Moving from East Germany to West Berlin in 1958, Baselitz reacted against the constraints of the two contrasting artistic and political landscapes that he had traversed. Shifting from the dogma of Socialist Realism to the aesthetic hegemony of fashionable Tachism and Abstract Expressionism that dominated Western Europe at the time, Baselitz founded an entirely new visual mode of expression in order to liberate German painting from what he saw as the burden of its recent past: “When I make my paintings,” Baselitz has declared, “I begin to do things as if I were the first, the only one, as if none of these examples existed.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Bordeaux, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Baselitz Sculptures, 1983, p. 18) The mid-1960s signaled the true attainment of this new ground. Coinciding with the creation of his Hero series from 1965-66, Baselitz moved his family to the remote German countryside in search of isolation: “I started to cut myself off from the others, completely shutting myself away, didn’t join in art circles and tried to develop pictures that would, yes, provoke.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Baselitz, 2007, p. 11) Maintaining a distance from academic art as well as a burgeoning German avant-garde led by Joseph Beuys, here Baselitz created new archetypes based on the traditional folkloric imagery of woodlands, animals and huntsmen.
Occupying a unique position between still-life, landscape and figuration, Ein Stück Malerei typifies the angst filled iconography of this key period. As noted by Diane Waldman, “among his German precursors – Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich, and Emil Nolde – were models who had dealt with both beauty and ugliness. In his own paintings, Baselitz has attempted to reconcile past and present, beauty and ugliness through the creation of prototypes – ‘motifs,’ as he called them – outside of time.” (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Georg Baselitz, 1995, p. 34) With a composition that is almost uncomfortably full yet still evokes a palpable desolation, the sardonic melancholy that resonates from the clumsy pile of esoteric creatures here seeks to dismantle the mythological magnificence of ideological symbols, exploring a new territory that recognizes the fragmentary state of contemporary German painting.
As an early example of Baselitz’s iconic Frakturbilder, the composition is severed by a horizontal line running across the canvas, disavowing any claims to naturalism and calling into question the relative coherence of the two viewpoints. Mocking the illusionism of three point perspective – a cornerstone of classical painting – Baselitz’s contemptuous disruption of the image plane overrides the perspectival challenges laid out in modernist movements such as Cubism with an irreverent appeal to the absurd. As such, Baselitz claims an ultimate abandon of precedent. This is equally reflected in the unparalleled peculiarity of his brushwork which circulates around in exquisite dissonance. As noted by Richard Schiff, “Baselitz never allowed his marks to become calligraphy, that is, to become beautiful in themselves. Each attains its own ugliness by becoming a bit too big […]. Oversized, coarsened, each pulls apart from its neighbor even when it is part of a decorative pattern, resulting in pockets of local disharmony.” (Richard Schiff, “Feet too Big,” Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Baselitz, 2007, p. 27) Yet as one of the most resolved paintings from this period, for all its inherent discord and fracture, there is a profound sense of pictorial balance. Ein Stück Malerei finds Baselitz's brushwork at its most confident, ordered and supple. Masterfully layering and blending tones with an unusual sense of delicacy and care, Baselitz imbues his forms with volume and depth. Here, the artist yields the sinister palette, synonymous with these early works, with a unique sense of consideration. Scattering passionate reds across the canvas in bound planes, intensified by their soft pale green and muddy gold counterparts, Baselitz’s chromatic nuances are bound through a determined network of black delineation. Evidencing his sheer mastery of this idiosyncratic painterly style, the present work’s pervasive sense of cohesive logic creates a vision that explores a profoundly strange beauty in the heart of aesthetic turmoil.
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