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.