Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1987
Characterised by its bold and evocative colours, the present work is potent in its metaphorical allusions to the transience of mortal life. The background is divided into a sombre black hue at the top half of the picture plane, against which Elke’s head has been depicted, and a vibrant crimson below, which seems to seep around Baselitz’s self-portrait, submerging him in a deep and sanguineous pool that resembles, as the work’s title suggests, a pillow. The male figure’s eyes are indeed softly shut, poetically invoking the eternal sleep of mankind. The eyes of his female partner, composed in doleful tones of searing white with sky blue rims, appear like endless voids, from which two black tears slowly descend. A metaphysical study into the evanescence of existence, Kopfkissen was completed on the 23 January 1987, an auspicious date that not only marked the artist’s 49th birthday but also the recent passing of his father. In accordance with Roman mythological thought, the month of January pays homage to Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings, time, limits and departure. With his two-faces, Janus would look to the future and the past, at once welcoming in the dawn of new ventures and bidding farewell to old ones. A dialogue with the personal past, Kopfkissen is an introspective and wholly private painting in which Baselitz poignantly reflects on the inevitabilities of life. That another painting of the same name is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, is a testament to the calibre of Baselitz’s creative output during this period.
The rapid and visible brushstrokes of Kopfkissen, painted with a sense of urgent vitality, and its use of vibrant and radical colour contrasts, is reminiscent of the Expressionist artists such as Edvard Munch and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner. A masterful combination of bleakness and sensuality, the stark tonality in which the two individuals are rendered, in tandem with the artist’s deployment of dense line, are also characteristic of Baselitz’s primitively carved wooden sculptures of the same period, the first of which were produced in late 1979. The artist had previously explored the head as a subject in a painting from 1961, which was inspired by the poetry of Antoine Artaud and the drawings of a mentally ill patient, entitled G.-Kopf. In 1987 he produced an identically titled wooden sculpture, which was slashed and sliced with a vital originality and primal energy. Indeed, the very same sense of expressive crudity and fervent passion, as evidenced by the hatching, carving and crisscross lines, is traceable in the present work. Kopfkissen is thus product of the artist’s earlier style, emerging from the anamorphic, deformed, distended and nightmarish bodies of his early 1960s works, as exemplified in his Pandemonium paintings and the controversial Grosse Nacht im Eimer (1963).
Signalling a point of transition in concept, subject and style, Baselitz created a brazenly irreverent pictorial schema that tore apart the historical conventions of painting. 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,” he declared, “I begin to do things as if I were the first, the only one, as if none of these examples existed” (Georg Baselitz cited in: Exh. Cat., Bordeaux, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Baselitz Sculptures, 1983, p. 18). Furthermore, through his use of grotesque and dismembered images of the human form, Baselitz defiantly distanced himself from the images of heroic workers, endorsed under the ‘Socialist Realism’ aesthetic of East Germany.
In rejecting the contemporaneous inquiries of Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual art, Minimalism and Pop art, Baselitz revived a form of German Expressionism which impacted greatly upon the formation of the Neue-Wilden group in Germany during the later 1980s. With this in mind, Baselitz’s practice followed a unique expressionistic path tied to his own biography as well as a steadfast belief in the potential of figurative painting in an age that had declared it obsolete. Attested to by his representation across the most significant international public collections, it is in this vein that Baselitz remains one of the most influential painters of his generation.
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