Museums across Europe are celebrating the 80th birthday of Georg Baselitz, a painter deeply rooted in art history, whose work continues to be powerfully fresh and relevant. Joe Townend explores.
“I consider him to be, in a certain sense, the greatest living painter,” says Sir Norman Rosenthal, former head of exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is describing Georg Baselitz, whose paintings captured the deepening crisis of a divided Germany following the atrocities of World War II. In 2007, Rosenthal curated a retrospective of Baselitz’s work at the Royal Academy. “Only with the hindsight of history can we appreciate the poetry, the grandeur and the significance of his pictures,” he says.
Earlier this year, Baselitz celebrated his 80th birthday, and museums across Europe have marked the occasion with a string of exhibitions. In Basel, the Fondation Beyeler’s retrospective (through 29 April) unites around 90 paintings and twelve sculptures from European and American museums and private collections. Director Sam Keller says: “For more than half a century, Georg has been creating original artworks that have a strong impact on viewers, have resonated with their time and have influenced generations of artists. He is a great painter, and great painters are very rare.”
A provocateur from the start, Baselitz was expelled from his East Berlin art school in 1957 for “political immaturity.” The following year, he migrated to West Germany, and by 1980 he had been selected to represent the country at the Venice Biennale. Since then, he has received accolades from all over the world, including decorations bestowed by the governments of France and Austria. Last year, his 1965 painting Mit Roter Fahne (With Red Flag) sold for £7.5 million at Sotheby’s London.
The artist’s enduring significance is due in large part to the humanity at the heart of his work, Keller explains. “We are touched when we see art that expresses something real about being human in our time,” he says. “Some things haven’t changed since cave painting, and Baselitz can connect to these human conditions.” The Beyeler show was organised in partnership with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, where it travels in modified form this summer (21 June–16 September). “It aims to tell the story of the artist’s vast and influential œuvre,” Keller adds.
To date, Baselitz has created around 2,800 paintings. Throughout this huge body of work, there is a common thread, says Martin Schwander, the Beyeler exhibition curator. “We had to distil his work into the 90 pieces that make up the show. I have tried to illustrate that there is a leitmotif from the first work to the last: the human body – his body, the male body. All his different styles are related to the theme of the human body.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the painting Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain), 1962–63, says Schwander. It depicts a lone masturbating male figure, featureless apart from eyes and ears. Considered “pornographic” by the German authorities, it was confiscated on the grounds of obscenity. “In that painting, you have all of Baselitz in one work: you have his aggressiveness and directness, you have boldness, the human body, the taboos,” Schwander explains.
Running in parallel with the Beyeler retrospective, the Kunstmuseum Basel’s exhibition Georg Baselitz: Works on Paper (through 29 April) features more than 100 of the artist’s drawings and prints. Anita Haldemann, head of the museum’s department of prints and drawings and curator of the show, says that his drawings reveal “a more intimate and experimental side of his art.” She adds, “they are more transparent than his paintings, in that the process of searching for solutions and motifs is more visible.”
The museum holds 152 of Baselitz’s drawings and watercolours, 88 of which are included in the exhibition. The scope of the collection has allowed Haldemann to present an unexpected aspect of his art. “The early works, especially those from the 1950s, haven’t been shown since the 1960s or 1970s, so I think a lot of people, even those who know his practice well, have been very surprised.”
At the centre of the collection is the 1969 pencil, ink and watercolour drawing Maler (Painter). This is the first upside-down work that Baselitz completed, “the very moment where his imagery fundamentally changes,” Hadelmann says. From this point on, he approaches his art with a new-found freedom. “He’s not caught in a fight between abstract and figurative. He doesn’t worry anymore. He’s living proof that you can go kind of backward to figurative art and still do something new.”
Michael Hering, director of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and curator of In Focus: Georg Baselitz Turns 80, which ran from January to February, says that when placed in a museum context, Baselitz’s art enters into dialogue with other works in the collection. “If you talk about Baselitz, you need to talk about art history. You need to talk about Caspar David Friedrich, you need to talk about Édouard Manet, and you need to talk about Rembrandt,” Hering says.
For the exhibition, the museum drew from its holdings of more than 1,100 Baselitz works on paper. On display were proofs for his artist’s book Malelade, made in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “All the artists of Baselitz’s generation who came from East Germany were totally confused when this happened,” says Hering. “So Baselitz got this sketchbook, or Malelade, and he made a conclusion about 200 years of German art – about the Romanticism and the melancholia of the Germans.”
In his Heroes series, 1965–66, Baselitz sought to understand the present by looking at the past. The paintings feature single blurry figures, uniformed and dejected, suggesting German soldiers. An exhibition of these works was organised in 2016 by the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, where it travelled the following year. Max Hollein, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and co-curator of the show, says that the Heroes series demonstrates the artist “struggling” to find his place in art history and in the present. Says Hollein: “He draws from Italian Mannerist painting and drawing, 19th-century German Realist painting and dark Surrealism, but most of all, he is a painter who works within the parameters of his own self: what he has seen, felt, experienced and perceived.”
As he enters his ninth decade, Baselitz remains, first and foremost, a painter of the human condition in all its complexity and frailty. “I cannot think of many other artists whose work has remained so relevant and challenging over such a great period of time,” says Hollein. “He certainly has shown how a painter can be deeply rooted in art history and his own history, yet deliver works that continue to be powerful, fresh and timeless.”
Joe Townend is a writer and editor based in London.
Georg Baselitz is on display at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, through 29 April, and in modified form at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 21 June–16 September.
Georg Baselitz: Works on Paper is on view at the Kunstmuseum Basel through 29 April.