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White Gray Black

Georg Baselitz (German, born 1938)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

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 draughtsman 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’.

Andreas Franzke
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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