German Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor
Summary of Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz was enormously influential in showing a generation of German artists how they might come to terms with issues of art and national identity in the wake of the Second World War. Briefly trained in the officially sanctioned social realism of Communist East Berlin, he soon moved to West Berlin, and encountered abstract art. Ultimately, however, he was to reject both options. While others turned to Conceptual art, Pop, and Arte Povera, Baselitz revived the German Expressionism that had been denounced by the Nazis, and returned the human figure to a central position in painting. Controversial when he first emerged in 1963, and controversial again nearly two decades later when he began to produce sculpture, Baselitz inspired a revival of Neo-Expressionist painting in Germany in the 1970s, and his example gave encouragement to many more who took up similar styles both in Europe and the United States in the 1980s.
- Many aspects of Baselitz's work represent an attempt to revive symbols of German national identity that were tarnished after World War II. When he was maturing as a painter, the dominant style was a gestural abstraction that looked beyond Germany to international trends, but Baselitz rejected this in favor of Expressionism, a style which is central to his wider efforts. It signalled his desire to connect with a style and tradition that had been denounced by the Nazis. It also affirms his belief in romantic traditions that earlier Expressionists had adopted in protest against aspects of modern life.
- Although the figure has often been central in Baselitz's painting, his approach to it suggests a deep unease about the possibility of celebrating humanity in the wake of the Holocaust and WWII. Among his early series are images of Heroes, and Partisans, and yet these warriors seem awkward giants, clad in tattered rags. His later strategy of depicting figures upside-down might be read as another recognition of the same difficulty.
- Baselitz presented himself as a romantic outsider in the Pandemonium manifestoes he penned with fellow painter Eugen Schönebeck in 1962, and his paintings often present figures who have been traditionally seen as outcasts from society. At a time when German society was rebuilding itself in the image of American consumerism, his painting represented a refusal and a protest. In this sense the figures that inhabit his Heroes series might be read as types from an earlier, more romantic era in German history, an era now passed.
- Although Baselitz's embrace of painting was important in encouraging the medium's revival in the 1970s and 1980s, some believe his style betrays an anxiety about its continued viability in world of mass communication. Rather than delight in the lush effects of oil paint, his handling sometimes suggests awkward scratches and smears, an effect which compounds the anguish of the figures he depicts.
Biography of Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz was born Hans-Georg Kern on January 23, 1938 in Deutschbaselitz. His family lived in a flat above a schoolhouse where his father taught elementary students. The school was used as a garrison for soldiers during World War II and was later destroyed during frontline combat with the Russians while the family took refuge in the cellars beneath the building. It was in the school's library where Georg discovered pencil drawings made in the 19th century. This initial experience with art inspired Baselitz to create artwork himself. In 1949 he assisted wildlife photographer Helmut Drechsler on ornithological photo shoots, which led to Baselitz's later landscapes of the Saxony countryside, and inspired the painting, Wo ist der gelbe Milchkrug, Frau Vogel (Where is the Yellow Milkjug Mrs Bird?), a piece featuring upside-down yellow birds.
Important Art by Georg Baselitz
Die grobe Nacht im Eimer or Big Night Down the Drain depicts a young boy, perhaps a self-portrait of the artist, holding an exaggerated phallus, and is one of Baselitz's most controversial paintings. It was inspired by an article about the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, who was a notorious drunk, and we might compare it to the many other images Baselitz later produced which depict the figure of the artist. During his first solo exhibition in 1963, at a Berlin gallery, the painting was seized by the public prosecutor's office for "infringement of public morality." The shocking subject was intended to encourage an awakening that Baselitz thought was necessary in a post-war Germany lulled into amnesia about its recent past. "I proceed from a state of disharmony, from ugly things," he once said, and this confrontation with ugliness was something he believed was necessary to confront the violence of 20th century history.
The Rebel exemplifies Baselitz's early portraits. Typical are the distorted proportions and exaggerated anatomical structure. The painting is among many he produced in the 1960s that concentrate on archetypal figures, such as 'heroes', 'rebels', and 'shepherds'. Here, the hero figure appears wounded, bloody, and limping, the body almost transparent as we are offered a glimpse of the viscous, ensnarled entrails. The image draws inspiration from Baselitz's childhood in Saxony, where he was exposed to the violence of WWII firsthand. It also draws on the imagery of German Romanticism, in which nature and the landscape was often used as a focus of patriotic and religious feeling.
Der Wald auf dem Kopf or The Wood on its Head is Baselitz's first inverted painting, in which he upends his subject matter to frustrate recognition of the objects depicted. Its motif, based on a picture by the early-19th-century painter Louis Ferdinand von Rayski, is similar to those found in his previous work, but here he makes them secondary to the physical properties of the medium. This radical approach troubles our ability to interpret the picture, leaving us wondering whether we are now looking at an abstraction or, simply, a conventional landscape upturned. We might read it as symptomatic of Baselitz's continuing attempts to find a different path from those that had been dominant when he emerged - the gestural abstraction of Paris and New York, and the Socialist Realism of the Eastern bloc.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Georg Baselitz
- Baselitz, PainterBy Helle Crenzien, Poul Erik Tojner, Georg Baselitz
- Georg BaselitzOur PickBy Diane Waldman
- Georg Baselitz: A RetrospectiveBy Norman Rosenthal, Richard Shiff, Carla Schulz-Hofman, Georg Baselitz
- Georg Baselitz Recent PaintingsBy Michael Brenson
- Georg Baselitz: Recent Paintings 1997By Richard Schiff