There’s no mistaking the world that breathes life into Georg Baselitz’s creativity. From the very start of this exhibition, we are confronted with an artistic output infused with war, violence, trauma, and a national identity that is everywhere pushing and pulling at personal identity. Baselitz’s paintings are inseparable from the history of postwar Germany. The canvases are huge, oversized even, and yet, like Anselm Kiefer’s installations across town, there is nothing monumental about them. it is though size is the measure of the pain and suffering that gave birth to Baselitz’s paintings, rather than the ego that executed them.
I am not one to dwell for too long on the biography of an artist as it usually doesn’t offer particularly astute insights into the works in front of me. But, Baselitz’s paintings are an exception. Born in the former German Democratic Republic, near Dresden, with a father who served as a Nazi soldier during World War II, Baselitz’s biography has given him material to paint for a lifetime. In so many of his works, including the early fragmented bodies and the later inversions, the bloodied, deformed, tormented or oppressed body is usually struggling within a hemmed-in space. In nearly all of the paintings, this torment is depicted through a furious brushwork that is too often labelled as expressionist. To me, it’s so much more than expressionist. Baselitz’s paintings are frenzied, showing an urgency, either as a screaming out for help from the deformed and incapacitated or dismembered body, or as an indication of the artist’s pressing urgency for solutions.
I was particularly drawn to those spaces on the canvas where nothing is apparently represented. A painting such as Mann im Bett (1982) is typical of Baselitz’s proficiency at creating balance in a canvas in which the figure is never or rarely centered. The isolated and scared individual in this painting is pushed to the top of the canvas, curled into a fetal position, in agony. And yet, the energy of paint on the rest of the canvas fills the empty space around the body with vitality and hope. My friend Loren and I discussed at length the negative space created by Baselitz’s depressed, distorted and maimed bodies. The spaces where bodies are not are so rich, replete with a different kind of intensity on the canvas thanks to Baselitz’s handling of paint.
This theme of the negative or “unused” space of the canvas becomes writ large across the whole painting in those works occupying the exhibition’s final room. In a convincing conclusion to the exhibition, the figure is a shadow, a silhouette, or a dying body behind a curtain. Moving on from the deformations and distortions, the final bodies are not simply abstracted—we can still see the outline—but bodies receding, washed away by Baselitz’s process of layering, working over to create intensity in the spaces and places that are otherwise empty. The text accompanying the exhibition mentions that Baselitz inverted the figure as a way to explore the problem of painting in the 1960s. However, there is another way of looking at these painfully emotive figures: the inverted and doubled figures lead to the veiling of the body, the slow disappearance of the figure from the painting altogether. This is, after all, Baselitz’s fascination with mirrors, shadows, reflections, and their connection to the camera obscura. It is as if Baselitz asks again and again, how can I represent the violent and murderous world in which I live? And in response, we are given paintings that claim the representation can only ever be an image, an upside down mirror image.
Of course, the doubling and inverting, the images of eagles falling out of skies and otherwise pretty pastoral scenes of the finger painting period speak about the turmoil of German history, the devastation of a country blown to smithereens at the end of the war. The minute he starts turning heroes upside down, whether they be war heroes or a man-eagle drinking beer at the beach, the canvas becomes infused with tragedy and poignancy. And even when he represents a world rebuilt after the war in Germany — in the Women of Dresden—the figures are cut with a chainsaw, the deformed faces are hacked out of wooden blocks with an axe. There is nothing warm and reassuring about Baselitz’s memories of the German past. I think this is what makes Baselitz’s work great: these works are about personal individual history and German history, the two intertwined, inseparable in the mind of the artist and the artworks he produces.
Adding to the allegorical dimension of works that are simultaneously about an individual inner turmoil and a frenzied search for meaning, identity, stillness, is the debt that Baselitz owes to the history of German art. Where the most obvious references in his work probably come by way of Abstract Expressionism from across the Atlantic, they are, as I say, also deeply rooted in the German imagination, the German aesthetic. In them we see the vibrant colour of die Brücke artists, the adherence to structure of the moderns, the commitment to the feverish world of emotions of the expressionists. There are also the debts to German woodcutting, to Romanticism—always—as the benchmark for a way out of the drama marking a world in the midst of change and upheaval. And as the exhibition text said, there are the references to the grand history paintings of Géricault, the art brut of Dubuffet, the distortions and dream world of the surrealists. Thus, their reach for inspiration is as extensive as their historical significance is profound.