Georg Baselitz

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On the left Georg Baselitz, Meine neue Mütze, 2002 and on the right George Baselitz, Lesender Mann, 1982

Left: Georg Baselitz, Meine neue Mütze, 2002. Courtesy: Galerie Boisserée, Cologne. Right: George Baselitz, Lesender Mann, 1982. Courtesy, Brooke Alexander, New York

Outspoken, brilliant, urgent and provocative, German artist Georg Baselitz is undoubtedly among the most celebrated and sought-after artists of his time. His engagement with German national identity at a time when many artists were shying away from so difficult a subject was an extraordinary act of self-assertion. That revealed his willingness to confront out unpalatable themes and ruthlessly follow his own path as an artist.

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Georg Baselitz has never shied away from painting the world in all its lumpen depravity, and much of his best work appears hideous, unsettling, and in some cases even crude. But there is far more to Baselitz’s paintings and art prints than first meets the eye, and their apparent coarseness camouflages their own astonishing levels of accomplishment.
Born in East Germany in 1938, Baselitz grew up in the rubble of Nazi Germany—one of his first memories was watching Dresden burning after its firebombing in 1945. His father, a school teacher who lost an eye fighting for the Nazis, had a fraught relationship with his son who was expelled for “social-political immaturity” from his East Berlin art school in 1955. Two years later the young Baselitz escaped to West Berlin where he enrolled at the Hochschule der Künste, changing his name from Hans-Georg Kern to Baselitz—a homage to the town of Deutschbaselitz where he grew up.

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Against the wishes of his art school teachers, who considered his aims anachronistic, Baselitz set out to “examine what it was to be a German now”. He once remarked: “What I could never escape, was Germany, and being German”, and it is a weight he has at times found difficult to bear. His series of Adler (Eagles) reconsider this famous image of Teutonic power, turning it into a crashing national symbol.
A keen printmaker, throughout his career Baselitz has been an admirer of the woodcut and its sense of immediacy and spontaneity. “Every incision in the wood is visible in the final print, there is no possibility to hide or redo lines.” Indeed, it is possible to see that liberation of feeling in his print Lesender Mann, 1982, a signed woodcut. At first glance a cacophony of unrecognizable markings, its subject remains hidden until we catch up with its inversion. Like the pictured man, reading and yearning for comprehension, the spectator too must struggle for clarity.
Baselitz is a great admirer of the woodcut method, seeing it as forming a continuous link to the Middle Ages. Many of his etchings have a scratchy and jittery feel, pervading the limited edition prints with a sense of unease, an effect he uses in his paintings to compound the feeling of anguish in the figures he depicts.

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The Nazi Legacy
As a young artist, Baselitz recalls feeling that all artistic tradition in Germany had been eviscerated: “There was an insane pressure to simply do something. You didn’t have time, you couldn’t try this or that, instead you had to do something, had to, and the chance of succeeding didn’t exist. There were no galleries, nobody wanted paintings.” In the 1980s he began upending his work, turning it upside down as a means to show that a painting’s content does not necessarily have to be the same as its subject matter.
Earlier that same decade, in 1980, Baselitz installed a highly controversial sculpture at the Venice Biennale. Half-emerging from a block of wood the figure bore resemblance to Hitler and appeared to be making a Nazi salute. Many Germans artists and writers were haunted by the significance of that gesture, and in his woodcut art prints Normalfuss I, 1996, and Auch Fuß, 1996 the upturned feet could almost be echoing that same outlawed and inflammatory salute. By separating the foot from the rest of the body, Baselitz forces us to view it in isolation, and in doing so ridicules it, and the violence inherent in a simple extension of a limb.

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Degenerate Art
Georg Baselitz has never been one to shy away shocking subject matter. Back in 1963 his painting Big Night Down the Drain was confiscated by the authorities for an “infringement on public morals”—an act that echoed a previous regime’s response to what they called “Degenerate Art”. The art work depicts a rough looking individual—indistinguishable from a child or an old man—holding on to their own grossly elongated penis. Big Night Down the Drain was intended to shake post-war Germany awake after it had been lulled into obliviousness about its recent past. “I proceed from a state of disharmony,” he once said, “from ugly things”. Only through shocking ugliness could the aggression of the 20th century be confronted.
As far back as the 1960s he divided his canvases into fractured areas cutting up motifs and displacing body parts, bulls and breasts forced together and roughly separated. And for all the vigor of his paintings and art prints, often it is as though the image is receding, wanting to disappear entirely, just like with his print Torso III. The woodcut is not easy on the eye, and the aggressive, uneven black marks obscure the upended headless figure in the background. Reminiscent of his famous series Heroes from the 1960s, these dramatic but seemingly vulnerable figures brought entities from German’s buried past back to life. Jarring with the perception and success of Germany’s economic miracle, although seeming to celebrate humanity, in the aftermath of the Holocaust these startled giants and clad in rags were unwelcome and contradictory.

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His Modern Work
In order to highlight the artifice of the work, Meine neue Mütze is upside down, rendering the face’s expression indecipherable. The brilliant contrast of the white and black adds to starkness of the isolated head that appears to be wearing military uniform with pronounced epaulettes and buttoned up to the neck.
The Signs Portfolio finds Baselitz at his most achingly poetic—his sparse etching technique embellished with the intense vigor of blood-red flowers. This portfolio of 10 works was made in collaboration with the renowned American poet, Robert Creeley. The childlike, unfinished quality that gives Baselitz’s work such force is here, too.
Georg Baselitz remains a divisive in the world of art. Used to speaking his mind, his refusal to kowtow to the conventions and protocols of existence have made him an artist of rare singularity and international renown.