"I have studied the art of the masters and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I have no more wanted to imitate the former than to copy the latter; nor was it my intention to achieve the trivial goal of art for art's sake."
–Gustave Courbet, from "Realism," the preface to the brochure of his exhibition at the Pavilion of Realism outside the 1855 Universal Exhibition.
Courbet's words, considered as his Realist manifesto, remain astonishingly pertinent vis-à-vis the contemporary Hero Paintings by Georg Baselitz. Painted in 1965, B.J.M.C.- Bonjour Monsieur Courbet is a lucid and rich reference to Courbet's The Meeting, "Bonjour Monsieur Courbet," (1854) currently in the collection of the Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Executed by Baselitz during his six-month residence in Florence, a decisive time which afforded him the opportunity to live at the Villa Romana, B.J.M.C.- Bonjour Monsieur Courbet reveals a fierce independence from traditional modes of representation and a fine disregard for authority, qualities certainly shared with Courbet, one of France's earliest champions of avant-garde painting. Accordingly, it is perhaps ironic that their work, and in particular that of Baselitz, maintains such a visual connection to the masters of the past. In the tradition of young artists seeking the classical lessons of the Italian Renaissance, Baselitz's early period finds its inspiration in the paintings of Bronzino, Fiorentino, Pontormo, and Parmigianino. The physical distortion of the figure, a central feature of B.J.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet and other Hero Paintings, is acknowledged in Baselitz´s Pandämonium manifesto from 1961 as an "attraction to the Mannerists and their excessive figuration"; the heads so often disproportionately small in relation to the monumentality of the torso is a fundamental motif in Baselitz's art. (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Georg Baselitz, New York, 1995, p. 27-33)
Like the original figures by Courbet, Baselitz portrays the hero in the desolated landscape of B.J.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet with a rigidity almost akin to a massive marionette whose invisible cords are easy to imagine. Courbet and Baselitz shared a love for their respective homelands; for Courbet, the town of Ornans, in the Franche-Compte region, and for the latter, the Grossbaselitz, Upper Lausitz, Saxony—what later became East Germany. For both artists, self-identification with their homelands compelled them into distinctly personal enterprises rooted partly in the social struggles of their people.
Overtly determined to create his path in the midst of a perverse destruction, Baselitz's avatar - the Hero- gazes directly forward, undistracted by the violence of the scorched earth that surrounds him. His crux is the struggle of the common people. Art historian Siegfried Gohr claims that Baselitz identified with the vision of the Suprematists and their belief in a new world order. Within this context, the Hero Paintings also demonstrate Baselitz's affinity with German Romanticism—and as he himself noted, the defeated German soldiers who returned to the wreckage of their homeland after World War II. Noticeably, "the subjects of this series are young men—fighters and partisans, poets and painters—with whom Baselitz identified. They are heroes, and anti-heroes, existentialist figures from the world of Samuel Beckett, survivors of a world in chaos." (Ibid.,1995, p. 37)
Baselitz's application of impasto, clearly mastered by the mid-1960s, is a strong and provocative allusion to Courbet's controversial use of the palette knife in paintings such as his winter landscapes. While vastly criticized by his contemporaries as proof of technical incompetence, Courbet (and later Baselitz's) use of impasto is meant to reveal 'sincerity' through a genuine pictorial gesture. Given its ability to make manifest the artist's execution and presence, as opposed to the artificial effects formulated by Salon artists, impasto is mostly perceived as a more authentic and spontaneous practice. This close identification with the earlier pioneer and with defiance toward convention renders B.J.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet as one of the richest of the Hero paintings. In B.J.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, thick layers of impasto are most visible along the areas of skin where they are depicted in a variety of pink and cadmium tones, exposed as raw flesh reminiscent of a Soutine still-life. Further adding to the gore of the scene is the Hero's blood drenched pants. Dressed as a union member, he is further depersonalized as the lonesome character of a genre painting for the glorification and honor of the state.
Of note, the heroic figure in B.J.M.C.—Bonjour Monsieur Courbet alludes not only to Courbet, but also to Alfred Bruyas, the great champion and patron of the artist. Baselitz's choice to link the pose of the patron with Millet and Van Gogh's sower peasants is revealing. The implication, of course, echoes the artist's homage to Courbet in its contemplation and amplification of the French masters whose Realism predetermines Baselitz's production. While painted in less than a year, the Hero series continued to influence Baselitz's future work and the series serves as a point of departure for an understanding of the stylistic development in his oeuvre. Like Courbet before him, Baselitz never confined himself to one aesthetic program, so having mastered figuration, Baselitz proceeded to tear it apart by fragmentation and inversion. (Ibid. p. 56)
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