key work from this period, we can see Baselitz moving into new territory, leading the way to major works of the following decades. The disfigured body and twisted head recalls “Madonna dal collo lungo” by Parmigianino; the broken remainders of civilization at the bottom of the painting take the form of a classical altarpiece composition. It is a memento mori of the destruction of war: shoes, a ladder, an entryway can be discerned among the debris. The deep ochre background conjures distant fires in the fields, or a looming twilight like a “Götterdämmerung”; the broken rope of destiny intertwined with barren, dead bodies. Like gods, the fathers have fallen out of the sky, and it is up to Baselitz’s generation to pick up the pieces and create a new future. This memento mori signifies the humility of the young painter facing a wrecked fatherland, and his need to carve out a new beginning. It is a task at once daunting and redemptive for a young country with the fresh history of a most destructive World War II.
You can recognize faces, legs, half figures, hares, feet, and so forth. These recognizable things are silhouetted so sharply that the edge of the picture arbitrarily cuts off the very thing that would be necessary for the definition of the totality. Only fragments of these things have emerged through my laying out the canvas on the studio floor or hanging it up on the studio wall. I laid it out in order to track down whatever was under the floor or in the ground or behind the wall. It is not what I see that’s beamed out and captured on the canvas; I’m no reflector and I don’t return a call like an echo. Fishermen use a bottomless pail to find their catch under the surface of the water. I do more or less the same when I lay out the canvas. That way I can find something that was, until then, hidden in dark spaces. When I find it, all I have to do is draw it on the canvas.
-Georg Baselitz, from a lecture delivered at Münchner Podium in den Kanznzlerspielen ‘92, Munich, November 8, 1992
In addition to Renaissance Old Masters, the Hero Paintings took as their starting point the famous 1854 painting “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” by Gustave Courbet. By adapting the central figure and incorporating it into Baselitz’s own narrative — one that lays bare the broken society of post-war Germany and the absence of a “father,” lost a generation before — Baselitz places himself into the role of a “new type” of male hero. Here, the artist becomes a catalyst and forbearer of a new society. Wrestling the narrative of his history from his father’s generation, he demands a reckoning with the past and a rethinking of the future, one that analyzes the context of history beyond its national borders.
He researched the Renaissance Old Masters from the 15th century at the Uffizi: for example Rosso Fiorentino (“Moses Defends Jethro’s Daughters”, ca. 1523-1524), Giulio Romano (for example the fresco “The Fall of the Giants” at Mantua), and most importantly, Parmigianino, from whom he borrows not only a new color palette but also compositional elements. Here, Baselitz for the first time adapts classical Mannerism into his work, leading to a departure from his earlier paintings. The elongated bodies of Mannerism remain a key aspect in Baselitz’s work today.
In 1969, a radical change occurred in Georg Baselitz’s oeuvre. Seeking to, in his own words, “liberate representation from content,” he began to render his landscapes, nudes, and still-life motifs upside-down, focusing the viewer’s attention foremost on the painterly and optical elements of the picture. “Turning the motif upside-down really changed what was there,” he explains. “These were no longer far-fetched things, but not really things at all, and instead inconsequential, normal motifs…”
From 1969 through the early 1970s, Baselitz worked with simple visual motifs, such as local flora and fauna of the idyllic countryside, often inspired by found imagery in reference books from his library. These works evoke a sense of pastoral nostalgia – a bird, for example, free and undisturbed in the classical landscape of German Romanticism – but in fact this peaceful scenery is imbued with a sense of post-war unease. These works imagine a picturesque Germany of old-world symbolism, hiding in plain sight amidst the prevalent political tension of the divided nation. Considering the social environment in which the works were painted, the beauty of the imagery is nearly untenable.
The limited vocabulary of these seemingly-simple artworks transformed into a catalyst for painterly invention: Baselitz continues today to explore inverted, recurring motifs throughout his oeuvre. “The subject, the motifs are inverted,” Baselitz explains, “not the image itself.”
A motif is enabling. An artist desiring independence isolates the motif he chances upon. If he chooses to attend to it, projecting it into consciousness, it becomes his. Such internalization of the motif assumes a double aspect. On the one hand, the artist is absorbed in and identifies with whatever external matters the motif may represent. On the other hand, he develops its decorative appearance, an abstraction that the pictorial process accentuates. For Baselitz, the second factor becomes more immediate than the first. It constitutes his imaginative invention, a mental discovery that conflates motific thematics with motific form: “I have always invented the objects and the various figurations that I wanted to show. I have never had a model ... No painter goes hunting for motifs ... because the motif is in the mind of the painter, the mechanism that thinks.”
-Richard Shiff, from “Tychic Motitif: Baselitz in History”, 2003
In his iconic 1984 painting “Das Liebespaar (The Lovers)”, we are invited to trace Georg Baselitz’s ongoing interest in engaging with Modern Art, ancient history and narrative mythology.
Here, “Das Liebespaar” shows clear references to Edvard Munch’s famous series of works not only in its title, but also in its composition and in the manner in which the brushstroke is applied. Munch frequently created works on the subject of love and its many facets; this led the artist to themes of jealousy, family and death (such as a painting depicting the death of his sister, with the artist sitting on her bedside).
Looking at Munch’s “Death of Marat” (1907), in which Munch depicts himself with presumably Tulla Larsen, his lover of four years, a quote of Baselitz comes to mind: “It’s the everyday of Munch that fascinates me,” he explains, “the sadness, the strange snow, the oddly clunky realism — so fleeting, so fragmented.”
Munch famously wrote to Larsen: “You will continuously seek an earthly happiness with me, who as I always explained to you does not belong to this earth.”
Since early in his career, Baselitz was interested in ancient Fayum portraits. These ancient Egyptian portraits decorated the tops of sarcophagi (beginning with the second and first centuries BCE) and are considered the first known personalized portraits. Originally, this tradition of drawing portraits was introduced to the Egyptian culture by the Greeks, and these portraits were created in the youth of the sitter and kept at home. They were placed on the face of the mummy upon the individual’s death, and considerd essential for life after death and regarded as “the immortal surrogate of the deceased.” Fayum Portraits mark the beginning of traditional panel painting in Byzantine and Western traditions, and through the Western exploration of the Pyramids in Egypt, Fayum Portraits eventually became collector’s items in late 19th Century Europe. Their remarkable frontal gaze can be found in Baselitz’s “Das Liebespaar”, as well as the notion that the work depicts an intimate and tender moment in the artist’s memory, possibly commemorating a passed or former lover.
“I had to find a new vocabulary for abstraction; the body became a way of fragmenting the painting to generate a new abstract effect. A good painting has nothing anecdotal about it, whether we’re talking about Piero della Francesca, Piet Mondrian, Rembrandt or even Picasso, who made seemingly illustrative works, such as Guernica. An illustration may give me a feeling and an experience, but there’s something abstract, seemingly ornamental, at its core. And that’s what I want to get at in my work.”
-Georg Baselitz in conversation with Donald Kuspit, from “Goth to Dance”, 1995
Baselitz’s “Das Liebespaar” may be a death scene: not only is its arrangement typical of a wake, the women on the bed brings to mind Pablo Picasso’s “L’Aubade” (1942). “L’Aubade” is considered a remembrance of the renaissance depiction of The Death of the Virgin Mary, for example the “Madonna del Sasso” in Orselina, Switzerland. The death here can be understood as an allegory for love’s eternity.
The colors Baselitz uses in “Das Liebespaar” are steeped in the palette of renaissance paintings and brings back the classical red, yellow and blue of painters such as Carlo Crivelli. While the twig in the canvas behind the bed may be a reference to the annunciation, it is certainly a nod to the windows in Old Master paintings, which often depict a distant landscape in the background.
It could be possible that there is a congruence, an overlapping between, on the one hand, what I’ve been thinking for years and what I’ve accordingly drawn and painted and, on the other hand, my current activity as a painter - whereby this painter won’t let in something that wants to come through the door. That is, l don’t want to use any new material, I want to use only what's been here for years - something that’s so restless that it constantly keeps turning more and more into lines and colors in its own circulatory system.
-Georg Baselitz, from “Painting: Out of The Head, Head Downward, Out of a Hat”, 1991