Curated by Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides, the same duo behind the seminal exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at London’s Royal Academy the previous year, at which Baselitz had also exhibited, Zeitgeist was a groundbreaking and vastly influential survey of Contemporary painting. Featuring many of the most celebrated artists of the day, along with a group of younger artists largely from Germany, the exhibition was a refutation of the prevailing trend towards Minimalist and Conceptual art in the late 1970s. Unlike the London exhibition, which had looked to pair young painters with Contemporary masters such as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Pablo Picasso, Zeitgeist took Joseph Beuys as its starting point to create a show that sought not to recontextualize but rather to declare the emergence of a radical new trend in Contemporary Art. For the German painters included in the exhibition, notably Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer and A.R. Penck, the exhibition constituted a major break for their careers, as well as an opportunity to showcase the authentic German art of the moment. Keen to identify a prevailing trend in what was ultimately an exhibition that showcased a huge variety of painters working toward divergent ends – David Salle, Baselitz and Penck have very little in common beyond figuration – critics gathered the German artists under the banner of Neo-Expressionism, a label that Baselitz resented but nevertheless responded to. “Accused of being Expressionist,” as the artist puts it, he began to look at the works of the Brücke, such as Max Beckmann and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, imitating their palette and mood but ultimately asserting his independence from their work. (Georg Baselitz quoted in Exh. Cat. New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Georg Baselitz: Drinkers & Orange Eaters, 2015, p. 10) In his words: “The Expressionists use a method that illustrates our environment, the world we live in. They use what exists, they extract from it an illustrative method of making a painting… I have always invented objects…I have never had a model…something that does not suit me at all.” (Diane Waldman, op. cit., p. 150)
Despite this disavowal, the works that Baselitz made in response to this label, starting with the Orangenesser (Orange Eaters) and Trinker (Drinkers) and culminating in the Zeitgeist Paintings and masterpieces such as Nachtessen in Dresden (Supper in Dresden), housed at Kunsthaus Zürich, are among the strongest of his career. Indeed, Sterne im Fenster combines many of the most successful elements of all three series, with the frantic brushwork and nighttime composition allying it to the other Zeitgeist Paintings, and the flayed, solitary figure raising a bottle to his lips recalling the celebrated Trinker of the previous year. Unlike many of the Zeitgeist Paintings however, which see men asleep in bed, the figure in the present work is awake and standing beside the window. In this, Sterne im Fenster is most closely allied among the Zeitgeist Paintings with Adler im Fenster (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which sees a man turning away, as if screaming in horror, from the white of the window, where a crudely drawn eagle is perched. Both paintings are characterized by an overwhelming sense of the figure’s isolation and vulnerability, but unlike Adler im Fenster, where the subject’s pose echoes Edvard Munch’s celebrated Scream, we see the subject of the present work in profile, as if closed off from the world around him. Unnaturally and abruptly hunched over at the neck, in a pose reminiscent of Albert Oehlen’s celebrated Selbtsportrait mit einlochtopf (1984), attention is drawn to the heavily impastoed head with its pink drunkard nose and red lips, which echo the red of the hand holding the bottle, anticipating their union. The vibrant yellow that delineates the face is a nod to Kirchner and his contemporaries and epitomizes Andreas Franzke’s observation that the artist “avoids any trace of naturalism in his choice of colors; in its place he introduces contrasts.” (Andreas Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich 1989, p. 169) The titular window and stars abbreviate the figure, cutting off both the top of the head and the top of the bottle, as if this tragic solitary drinker is subsumed into the night that hides his shame, and an underlying layer of pink paint on the figure, particularly apparent on the arm and midriff, gives the impression that the figure has been skinned. Writing about an exhibition of Baselitz’s work at Xavier Fourcade in New York earlier that year, Donald Kuspit identified this trend in the artist’s oeuvre, observing that the paintings “are not only upside-down, they are inside-out: the figures have a flayed, raw look that goes with spiritual nakedness.” (Donald Kuspit, “Georg Baselitz at Fourcade,” Art in America, February 1982, pp. 139-40)
This question of the implicit immorality, or “spiritual nakedness," of Baselitz’s subjects is a pertinent one, especially in the context of his work as a whole. Speaking in 2007, Baselitz observed that “what no one can escape, what I could never escape, was Germany, and being German.” (Georg Baselitz quoted in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Georg Baselitz, 2007, p. 11) However, when he began painting in the early 1960s, Baselitz saw that every effort was being made not to excuse but to excise the legacy of the Second World War from the collective consciousness. Duly, Baselitz began to paint in a fashion that refused to ignore this legacy, that sought to remind the viewer of Germany’s defeat, to deliberately provoke the backlash that was immediately forthcoming with his first exhibition, where two paintings were confiscated on the grounds of offending public decency. These were works from Baselitz’s first mature series, Grosse Nacht im Eimer (Big Night Down the Drain), which revolved around the image of a flayed, masturbating man, culminating in the grotesque, provocative and masterful painting of the same name, now housed in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Two decades later, the Zeitgeist exhibition provided an opportunity for Baselitz to revisit these concerns, not least due to the fact that the show was housed at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, a vast nineteenth century exhibition space on the border of East and West Germany, adjacent to the site of Himmler’s SS and Gestapo headquarters. Recently reopened following an extensive restoration process in the wake of Allied bombing towards the end of the Second World War, to Baselitz, who was born in Soviet controlled East Germany, the building must have epitomized the complex relationship with its history that pervaded Post-War Germany. Hanging his works feet away from the Berlin Wall, the Zeitgest Paintings, which like the celebrated Helden and Frakturbilder from the mid- to late-1960s interrogate the place of the individual within a fractured society, could not have been shown in a more apposite space. Isolated, threatened figures in claustrophobic, violently painted rooms, these works epitomise the aesthetic and thematic concerns that have preoccupied Baselitz throughout his career.
A masterpiece from one of Baselitz’s most influential and important series, Sterne im Fenster is an exceptional painting that evinces a savage beauty as well as the conceptual rigor that characterises the very best of Baselitz’s work. The spectral, almost skeletal figure reflects the increased sense of psychological tension that pervaded the artist’s paintings at the time, with the joyful promise of the bright stars outside entirely negated by the mood of the painting itself. Visceral, terrifying and profoundly original, despite all critically inferred reference to the German Expressionists, Sterne im Fenster epitomizes Baselitz’s statement that: “When I make my paintings, I begin to do things as if I were the first, the only one, as if none of these examples [of what other artists had done before] existed.’ (The artist quoted in Henry Geldzahler, "Georg Baselitz," Interview XIV, April 1984, p. 83)
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