Georg Baselitz
Biography of German Neo-Expressionist Painter.
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The Gleaner (1978)
Samuel R Guggenheim Museum
New York City.
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Georg Baselitz (b.1938)

Contents

Summary
Early Career
Notoriety
Upside Down Paintings
Sculpture
Remixes
Other Neo-Expressionist Painters in Germany


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Paintings by Georg Baselitz
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Summary

The German painter, printmaker and sculptor, Georg Baselitz, was born in Deutschbaselitz, Germany. He experimented with abstract art and Tachisme before finding his personal style in Neo-Expressionism. Expelled from the Berlin Hochschule of art for 'ideological immaturity', he founded his early reputation on sensational avant-garde art. His painting The Great Piss-Up (1962-3, Ludwig Museum, Cologne) was seized by the police when it was first exhibited in Berlin in 1963. Traditional German motifs have been a constant theme in his works, including themes of woodcutters in a forest. In 1969 Baselitz developed the signature style of contemporary art which has characterized his painting ever since. He started producing paintings with the subjects painted upside down, in accordance with the idea that the subject is less important than the paint itself. In the 1980s Baselitz began exploring sculpture, and his Model for a Sculpture (1980, Ludwig Museum) was shown at the Venice Biennale. Today he is considered one of Germany's top contemporary artists, although some art critics consider that his more recent paintings ('remixes') show that his power is declining.

 

 

Early Career

Baselitz was born Georg Kern in Deutschbaselitz, Saxony, Germany. He showed an early interest in art, and by 15 was painting both portraits and religious subjects. In 1955 he applied to the Dresden Art Academy but was rejected. The following year he was accepted into the Hochschule for art in what was then East Berlin. There he studied under Walter Womacka (1925-2010), the teacher and artist noted for his numerous designs of stained glass art, using the gemmail technique, as well as outdoor murals made from mosaic. Baselitz also studied under the painter, graphic artist and writer Herbert Behrens-Hangler (1898-1981). After two terms he was expelled for 'ideological immaturity' and switched to West Berlin's Hochschule. The influence at the school leaned towards Art Informel (the European variant of American Abstract Expressionism), and its offshoot Tachisme. He studied the writings of the great Russian painter Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935), an early pioneer of concrete art and founder of the modernist art movement known as Suprematism. He also immersed himself in the works of Wassily Kandinksy (1866-1944) and Ernst-Wilhelm Nay (1902-68). Baselitz was particularly influenced by the abstract paintings of American artists Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Philip Guston (1913-1980). However, he found abstraction unpromising and was drawn more to Tachisme which embraced figurative distortion. It was around this time that Baselitz dropped his family surname (Kern) and adopted a new name derived from his place of birth.

Notoriety

In 1961 Baselitz had his first of two exhibitions held in collaboration with Eugene Schonebeck, for which they produced a manifesto entitled Pandemonium. The language used in the manifesto was violent, in the manner of the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), whom Baselitz particularly admired. In 1963 he exhibited his notorious painting The Great Piss-Up (also known as the Big Night Down the Drain). The painting shows a naked man holding an extremely large penis, with a nude figure doubled over in the background. Apparently the painting was inspired by the Irish writer Brendan Behan who exposed himself while drunk. The painting was confiscated when it was first exhibited. In 2006 the artist stated he has never, and perhaps never will, make a finer painting. Even in the early 1960s Baselitz rebelled against non-objective art, preferring to use expressive figurative work which was similar to "art brut", produced by the mentally ill or those on the margins of society. It was physically obsessive and involved lots of body parts and organs. In 1965 Baselitz won a scholarship to study for a year at the Villa Romana in Florence. There he discovered the works of the Mannerist artists and their methods for elongating and distorting figures. The same year he produced a large painting, The Great Friends (1965, Ludwig Museum), depicting two figures wearing shorts with their flies undone, standing in the middle of a ruined townscape. In 1967-8 he created as series of German motif paintings, with woodcutters set in forest locations.

Upside Down Paintings

In 1969 Baselitz discovered the style of fine art painting which made him famous and with which he is most identified. He starting painting his subjects upside down, as in the Forest on its Head (1969, Ludwig Museum). So while there was still a visible subject, its significance was superceded by the actual paintwork and brushwork. He hit on a method of objectifying a work of art without entering the realm of abstraction or allowing the motif to dominate. He applied the same technique to his drawing, woodcuts and etching. Perhaps not surprisingly not everyone was impressed with his new approach. Sceptics saw his upside works as gimmicky rather than a concept with a philosophical basis.

 

 

Sculpture

By the late 1970s Baselitz was secretly working on his first wooden sculpture. This was his Model for a Sculpture (1980), which he exhibited at the Venice Biennale. It caused further controversy for the artist, as the figure had an outstretched arm which was interpreted as a Nazi salute. Like Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) before him, he exploited the motifs and power of African art to create powerful, expressive sculptures. Since then, Baselitz has made several monumental sculptures, including Women of Dresden (1989) which refers to the Dresden bombing in World War II. In the 1980s he gave greater weight to subject matter again, although in a more crude manner, as in Painter with Sailing Ship, Munch (1982) and Dinner in Dresden (1983, Zurich Kunsthaus).

Remixes

Much of the controversy surrounding Baselitz's early works has died down. He has been accepted internationally as an important German Neo-Expressionist, and one of the most innovative of late 20th century painters. His latest work includes his series of 'remixes' - in which Baselitz takes motifs from earlier paintings, and reinvents them with a deliberately rapid free-hand. However, some critics see these paintings as an indication that his ability and power is declining.

Neo-expressionist paintings by Georg Baselitz can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.

Other Neo-Expressionist Painters in Germany

As well as Baselitz, other noted German postmodernist artists, associated with the Neo-Expressionism style, include: Gerhard Richter (b.1932), Bernd Koberling (b.1938), A.R.Penck [Ralf Winkler] (b.1939), Markus Lupertz (b.1941), Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), Jorg Immendorff (b.1945), Bernd Zimmer (b.1948), Rainer Fetting (b.1949).

• For biographies of other contemporary artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of 20th century painting, see: Homepage.


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