Private Collection, Germany
Galerie Rudolph Zwirner, Cologne
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1979)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Florence, Sala d’Arme di Palazzo Vecchio; and Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Georg Baselitz: Dipinti 1965-1987, April - September 1988, p. 35, no. 7, illustrated in colour
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum; Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Berlin, National Galerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; and Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Georg Baselitz, May 1995 - July 1996, p. 32, no. 38, illustrated in colour (New York); and p. 26, no. 39, illustrated in colour (Berlin)
Cologne, Josef-Aubrich-Kunsthalle, Wahre Wunder – Sammler und Sammlungen im Rheinland, May 2000 - February 2001, p. 215, no. 4, illustrated in colour
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau; and Moscow, Tretjakow Galerie, Berlin Moskva: Moskau Berlin: 1950-2000, September 2003 - June 2004, p. 35, illustrated in colour (Berlin); and p. 54, illustrated in colour (Moscow)
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Georg Baselitz, September - December 2007, p. 76, no. 24, illustrated in colour
Frankfurt, Städel Museum, Georg Baselitz: Die Helden/The Heroes, June - October 2016, p. 49, no. 2; and p. 72, no. 12, illustrated in colour
Born in 1938 and aged seven at the end of the Second World War, Georg Baselitz once poignantly described the past that he inherited by saying, “I was born into a destroyed order” (Georg Baselitz in conversation with Donald Kuspit, ‘Goth to Dance’, 33, Summer 1995, p. 76). Defeated and devastated by the Second World War, the German nation was immersed in further anguish when it was carved up and divided into East and West. The West ‘Federal Republic’ and East ‘Democratic Republic’ forged a fractured arena in which the diametrically opposed ideologies of Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism met head-to-head. The dissection of Berlin itself embodied the schizophrenia of a split country, and the Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961 and termed the ‘Antifascist Protective Barrier’ by the GDR after more than three million citizens had fled the East in mass exodus, became perhaps the most powerful totem of the epoch. It was in this segregated city, which had already become the topographical epicentre of a tectonic ideological struggle that Baselitz began to forge an artistic identity. Having grown up in the austerity of Communist East Germany, Baselitz moved from East to West Berlin in 1957 and became resident there in 1958, three years before the construction of the Wall. Eschewing the aesthetic dogma of Socialist Realism with his flight from East Germany, Baselitz remained unsatisfied by the pretensions of freedom purported by fashionable movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme and Nouveau Réalisme. While he was still at art school in 1958, a touring exhibition of American contemporary art came to West Berlin. It was the first time that Baselitz and his German peers had seen works by revolutionary artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Phillip Guston, and Clyfford Still. Scores of young Germans subsequently absorbed abstraction and action painting into their styles. However, Baselitz felt a strong need to take his artistry in a different direction; to create works that acknowledged the trauma of Germany’s recent past: “I wanted to do something that totally contradicted internationalism: I wanted to examine what it was to be a German now” (Georg Baselitz cited in: Nicolas Wroe, ‘Georg Baselitz: "Am I supposed to be friendly?’’', The Guardian, 14 February 2014, online). Thus, throughout the 1960s, Baselitz worked in a consciously figurative style and flooded his painting with quasi-allegorical figures of distorted monumental gravitas.
In Mit Roter Fahne the large central 'Hero' encompasses the full height of the canvas and its bold black outlines stand in contrast to the neutral pinks and earthy ochre of the pallid, pared back background. Indeed, the stark polarity of palette and confident bold lines became an archetypal feature of the series, as described by Diane Waldman: “In 1966 Baselitz’s figures in the Heroes became bolder...The outlines...are reminiscent of the silhouetted forms used by Beckmann and Georges Rouault” (Diane Waldman cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Georg Baselitz, 1995, p. 53). To the right of the figure the faded outlines of a building are visible in the distance. Spurts of red delineate the figure’s tracks – traces of blood that have seeped from a gash in his leg. While the monumental flag – a ubiquitous symbol of nationhood – is soaked in carnal crimson. The ‘Hero’ protagonist is thus archetypal of the vanquished and depleted survivors of devastated post-war Germany. Previous critics have conjectured narrative into the isolated figures as ironic ‘Heroes’ returning home from the catastrophes and horrors of conflict, yet still afflicted by the nightmares that beset them. It is certainly true that the solitary wanderer of Mit Roter Fahne, with his tattered uniform that exposes his wounded chest, has been mutilated by war. As pointed out by Eva Mongi-Vollmer in many Hero works “slack or discarded flags burden the protagonists instead of giving them support” (Eva Mongi-Vollmer, 'Heroes Without Deployment. The Years of Creation, 1965-66', in: Exh. Cat., Frankfurt, Städel Museum (and travelling), Georg Baselitz: The Heroes, June 2016 – November 2017, p. 23) and in Mit roter Fahne this oversized symbol of a defeated nation is clearly a heavy load to bear. On the other hand, the monumental pose of the figure in the present work, an archetypal expression of heroic masculinity, is reminiscent of both Fascist and Socialist Realist heroic iconography, and perhaps hints at the political aims and homogenised approaches to subject matter that characterised Baselitz’s earliest artistic training in East Berlin. Furthermore, the tragic character and isolation of the figure in Mit Roter Fahne testifies to the strong effect of German Romanticism on Baselitz’s output at this time. The roaming youthful figure is reminiscent of a specifically Romantic phenomenon, from Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrow of Young Werther of 1774 to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog of 1818. Yet his ruined corporeality and impoverished countenance belies any such reading of Romantic intrepidness.
In 1965, at the age of twenty seven, Baselitz won a scholarship sponsored by a German bank to study at the German Academy at the Villa Romana in Florence. There he engaged with late sixteenth-century Mannerism, and his admiration for the distorted anatomies, attenuated limbs and foreshortened perspectives of Mannerist art have frequently been cited as imperative for the subsequent Hero cycle. However, the physical distortion of the figure had in fact long held fascination for the artist, being acknowledged as early as his Pandämonium manifesto from 1961, in which he describes his appreciation for the excessive figuration of the Mannerists. In the tradition of young artists seeking lessons from the classical past, Baselitz sought inspiration from the paintings of Bronzino, Fiorentino, Pontormo, and Parmigianino. He certainly studied engravings by Northern Mannerists such as Hendrik Goltzius, and collected prints from the sixteenth-century School of Fontainebleau. Additionally, the distinct influence of German Old Masters can be ascribed to his Hero cycle. The artist certainly inherited the draughtsmanship traditions of the Northern Renaissance, particularly relying on Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer.
By challenging the traditions of classical art history through the lens of a culture scared by modern warfare, the present work bears witness to Baselitz’s development of a new painterly idiom in the quest to re-access German values. His heightened awareness of the recent past and astute perception of the immediate repercussions of his era led Norman Rosenthal to describe how he “has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history, to make them new and fresh in a manner that can only be described as heroic” (Norman Rosenthal, ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Georg Baselitz, 2007, p. 15). The ‘Hero’ cycle, as perfectly epitomised by Mit Roter Fahne, is the ultimate manifestation of this acute insight: drawing together traditions of art history, enlisting references to a catastrophic recent past, and marking unrepentant observations on a contemporary epoch in disarray.
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