We have lived very closely together since we met in 1958. We hardly spend any time apart. So I am always around... In Georg’s paintings, the subject doesn’t always matter – if the image is a tree, a flower, a bird, or me. What is important is the painting itself.
Executed in 1996, Georg Baselitz’s monumental Elke, 1965 presents a resplendent symphony of vivid colour and explosive gesture – a celebration, at once fervently charged and deeply tender, of the enduring love between the artist and his wife, Elke Kretzschmar Baselitz. As Baselitz’s lifelong partner, Elke has been one of the most painted subjects within the artist’s oeuvre, with portraits illustrating Elke residing in the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. In 1997, a retrospective dedicated to the artist’s Elke paintings titled Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth in Texas, a testament to the status of the Baselitz’s Elke portraits within his prolific oeuvre. The importance of Elke as a subject in Baselitz’s work goes beyond the trope of wife as muse, and reflects on the significant role that Elke holds in Baselitz's life. Fabrice Hergott observes: “[Elke] was the reflection of the artist, his female double” (F. Hergott, ‘The Interior Surface”, in Baselitz, Exh. Cat., Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, 1997, p. 161). Against this context, the present Elke, 1965, which ranks amongst Baselitz’s most immense canvases, manifests not only as a love letter from artist to wife but also a lens through which Baselitz reminisces on the early years of his marriage during a crucial formative decade in his career.
The 1960s was a pivotal time for Baselitz. In 1962, the artist married Elke and the couple had their first child in the same year. In 1963, Baselitz held his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Werner & Katz in West Berlin, during which two of his works were seized by the public prosecutor on grounds of obscene content, prompting a court case that lasted until 1965. In 1964, Baselitz spent time at the printing shop at Schloß Wolfsburg, after which printmaking became an assimilated intrinsic part of his painting repertoire. The following year, he was awarded a six-month scholarship to study at the Villa Romana in Florence; accompanied by Elke, the artist moved to Florence and studied Mannerist graphics, an experience which ultimately led to his celebrated Heroes series (1965-1966) upon his return to West Berlin. Later at the end of the decade, in 1969 Baselitz began the most signature touchstone of his practice – the inversion of the image – a strategy that he would continue to employ to great critical acclaim over the next decades. In that same year, Baselitz’s earliest portrait of Elke, Portrait Elke I (1969), was an upside-down painting. In the present Elke, 1965, executed in 1996, Baselitz reflects upon the important and career-defining era of the 1960s and the important role his wife played in the founding years of his career.
Characterized by fervent brushwork and evocative colours, Elke, 1965 embodies raw immediacy as well as poignant passion. On the left, Elke’s pose coyly shields her eyes, suggesting a bashful aversion of the gaze, her upper body enshrouded in a rich halo of bright saffron; while on the right, the artist’s brush becomes powerfully alive in a lyrical chromatic symphony of red, green and ochre. The vivid primary colours evoke youth – the artist’s recollection of his youthful wife from the 1960s – while the explosive interplay of spontaneously gestural drips and splatters convey the palpable energy and dream-like aura of memory. The intimate yet psychologically charged portrait, blown up to a larger-than-life scale, is then inverted, which allows Baselitz to work within a figurative tradition whilst simultaneously interrogating and destabilizing its techniques, thereby forcing the viewer to see his work in utterly new and innovative ways. The enormity of the canvas works in tandem with the figure’s upside-down portrayal to create a sense of disorientation, forcing the viewer to mentally invert the image to make sense of its orientation. In so doing, the viewer mirrors both Baselitz and Elke in their looking to the past as well as the future, at once bidding farewell to a decade of fruitful memories and welcoming the dawn of new ventures.
Manifesting as a vital dialogue with the personal past, Elke, 1965 is an introspective, intimate, yet wholly monumental requiem from artist to wife, and also from artist to his own past. Looming before the viewer in its colossal height, Elke, 1965 foregrounds colour, style, and form over realistic representation and illusory depth, culminating in an emotionally resonant visual phenomenon. In Baselitz’s own words: “I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content” (Georg Baselitz cited in Roy Boyne, Subject, Society and Culture, London 2001, p. 83). As one of the largest and most superlative specimens from his celebrated body of upside-down paintings, Elke, 1965 ranks amongst the best of Baselitz’s influential oeuvre.