The Artist Balthus

According to Swiss radio, if you have a Balthus exhibition, you should be prepared for protests. The Fondation Beyeler in Basel nevertheless dares to do so.

Balthus’ portraits of young girls are controversial because he painted them in erotic poses and not out of fantasy. Anna came to Balthus for eight years to model for him. An artist lives and works with girls who are just about to become women; that is something that can certainly be discussed. Freedom of art permits many things, but how do you present and view works that move at the limits of social rules and norms or even go beyond them? Of course, there is no answer to this question. You can put a work in its historical context, you can focus on artistic achievement or you can question the artist and society. The curator decides what the focus is on in an exhibition; the sovereignty of interpretation remains with the viewer.

How do you get a picture of Balthus’ paintings at the Fondation Beyeler without seeing the exhibition?

I didn’t visit the Balthus exhibition, which can still be seen at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel until 1 January 2019. Instead, as in my studies, an exhibition catalogue is lying in front of me on the table and in my browser you can find some articles about Balthus and the current exhibition in Basel. It is the basis for this text, which does not satisfy me yet. For me, art is more than descriptive words and illustrations. Art must touch you. And that should also be a text about art.

From my point of view, emotionless articles either end up as elitist regulars’ table texts or are a scientific debate. Neither the one nor the other leads me to be enthusiastic about a visit to a museum. When I leaf through the Balthus catalogue, however, I feel like visiting the exhibition and diving into the pictures. Because I don’t just look at art, I try to absorb a work with all my senses.

How do you think, feel or hear a work of art when you can “only” see it?

I want to enjoy art and don’t go to museums to educate myself. It’s important and right that exhibitions are didactically prepared, that an accompanying program is developed and that you consider how to convey works of art. Sometimes I’m interested, but mostly I just want to look at art. Because a good work of art opens a space for me in which I approach the truth. The truth, which nobody can define unambiguously, because enlightenment seems to consist in understanding that the truth is ambiguous.

The more ambiguous, the better

Balthus’ images are ambiguous and his narrative motifs offer space for one’s own thoughts. I wonder what goes on in the minds of the children portrayed, how I would depict myself and what world view can be derived from the street scenes.

The more I try to approach Balthus’ pictures, the more my thoughts become blurred. The images in my head become blurred. I feel the right words to describe individual works, but I cannot write them down. But that’s a good sign, because pictures and words are limited sign systems that can’t depict everything. The truth is between the signs. But not hidden. Quite the opposite. Everyone can see them, but not recognize them correctly.

It is comparable to Balthus’ pictures: For example La Lecon de guitare or Thérèse rêvant. In both pictures, the viewer’s gaze is directed by the composition to the intimate area of the girls. The observer is afraid to follow the composition lines, although Balthus “with few exceptions shows little interest in the depiction of the female pubic region”.

You can see you’re not seeing anything special

Art doesn’t have to be special to be special. Which works are special is not only determined by personal taste. A work is remarkable when it confronts the viewer with something that, for example, he is afraid of or has not yet seen. Something that widens the horizon at a point in time when you can see the horizon and is willing not to fall off the window, but to move on. Walking over the horizon creates an incredible feeling.

Feelings also arise when pictures invite you to dream, when aesthetics inspire the viewer, or when you are enthusiastic about the artist’s technical abilities. Because of such feelings, I go to an exhibition that I don’t want to leave with more knowledge, but with new emotions. Because emotions strengthen one’s own empathy. You put yourself in the work of art and try to understand the work, the artist, the composition and much more.

Whether the Balthus exhibition in Basel is provocative or inspiring is difficult to judge from a distance. Provocation and protest are in any case inspiring if one does not allow oneself to be blindly provoked, but reflects, discusses and uses high-cooking emotions. The Balthus retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel seems to offer good conditions for this.

Of the art of being a freak

How deeply the traumas of the Nazi era and the Second World War, as well as all the consequences including the Cold War, are located can be measured to some extent if one listens to Georg Baselitz – for example in the artist talk that curator Moritz Schwander conducted with the jubilarian on February 16 at the Fondation Beyeler. Despite his pleasure in providing information, which manifests itself in numerous interviews, Baselitz is and remains perhaps the most hermetic and at the same time most expressive of the German generation of painters who turned to figuration again in the 1960s. The representatives of this group – mostly bearded, massive-looking men – come predominantly from teacher families and are most likely from Saxony or neighbouring Bohemia and Silesia. Despite all their heterogeneity, they combine flight destinies with the subsequent experience of being a stranger.

Baselitz left the GDR in 1957. Relegated by the then Hochschule für bildende und angewandte Kunst (today: Berlin Weißensee) because of “socio-political immaturity”, he went to the West, where he was perceived as a scrawny phenomenon with a broad Saxon accent not only by his class at today’s UdK, but also by the rest of the environment as an “eccentric”. The path to becoming an artistic hermit, as Baselitz self-deprecates, was marked out by his character and poor upbringing, as well as the compulsion to find one’s way around.

About German ugliness

With his commitment to expressive painting, Baselitz refers to the formal vocabulary of Expressionism, namely the bridge. As a characteristic of German art, he calls the existential aspect of painting. The artist perceives their classicist tendencies, for example embodied by the Nazarenes in the 19th century or the representatives of the New Objectivity in the 20th century, as “not fitting” and thus transfers a well-known discourse figure of Classical Modernism into the present: various metaphors were coined to separate Romanesque and Nordic formal vocabulary, to (re)expel antique worship, Renaissance and classicism. If one takes Spengler’s pair of Appollin and Faustian terms, Baselitz adapts the latter, for example when he describes painting as a diabolical process.

The motif of this deep rootedness in the Central German provinces while striving for the highest perfection, mediatized by the ideal of bourgeois education and Protestant ambition, has been deciphered by Thomas Mann on the figure personnel of his doctor Faustus. For example in the description of Jonathan Leverkühn, in whose physiognomy landscape and German history have been imprinted.

Conversely, the enrolment process with Georg Baselitz, who bears the name of his hometown, proceeds exactly as if he wanted to ascertain his own origins from a distance – by the way, this also follows an expressionist dogma, for example Emil Nolde or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

“The heterogeneity of Baselitz’s ‘Wahlverwandschaften’ may rightly be irritating,” ponders Martin Schwander in his catalogue contribution. In Baselitz’s canon of role models, anti-classicism par excellence is embodied and extends from the Mannerists to non-European countries. Baselitz’s work can also be understood regionally, not only with the sought-after dilettantism of a Kirchner, but also – with a view to the trial for lewd pictorial material from 1964/65 – as a continuation of the socially critical attitude of another great Saxon regionalist, namely Otto Dix.

But the Expressionist cultural heritage had been washed up in America by the National Socialist cultural barbarism, where artists like Jackson Pollock and theorists like Clement Greenberg, claiming to create an expression of their own identity, endeavored to purge it of everything late-Gothic. As a purified all-over, they were transported back to Europe to meet the young art student Hans-Georg Kern. As Georg Baselitz, he confesses today that he has never recovered from this shock of seeing Pollock. This confrontation has inscribed itself in the work. Since then, Baselitz has been inviting Abstract Expressionism with elements full of German gnarliness.

Maintaining the effect of the reverse images, Baselitz has also been painting on the floor since the early 1990s, where since then elements of drip painting have emerged, especially in his late figure paintings, such as the Remix series. Where the artist applies the paint to the canvas in a highly diluted form with calligraphic precision.

Profit and loss

The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is choreographed in strict chronology. It thus submits to the gruelling didactics that bring together the interests of the art market and the educational mission to their lowest common denominator. As a grand narrative, the parcours leads from the beginnings to the present without surprises and disturbances. One could have been more willing to take risks here and put works apart from their art historical classification in work phases into dialogue and antagonism and competition, all the more so with an artist who resumes older projects in his painting.

The monumental painting Avignon Ade from 2017 offers a highlight of an aesthetic nature in the exhibition. Clinging between the floor and ceiling, it dominates the most impressive visual axis of the house. The sculptures set accents with references between the wooden surfaces worked with the chainsaw and the relief of the paint application. Passages of oppressive realism, oscillating between canvas and idol, must impress, according to Elke’s face in Mrs. Ultramarin from 2004. His wife’s most haunting portraits are available, such as Portrait Elke 1, a painting that – if not reversed – could certainly compete with works of New Objectivity. Photography, especially instant and digital photography, was and is so relevant to Baselitz’s image production as a discrete process that one would like to know more about all these visual and intermedial transfer processes.

In all this solidity, in the end it remains the performance of the master himself, which produces a little excitement. It is side blows to “Multikulti”, for instance, that logically derive from the artistic biography and self-mythologization. The artist philosopher, on the other hand, accuses the current art circus of conformism and political correctness, of which he himself is a part. Baselitz’s conservatism is deeply rooted in the expressive tradition of classical modernism in the history of art and culture, and thus belongs to the DNA of his work.

When Baselitz throws Hans Sedlmayr’s loss of the center into the circle, it’s all about the big themes. The artist accepts his elementary thesis of secularization and recognizes in it a liberation from ideological and religious burdens, which do art good and which he himself has reconstructed in his work.

The simple complexity of the world

The world is so simple that anyone can live in it, but so complex that no one can explain it. It’s that simple. Well, you might not be able to break it down that easily, because there are people who have problems to survive in the world. Sometimes it may be their fault, but often it is without their own fault. With my introduction I only want to suggest that the world is actually so simple that most people find their way in it and lead an everyday life. But when it comes to explaining the world, you have to be careful not to despair.

You are happy when you get a new insight and think that you have understood something more again. But with every door you open, a room opens with new doors.

There are rooms that we don’t see

In order not to get lost in the thoughts about the complexity of the world, it is sometimes best to return to childlike naivety. As paradoxical as it may sound, I think you’ll find enlightenment there rather than trying to explain the world.

This is not possible anyway, because each explanation can only cover a fraction and no explanation is objective, but is always connected with certain interests. The interests become clear when one questions which questions a declaration has not asked. In most cases, the scope of a declaration is reduced in order to get closer to a topic. But that is actually too simple. But if one does not limit oneself to individual areas when trying to explain, then one tries to explain infinity. The search for it can only put you into never-ending restlessness. This restlessness can also be used as a driving force, but in between it is probably indispensable not to question or understand some things, but simply to ‘only’ do them.

Who can discover what?

It is perhaps comparable with the German tax system. Actually, it’s quite simple: everyone pays taxes to finance our state and ultimately us. Taxes flow into infrastructure, schools, the health system, etc. But due to various special regulations the tax system is so complex that a tax return will never fit on a beer mat and there is probably nobody who understands the tax law completely. Therefore, companies will always find loopholes to minimize taxes. And if the system does not change fundamentally, a tax return will never fit on a beer mat. But that’s not bad either.

You have to live with the fact that most things in life are not clear and that you cannot explain everything. The nice thing about it is that life is a never-ending adventure playground where there is always something to discover. You just have to be careful that you don’t turn upside down in it for too long, because then you might crash at some point.

Do artists have a different view of the world?

Artificial thinking always means looking for new connections and never being satisfied with the status quo, but constantly enriching thoughts with new impulses.

Theoretically everything is conceivable, but art does not only consist of ideas, but above all of implementation. Artificial Thinking therefore promotes not only the search for new patterns, but also the implementation and the constant reflection of the made and the thought. It is a never-ending process.

Is Artificial Thinking the next big thing?

The thoughts came to me when I once again asked myself how I could convey to customers at ON/OFF Design that I was not only using the potential of art for its own ends, but that my way of thinking as an artist helped me to come up with new ideas. Design Thinking comes close to the process, but art and design are different. “Design Thinking is an approach that is supposed to lead to solving problems and developing new ideas.

The goal is to find solutions that are convincing from the user’s point of view. As an artist, however, I don’t think problem- or goal-oriented. A work of art does not solve any problems. I want the viewer to be touched by my work. Whether someone will be interested in it later is another question, but nobody is working on an artwork that nobody should be interested in.

The process of creation is shaped by the ongoing further development of the work. In between, as an artist you always take a step back to check the overall composition. How does the work affect me as a viewer? Are the ideas and values conveyed, the emotions conveyed that I as an artist would like to convey?

In the course of my work, ideas and results are also repeatedly created that you didn’t expect in the beginning. Which were not the goal. Which you didn’t imagine, but felt at most. Artificial Thinking is not only about following thoughts, but also feelings. The goal of the generated thoughts and feelings, however, should be a creative end result.

The net is always climbed through again

I always want to create new stimuli. For me and the viewer. A work of art therefore never exists twice. Even if a work looks similar, the path to it was probably a completely different one. Of course you fall back on your own experiences, but you never follow the same path. Artificial Thinking therefore always has the goal of treading new paths.
artificial instead of art thinking

I didn’t want to contrast Design Thinking with Art Thinking. In my opinion Artificial Thinking fits better. On the one hand because a work of art doesn’t come naturally. It is artificial, created by the artist. And on the other hand, I create thoughts artificially during the creative process. I trigger myself to come up with new ideas.

Artificial thinking can also be interpreted as an image of the processes of artificial intelligence. In the long run, artificial intelligence should not only recognize patterns and execute programs, but also be able to understand and analyze the world through its own processes and create new connections. Only by an own creative achievement a program becomes intelligent and no longer executes exclusively human commands.

Artifical thinking uses the potential of art

Mechanical, artificial thinking does not contradict human processes. On the contrary. Artificial intelligence is an image of human beings, and if algorithms can implement artificial thinking, they can be described as intelligent.

The advantage of Artificial Intelligence is the possibility to analyze large data sets. Even as an artist I can’t compete with it. Neither do I. Instead, I want to convey that the way I work as an artist can also be used by other industries. The potential of art is the power of creation, as well as the linking of ever new ideas and patterns. And that can be transferred to all areas and industries. I hope I was able to define the term Artificial Thinking and express what it means to use the potential of art.

Art is more than making artifacts

I create works of art by being interested in the world – always looking for new inspiration. For me, a work of art, whether material or not, is a means to an end. A waste product. What interests me most is the path to the work. The lived inspiration. Therefore I deal with topics so intensively that the ideas rush through my head and create a lasting intoxication.

But the thoughts, ideas, experiences and experiences of the creative process are not always visible in the artwork. On the contrary. Often they are not recognizable, even though they may have had a decisive influence on the work of art. That is why it is impossible to explain how an idea is conceived. An idea does not emerge linearly, but as a work of art, and the idea for it is the concatenation of many ideas and ideas.

Accordingly, my head is my most important tool and the starting point of my works. That’s why I constantly try to fill my head with new ideas, experiences and information. This helps me to generate ideas and to work out new connections.

Art is more than making artifacts is an image of the world. So as an artist you inevitably have to deal with the world. I want to get to know and understand as many areas of life as possible in order to find new ways of connecting. I am interested in art, culture, sport, politics and science. Unlike scientists and other professional groups, I work on works of art. I produce objects that you don’t actually need. They have no use and sometimes no aesthetic value. But: a good work of art touches the viewer. And that’s valuable.

Artists realize ideas that are conveyed by the work of art. The artwork interacts with the viewer. The necessary way of thinking, working and, in particular, production can also be transferred to other areas.

Artists are doers

Artists are doers and have a good feeling for how and which ideas can be realized. As an artist, you are mainly involved in the organization, planning or realization of a work of art. The idea is only a fraction. Scott Belsky, co-founder of the portfolio platform Behance, describes this in his book “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality”: The biggest challenge for creative people is to implement an idea and market themselves and their work accordingly. Not only creative people know the problem.

In addition, artists know how to generate further ideas from ideas or how to further develop projects. I try to work in a way that allows projects to evolve through new ideas during the process. So I quickly start implementing an idea when I feel the idea has potential and then check how I can develop the idea further.

At first glance this may cost resources because of the danger of running into a dead end due to the fast implementation. But this can also happen with detailed planning, which can be saved by a quick start. And too many details may lead you to think about things that might never be implemented, because you have to correct and adapt a project over and over again in the course of implementation anyway. It can even lead to an idea never being implemented due to a wrong classification at the beginning, because you are already overwhelmed with the implementation before the beginning.

In any case, I hope that artists will also be used in other industries in the future. Because with their skills, artists can create artworks for anything and participate in many projects: in the conception of projects, in the creative implementation, marketing, press work and much more. Art for everyone. In everything. Whether or not this will happen depends not only on industries that are far removed from art, but also on the willingness and interest of the artists. But when the time comes, it will not only be possible to declare every object as art, but art would be usable for everything.

Aby Warburg and the Pathos Formula

Pictures rarely come alone. Once they have entered the world, they remain in our collective memory, are carried on and changed. This is how Aby Warburg, one of the greatest art historians, formulated it at the beginning of the 20th century and named the phenomenon a pathos formula. He explained this for the first time in Dürer’s drawing “Death of Orpheus”.

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus

Well, what do we see? In the center, Orpheus squats on his knees. With his right hand he rests on the ground. He has raised his left arm and holds his left hand almost protecting his face. Frightened, he looks up at one of the two women who hit him with thick sticks.

His cloak wafts around his tense, naked body. Two women, the maenads, the companions of Dionysus, stand around him. They are arranged diagonally to each other. Both have a firm, wide-legged stand, embrace the stick with both hands and reach out over the shoulder with it. Their airy, multi-layered clothes are in motion and play around their bodies.

In his picture atlas “Mnemosyne” Aby Warburg collected pictures from magazines, leaflets and advertisements. Then he systematically examined the everyday pictures for recurring forms and gestures.

He defines pathos as “the momentarily heightened physical reaction of a shaken soul against ethos as a constant element of character. Put more simply, the state of the soul is reflected in the physical expression.

Pipilotti Rist, Ever is Over All, installation view, 1997

Pipilotti Rists shows “Ever is over all” how the picture, i.e. the gesture and its surroundings like stick and dress, lives on. Dancing, she walks down the street in the video. She wears an airy, light blue dress and holds an oversized flower stem in her hand with which she smashes the windows of the parked cars.

Beyoncé offers a similar picture in her visual album “Lemonade” with a yellow flounce dress and baseball bat.

A gesture that, unlike Dürer’s drawing, can be interpreted as a liberation of the woman. And yet both are quasi contemporary maenads, even if the content and the message of the picture have changed, perhaps even shifted into the positive. We can recognize the gestures of the maenads from Dürer’s “Death of Orpheus”. According to Aby Warburg, this is the pathos formula. The maenads live on.