Rendered in stark, eccentric colours, Sechs schöne, vier hässliche Porträts: Hässliches Porträt 1 forms part of an important series of ten portraits created by Georg Baselitz between 1987-88. In the present work, the fleshy colour of the skin is accentuated by the thick application of oil paint and juxtaposed by the acid green hair and the vibrant blue hues of the figure’s garment. The immediacy of Baselitz’ painterly technique is fully revealed in the urgent expression of the portrait with eyes seemingly closed and a screaming mouth opening up to an abyss of black colour, which is further echoed in the painting’s dramatic dark background. Distinguished for his innovative defiance of traditional artistic styles, Sechs schöne, vier hässliche Porträts: Hässliches Porträt 1 exemplifies Baselitz’s original pictorial language of that period through the upside-down depiction of figurative subjects which characterised his artistic production since 1969. Art historian Donald Kuspit aptly reflected on this particular series: “Baselitz's work is a masterful union of bleakness and sensuality, mirage-like illusion and direct abstract painting, intensity and irony, introspection and irrationality. His works are grimly historical as well as personal confessions – socially as well as humanly authentic. Above all, they are that difficult and rare thing, an uncanny, dynamic mix of ugliness and beauty, vulgar in their perfection and perfect in their vulgarity. They have a kind of graceful, lyric crudity, transforming what Cézanne called "vibrating sensation" into grotesque, "Gothic" sensation. The series of 6 Beautiful, 4 Ugly Portraits – sublime and infernal, noble and grisly, disintegrated and re-integrated, estranged and haunting, intuitive and urgent – makes this very clear” (Donald Kuspit, ‘A Critical History of 20th-Century Art’, in: artnet Magazine, 28 July 2006, online).
As the foremost champion of Neo-Expressionist painting in the 1970s, Baselitz employed gesture, colour, and materiality to imbue his works with a new sense of textural dimensions that emphasise the rawness and directness of his subject treatment. This gestural handling of paint through rough, crude and thick impasto strokes underlines the sense of pain and direct emotion visible in the open-mouthed scream of the sitter in the present work. The use of radical colour contrasts is reminiscent of the bold approach of Expressionists such as Edvard Munch and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, and in the abstracted enlargement focusing on the figure’s head, Baselitz creates a haunting portrait of utmost thrill and uneasiness.
The fast application of paint results in a powerful blur of figurative and abstract elements, an effect that is further compounded by turning the canvas upside down. By breaking with traditional rules of pictorial perspective, Baselitz developed an alternative mode of representation by distorting his subjects through their orientation on the canvas, forcing the viewer to accept the inverted view and thereby shocking our expectations. As he wrote on the process of liberating literal interpretation from form: “If you stop fabricating motifs but still want to carry on painting, then inverting the motif is the obvious thing to do. The hierarchy which has the sky at the top and the earth at the bottom is, in any case, only a convention. We have got used to it, but we don’t have to believe in it… What I wanted was quite simply to find a way of making pictures, perhaps with a new sense of detachment” (Georg Baselitz in conversation with Peter Moritz Pickshaus, in: Franz Dahlem, Georg Baselitz, Cologne 1990, p. 29).
Sechs schöne, vier hässliche Porträts: Hässliches Porträt 1 is an exceptionally vibrant example of Baselitz’s newfound mode of visual expression which he believed would liberate German painting from its recent past. His idiosyncratic use of subject and striking handling of the medium lends Baselitz his innovative position at the frontier of artistic experimentation.
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