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.
The artist is not responsible to any one. His social role is asocial... his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does.
I don't like things that can be reproduced. Wood isn't important in itself but rather in the fact that objects made in it are unique, simple, unpretentious.
The New Satesman
by Michael Prodger, March 13, 2014
Georg Baselitz is now 76 and it is more than 50 years since he outraged Berlin gallery-goers with a dark and visceral masturbatory painting called The Big Night Down the Drain (1963). In 1969 he turned shock into bemusement when he produced his first upside-down painting, The Wood on Its Head. His rationale for painting upside-down pictures was that it was a way of being simultaneously abstract and figurative. Viewers were forced to see the pictures as collections of marks rather than as representations of motifs. As Baselitz put it: "The reality is the picture, it is most certainly not in the picture."
His art has always been an attempt to work out what it means to be a German of the immediate postwar generation. Baselitz was born in East Germany and moved to West Berlin to study art in 1958, shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. Under the influence of the American abstract expressionists he treated his tangled heritage in series called Heroes, New Types and '45 and consistently used the German eagle as a subject.
What was bold in the 1960s and 1970s, however, now looks quaint or hackneyed. In his more recent work the Teutonic element is minimal but the expressionism is as strong as ever – and he is still painting upside-down pictures.
In one of those coincidental groupings that sometimes occur, there are three Baselitz exhibitions running in London. The Gagosian Gallery is showing a series of self-portraits entitled Willem raucht nicht mehr – literally "Willem smokes no more" but colloquially Farewell Bill. Bill refers to Willem de Kooning, and these 11 canvases, painted last year, are a recognition of one of the artist's heroes and perhaps a valediction, too. All feature Baselitz, often with a skull's jaw, wearing a cap emblazoned with the word "Zero", the name of his paint supplier. And it is paint that is their real subject.
The pictures are variations, each using a slightly different colour combination: in one, an unmixed red; in another, Philip Guston pink scumbles with blues and yellows; in a third, we see ice-cream shades, and so on. When he painted them Baselitz put the canvases on the floor and laid on marks from every angle. They bear pigment-smeared footprints and the circles of paint-tin bases as well as his full array of intentional splashes, flicks, smears and strokes.
Their size, some 12 feet square, and their vigour ("Most of what you see as freedom is de Kooning," Baselitz has said) give the pictures a tangible presence and their massing increases the effect exponentially. Yet there is also something of what might be termed the fallacy of the white gallery about the group. They are best seen as an ensemble in a specialist space; taken individually, their potency wanes. Together they are a paean to an important figure in Baselitz's life but out of context they are something rather less intense: paintings about painting.
If de Kooning has been one influence on Baselitz the evidence of others lies in his collection of prints, a selection of which is on show at the Royal Academy in "Renaissance Impressions". The images are all chiaroscuro woodcuts, a form developed in the 16th century that made special play of light and shade and that used separate tone blocks to supplement the design given by the original black-line print. It was a highly technical medium that engaged minor masters, from Germans such as Hans Burgkmair and Hans Baldung Grien to the Dutchman Hendrick Goltzius and the Italian mannerist Domenico Beccafumi. Some of them both drew their own designs and cut their own blocks; others took their images from the likes of Raphael and Parmigianino.
Their lure for Baselitz surely lies in their painterliness: they have a variety of tone that other prints of the period cannot match. His own Heroes pictures have an identical sense of monumentality.
Some of these drawings can be seen in the British Museum's "Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation", which is based around a gift of 34 German works on paper (17 by Baselitz) from the industrialist Christian Duerckheim. Many of the images by Baselitz feature a lumbering creature – part man, part monster – involved, to the point of inertia, in some unnamed Sisyphean struggle against fate or the weight of history.
The exhibition shows, however, that Baselitz was not alone. His "generation" also included other East German artists such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, A R Penck and Markus Lüpertz. All of them rejected the prevailing socialist realism of their homeland and headed west in order to paint what and how they wanted. Perhaps the surprise is that only Baselitz ended up painting upside-down pictures of their upside-down world.
[ Georg Baselitz is a ] German painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. After attending grammar school in Kamenz, near Dresden, he began studying painting at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in East Berlin in 1956 but was expelled after one term because of 'socio-political immaturity'. After moving to West Berlin in 1956, at which time he took a new surname reflecting his place of birth, he resumed his studies in 1957 at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in West Berlin; in 1961 he became a post-graduate student under Hann Trier, completing his studies in 1962. He became interested in literature and in the theoretical writings of painters such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Ernst Wilhelm Nay. His intensive reading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, the Comte de Lautréamont, Antonin Artaud, Stefan George, Gottfried Benn and Samuel Beckett had a great influence on his early work.
After moving to West Berlin Baselitz became closely associated with two other painters from East Germany, A. R. Penck and especially eugen Schönebeck, with whom he held his first exhibition in 1961. Together he and Schönebeck published a manifesto entitled Pandämonium on this occasion, followed by a second version in 1962 in connection with another joint exhibition. Even in his early work of the late 1950s and early 1960s Baselitz rebelled against the dominance of abstract painting, proposing in its place a very personal, expressive figurative art rooted in the art brut and psychotic art produced by the mentally ill and others at odds with society. The imagery in these early works, symbolic of the body and its organs and of sexual obsessions, borders on the traumatic. The most important picture of this phase of his development, The Great Piss-up (oil on canvas, 2.5×1.8 m, 1962–3; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), was confiscated as immoral when it was first exhibited in West Berlin in 1963; it shows a naked man holding an exaggeratedly large penis, with another nude figure doubled over on the floor behind him.
In 1965 Baselitz was awarded a scholarship for a year's residential study at the Villa Romana in Florence. In 1966 he moved from Berlin to Osthofen, near Worms, and from there in 1971 to Forst an der Weinstrasse. From the mid-1960s he concentrated on several figure types—'heroes', 'rebels' and 'shepherds'—sometimes portrayed as scarred or wounded but presented in a stylized form as modern heroes, as people from a mythical land beyond our questionable civilization. These complete pictures, rich in their spiritual and historical overtones, culminated in the Great Friends (oil on canvas, 2.5×3.0 m, 1965; Vienna, Mus. 20. Jhts), in which two standing figures, larger than life, are shown against a black wilderness. They were followed by compositions in which the image was divided into strips shown side by side in different combinations as in Kullervo's Feet (1.62×1.30 m, 1967; see London exh. cat., 1983–4, p. 39). Using this dismemberment of the subject as a first stage in the disruption of its legibility, Baselitz began to play down the importance of subject-matter and to emphasize in its place the underlying pictorial structure.
From 1969 Baselitz painted his subjects upside down, as in the Forest on its Head (2.5×1.9 m, 1969; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), seeing in this method the possibility of stressing the realization of the motif as a painted surface and the form as his primary concern. While making use of elements familiar from his earlier pictures, he now made them subservient to the physical and pictorial properties of the medium itself, not only in paintings such as Elke Nude (1977; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.) but also in his drawings, etchings and woodcuts.
After moving in 1975 to Derneburg, near Hildesheim, Baselitz served as professor of painting at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe (1977–82) and at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in West Berlin (1983–8); he divided his time during these years between Derneburg and Imperia on the Italian Riviera. Although he continued to present the medium itself as his primary vehicle of expression, in the 1980s he again gave greater weight to subject-matter, for example in variations on compositions by Munch or in reworkings of Christian iconography. Painter with Sailing Ship (Munch) (2.5×2.0 m, 1982; see London exh. cat., 1983–4, p. 17) is one of several portraits of Munch made at this time. In these reinterpretations, however, the densely worked surface and monumentality of form are even more marked than in his earlier work. This association of explosive iconography with a virtually abstract painterly technique is impressively brought to bear in the two paintings of 1983 dedicated to Die Brücke, the group of Expressionist painters based in Dresden in the early 20th century: Supper in Dresden (Zurich, Ksthaus) and the Brücke Choir (New York, Emily and Jerry Spiegel priv. col.).
In 1979 Baselitz began work on his first monumental sculptures in wood, for which he employed an elemental and deliberately unpolished technique that gave his figures and heads an archetypal forcefulness. One of the earliest of these, Model for a Sculpture (painted limewood, 1980; see London exh. cat., 1983–4, p. 17), exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1980, represents a human torso as if rising from the block of wood resting on the ground. Like Kirchner before him, he exploited the directness and freedom from verisimilitude of African sculpture to arrive at an expressive power inextricably related to the laying bare of the methodical nature of the creative process. He continued to produce isolated examples of such sculptures at fairly long intervals while continuing to extend his range as a drau ghtsman and printmaker, for example in a series of monumental woodcuts such as Drinker/Head with Bottle (1000×785 mm, 1981; see Gohr, p. 150). Having worked for many years against the mainstream of contemporary art, by the 1980s he had established an international reputation through his influence on the young German Neo-Expressionist painters referred to in Germany as the 'Neue Wilden'.
And yet Baselitz's palette is so high-keyed and jaunty that the paintings never become lugubrious. They occupy a strange middle ground: aware of mortality, but pulsating with life-affirming energy. There is something almost absurdly comic about them, in the manner of playwrights such as Beckett and Artaud, whose laughter in the darkness influenced Baselitz as a young man. Several paintings have a devil-may-care, jokey quality, as though the artist wished to thumb his nose at death.
In this series, then, one of Germany's most important living artists marries the nihilism of his youth – visible in his superb Sixties drawings and prints currently at the British Museum – with a fearless joy in painting. The result is a beguiling mix.
- Alastair Sooke. From Goodby Bill, Gagosian Gallery review, The Telegraph, March 2014
Georg Baselitz – Collected Writings and Interviews, Edited by Detlev Gretenkort / Foreword by Jill Lloyd, London, Ridinghouse 2010
Benjamin Katz: Georg Baselitz at Work, Engl./ Germ. Hirmer-Verl