Georg Baselitz: 80th Birthday Retrospective

Georg Baselitz, German born 1938


In the artist’s 80th year, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, DC mounted a second retrospective of the artist’s work.  The first in the United States was in 1995 at the Hirshhorn and the Guggenheim in New York. 


These works date from 1959 and represent the artist’s progression through six decades to 2017.



Very early in his career, the artist committed himself to figurative art.





Baselitz in front of an exhibition poster and manifesto of  Why The Great Friends is a Good Picture, 1966.  Photo taken by the artist’s wife and now in private collection



Impressionism did not interest him.

He condemned abstract expressionism – abstract painting being the most popular style when the artist began to paint.

Abstraction, the artist said, was an ‘escape’ .  By this it appears that he meant that abstraction was not equal to confronting the catastrophic state of Germany after WW2.


Baselitz, nevertheless, adopted the rough, gestural brushwork employed by some of the Abstract Expressionists.  And he exempted Willem de Kooning (1904-1997, American born the Netherlands) whose work he admired.




A gallery of the Hirshhorn, Washington DC, during the 2018 Baselitz retrospective




Win D., 1959, oil on canvas.  Private collection

The artist, Winfried Dierske, 1934-2006, was a friend of the artist and a member of the first group of artists who sought to work outside the constraints of East Germany’s mandated Social Realism


He seems to have been impressed by the scale of Jackson Pollock’s paintings.  When he could afford it, he adopted large formats. 


He has published at least three manifestos.  In these he explains his commitment to figurative art and his rejection of the abstract art dominant when he was young.  He explains the tools in his artistic tool box.


Looking for artistic precedents outside the mainstream, the artist reviewed, among other currents, Art Brut, German Expressionism which had been condemned by the Nazis, and Dada.


Edvard Munch was important to him.  Still is, he said recently.  Likewise his exact contemporary, A.R. Penck (1939-2017).


Baselitz never left his chosen path.

Thrown out of art school in East Germany for not conforming with Social Realist expectations, he left for West Germany (the Wall had yet to be built).


There began his experiments: cutting figures into portions splayed across the screen; turning figures, objects upside down for more freedom of (his) action; experimenting with colour, format, rough brushstrokes; making drawings and prints;  using photographs and sketches (after 1969).  Painting with the canvas on the floor. Painting a subject repeatedly in a series.  Revisiting subjects and portraits decades later. 

Making figurative sculpture.






Oberon (1st Orthodox Salon 64 – E. Neizvestny), and detail, 1964, oil on canvas.  Stadel Museum, Frankfurt am Main



He wanted, from young, he says, to stand out.  He wanted to be the first in the history of the graphic arts to do this or that. 

And he claimed this primacy for himself with his priapic paintings of figures with erect penises, like The Naked Man.




The Naked Man, 1962, oil on canvas.  Private collection, Seattle



And with ‘negative’ paintings (they resemble photographic negatives) of recent years (not shown) where he compared his own work favourably with Andy Warhol’s silkscreened images.

And with his sculptures of the 1980s (below).





G. Antonin, 1962, oil on burlap, and canvas. Private collection




Baselitz’ work is widely exhibited, has entered many private collections, and is very well-received.  His paintings sell for millions. 

And he seems, from interviews given in connection with his 80th birthday, to be content with his achievements.





Tear Sac, 1963, oil on canvas.   Georg Baselitz, German born 1938. Loaned by the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden Baden to the Hirshorn, Washington, DC in 2018.





Red-Green One, 1965, oil on canvas.  Private collection

The hero woodsman of German memory and myth carrying the flag of  sacrifice and survival.





B.J.M.C.  Bonjour Mosieur Courbet, and detail, 1965, oil on canvas.  Collection Thadeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg


I don’t know why Baselitz is calling on Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Here his great forbear is sowing seed.

Perhaps to acknowledge Courbet’s depiction of female pudenda (L’Origine du Monde, 1866): a woman without a head or any other obvious identification (recently identified). 

Baselitz considers that he broke new ground with his  figures with erect penises.





Man in the Moon, Franz Pforr, 1965, oil on canvas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



Large claims have been made for the ‘groundbreaking quality’ of the artist’s work from the 1970s onwards.  


Particular focus is on his Hero (Woodsman) series. 




Various Signs, 1965, oil on canvas.  Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection

The hero woodsman of German myth and memory as artist, hedged in  but moving forward nonetheless


He painted perhaps 40 paintings on this subject: men, often carrying red flags, always upright, looking unafraid, head up; but wearing tattered clothing. 

Hero woodsmen of German myth and memory and (re)builders of the German nation.


These have been taken to represent the heroic capacity of the German people to survive and flourish despite the catastrophe of two world wars and their death-bearing ideologies.




Summer Morning, 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.  MKM Museum Kupersmuhle fur Moderne Kunst, Duisberg, Stroher Collection





The Whip Woman,  1964-65, and detail; oil, pencil, coloured chalk on canvas.  Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Ludwig Donation




The artist has said that politics and politicians do not interest him except insofar as they made his work life difficult from time to time when he was younger. 

Critics have interpreted paintings other than the Hero series as political statements.  His salacious work as discontent with Germany’s socialist politics (1960’s).   His fractured paintings as a commentary on the state of the German nation.


Despite this, his politics are not obvious in his overall oeuvre.





The multiply awarded Anglo-German translator, essayist and poet, Michael Hoffman, born 1957, was in the Hirschhorn when I was there.

  He has written a poem about Baselitz, ‘Baselitz and His Generation’ to accompany an exhibition at the British Museum in 2014.  And is due to publish his review of this retrospective in the London Review of Books before the end of November 2018.




To muddy the waters, the artist has said that it is market value which is the marker of an artist’s success. 


One would say that an artist who claims not to understand the workings of a capitalist market – with art become an investment and with an entire establishment of art critics, museums, galleries, agents and auction houses – on the fortunes of an artist and on the viability of his or her work is being disingenuous about the working of the political economy in which we live.


This  disingenuity is a little  hard to believe for an artist who knew full well the effect of the positive criticism of the American art critic Clement Greenberg on the rise and rise of the New York School and on Willem de Kooning’s fortunes and fame especially.





Greenberg Grins, 2013, oil on canvas

Clement Greenberg, 1909-1994, the most influential critic of his day, accompanied the Abstract Expressionists on their revolutionary journey.  This work seems to note the artist’s hope of inclusion among those of whom Greenberg approved.





The Tree, 1966, oil and crayon on canvas.  Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany



It seems that the artist has been first and foremost a man, linked at the heart to his country and its philosophical and aesthetic traditions, nevertheless working out his own salvation. 




Meissen Woodsmen, 1969, oil on canvas.  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The hero woodsmen of German myth and memory carrying paintings




No crime in that. On the contrary, it is a primary instruction to all those of us born Christians (St. Paul to the Philippians).  Successful self-actualization is the primary goal of an adult.


Unlike many of us, Baselitz has had a large sense of his own destiny and talent.  He has also been successful in explaining his thinking.


It has helped also that he has not shied away from decisions which focused the spotlight on him:  painted erect penises calling down the prosecutorial wrath of the state (dismissed by the German Supreme Court) at his first solo exhibition in Germany; withdrawal in the 1970s from Documenta in Kassel because it included representation from East German Social Realists; a sculpture heiling Hitler.



The artist has spoken of the influence on him of his father’s brother, a Protestant pastor in Dresden.  A man who took him in hand when he began to drift in adolescence.  A man who showed him the work of artists. And a man who did not share his parents’ view that he had to follow a conventional education and to get a conventional job.  Self-actualization, in other words, was the order of his uncle’s day for his nephew.


His own salvation, shouting all the way (these huge canvases shout, but you get used to it).




The artist has spoken of some of the sources of his art:  the ancient shards and pots he found in his childhood village; his interest in what is below us and somewhat opaque to us. 


His need to control his creations, not to leave them alone.  His willingness to be an outsider.  His will to survive his work beyond the period of a short-term wonder. His lack of interest in conventional politics and his disdain for conventional religion which he conceives as a vast entertainment system.




Da. Portrait (Franz Dahlem), synthetic resin on canvas, and detail.  Private collection




And on to the upside down work; and the parallel, cut up flotations in his work. 

The artist has explained that these are purposefully an irritant to the viewer. 






Woodsman, 1969,  charcoal and synthetic resin on canvas, and detail.  The Art Institute of Chicago

The hero woodsman of German myth and memory cut in half as was Germany in 1945




As with the obscene images of his 1960’s, the artist wants to confront viewers.  


Whatever technical problems the artist resolved with this technique,  it did nothing for me other than give me a headache.





Still Life, 1976-77, oil on canvas.  MOMA, NY





Nude – Elke, 1974, oil on canvas.  Private collection




We don’t have upside down brains and a figure or object seen upside down in figurative art without narrative reason loses its ballast, its perch, in a stable, recognizable network of things-in-the-world.

These works risk losing their meaning and their connectedness to us.





Bedroom, 1975, and detail, oil and charcoal on canvas.  Private collection





Finger Painting – Apple Trees, oil on canvas.  1973.  Private collection





Fingerpainting – Eagle, 1972 ,  oil on canvas, and detail. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich



The artist undermines his own commitment to figural representation by adopting a technique of this kind. 





Fingerpainting – Female Nude – 1972, and detail.  Louisiana Museum of Modern Art





Untitled Nude with Wing, 1976, ink and oil paint on paper




The Gleaner, 1978, oil and tempera on canvas, and detail. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY

  Hanging upside down as though she were brachiating through tree branches like our australopithecine ancestors.  Unconvincing posture for a figure for whom the earth,the ground, is everything.





Drinker with Glass, 1981, and detail, oil on canvas.  Konig Collection





Orange Eater I, 1981, and detail, oil and tempera on canvas.  Private collection




Orange Eater IX, oil and tempera on canvas.  Skarstedt, NY




Away from the Window, 1982, oil on canvas.  Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel.

A painting which recognizes the influence on his style of that of Edvard Munch, 1863-1944, Norwegian





Eagle in Bed, 1982, oil on canvas.  The George Economou Collection





Adieu, 1982, oil on canvas.  Tate Gallery, London



Adieu (Remix), 2006, oil on canvas.  Private collection

The artist has used a series of paintings to explore a subject.

  He has likewise revisited subjects years later and uses the word ‘Remix’ to denote a revisit.




Upside down positioning distinguishes this painter’s work in the long tradition  of Western figurative and representational art: a tradition which is coded, evolved, and freighted with meaning; and in which it is, now, difficult to make a significant artistic mark. 





The Brucke Chorus, 1983, oil on canvas. Private collection.

A recognition of the artist’s kinship with the German Expressionist group called Die Brucke who moved away from traditional styles of painting towards a new mode of expression involving simplified, vibrant and distorted forms.  A painting style condemned by the Nazis.






On the Right and Left a Church – Jorg, 1987, oil on canvas and detail.  Private collection.


But we are no longer in figurative art when bodies and objects are hanging upside down for no narrative reason. 


We are in a form of conceptual art.  The artist is playing with an idea.





Picture Thirty-Four, 1994, oil and gold leaf on canvas, and detail.  Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

The artist often paints in series.  This theme he repeated 39 times.






Man of Faith, 1983, oil on canvas.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




So what? one could riposte.  Many artists play with the subjects of their work.  





Ciao America I, 1988, oil on canvas, and detail.  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 

A strange painting because of all creatures, the freest are birds.  Birds arrive on all of our continents on vast migrations from other continents and climes.

  And then they leave by way of a mystery still not understood.



And this is true and was explicitly outed by our grand master of subversion, Marcel Duchamp, when he eviscerated our artistic tradition.

But even he, unlike Baselitz (below) did not have his nude descending a staircase upside down.


That would have been a gimmick and an impoverishing subversion itself of Duchamp’s subversive insight:   his descending nude is still within the boundaries of figurative art.  It is she who has the agency just as she does in his master work, the Large Glass, where she is ascending in order to escape from numerous male pursuers. 





Maria and Franz Marc, 2002, pencil and oil on canvas, and detail.  Private collection.

This is a portrait of the artist and his wife.  The artist identified with Franz Marc (1880-1916), a founding member of the avant-garde artistic group, The Blue Rider.  Marc was killed in war.




With Baselitz’ upside down routines, what remains on the retina is the upside downness. 


The artist creator may have gained his own salvation.  He may be in control and he may have retained his artistic agency.


But we have a headache.


And, in this instance, pain is not gain: we have learned nothing new or interesting from his upside down exercises.




Far to the East, 2004, oil on canvas.  Private collection









In the 1970s, Baselitz began making sculptures and returned to them in the next decade.


These are directly carved with no modeling.  The artist uses chainsaw, chisel and axe. 

The artist has described this sculpture as unprecedented.  The museum made parallels with the ‘primitive art’ models which inspired Brancusi, Picasso and Die Brucke.


Only his fame, his talent for representing his work and the immense prices for which Baselitz’ works sell along with the investment of wealthy people and institutions in the maintenance of these  prices encourage the evaluation of this work as as anything other than crude,  and immature.

Both as art and as artisanal work.





Untitled, limewood and oilpaint, 1982-83.  Tate Gallery, London






Ultramarine Woman, 2004, cedar and oil paint.  Courtesy of the artist and the Gagosian Gallery, NY






Zero End, 2013, patinated bronze, and detail.  Private collection courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, NY




Nor is it reasonable to think that the artist did not anticipate the howls which accompanied the display of the figure below with its Hitlerian salute.




Model for a Sculpture, 1979-80, limewood and tempera.  Museum Ludwig, Cologne





Tragic Head, 1988, and detail, birchwood and oil paint.  Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden







Late paintings


You arrive at the artist’s recent work. 


The palette changes.  The colours are lighter, in general brighter, less earthy (earthbound), more tentative; against a stark, dark background.  





Big Night, (Remix), 2008, india ink and watercolour on paper.  Private collection


The canvas becomes huge in some paintings.  A whole change occurs.


It seems to me that the skill of the artist’s work until his late paintings is not equal in originality or dexterity to the symbolic heft of the artist’s subject matter.


And that it is this heft, along with the artist’s impassioned and adroit representations of his work, which propelled the artist forward into the appreciation of so many. 

And a form of his insouciant courage as shown in his display and sale of his less-than-ready-for-prime-time sculptures.




Germany’s history from 1914 to 1945 (strictly from the 1871 reunification of Germany- to the 1991 reunification of Germany) is a fate apart and he was addressing himself to this fate.

Artists sustain and restore the world in a symbolic sense without which we are adrift.  That is not all they do but this is their most important task. 

This artist chose to do this using the oldest, most evolved, most difficult aesthetic tradition of his civilization: figurative art. 



A review of other 20th century artists –  Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, Norman Lewis, Francis Bacon, and  Ernest Pignon-Ernest, (French born 1942)  –  all of whom painted or paint during all or part of their careers figuratively, would indicate to any dispassionate reviewer that Baselitz’ skill does not equal theirs in his early and mid-career work.


There is one big difference between their work and his: they were not addressing the destruction of a country and its civilization.  They were under different and more private urgencies (Pignon-Ernest is a public artist and has addressed large social and political problems).





Detail of Zero End, 2013, patinated bronze, and detail.  Private collection courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, NY




It was their skill which propelled them.  I do not think that it was Baselitz skill which propelled him into the public view.

I do not underestimate the effect of this artist’s work (and that of his teachers and contemporaries and successors also) on the phenomenal regeneration of the German state and culture. 


But I have no doubt that a certain leeway has been accorded this artist (I am not speaking of any  German others) for his long effort in this regard without undue reference to his skills.






The Hand of God (Remix), 2006, india ink and watercolour paper.  Private collection



Baselitz, at the same time, was positioning himself in the long tradition of Western art.

I don’t know why anyone would consider salacious  paintings of aroused male figures to be be a milestone in the history of Western figurative painting.  Or sculptures as unformed as this artist’s.


If these works are important markers in this tradition, then how would we discuss the work of Cézanne ?  And what would we say for Brancusi? And Robert Rauschenberg or Andy Warhol?



Baselitz’ late paintings date from 2000 onwards.

Here this artist breaks away into a dazzling originality. The impulse of this seems to be an effect of the artist’s ageing and the comfort of his immense success. 


The artist’s own, painted salvation has led in these last two decades to the most luminous paintings of human isolation and loss, human vulnerability, the tenacity of human persistence, belonging and connectedness.





A Modern Painter below marks the change in style.  Here is the hero woodsman of German myth and memory lifted up on his platform of trees and looking straight ahead. 




A Modern Painter (Remix), 2007, oil on canvas


The Museum notes (but did not display)  that the artist embarked, in 2010, on a series of nude paintings of his wife, Elke Kretschmar (not infrequently the subject of his paintings when they were younger).  They married in 1962.


The artist speaks of the fragility of old age and the inevitable turn to mortality.






Artaud (Remix), 2007, oil on canvas. Gagosian Gallery



When I saw these late paintings, suddenly it was immaterial to me if these bodies are upside down, sideways or slung from the rafters.  My headache evaporated in an instant.


In these paintings, metaphor is queen.

Metaphor is a powerful language in which a is b.  Not like b.  Is b.


A transformation in which the ego and memory are overtaken by the imaginative faculty which has transmuted what they ‘know’ into rich metaphorical present and future.


The artist has also used images of this kind to recall and rework memories of his war years; and memories of friends of whom he had made portraits when younger.




  Fällt von der Wand nicht (Doesn’t Fall From the Wall) – posted to the web.  Photos taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbera. 

3 of 8 paintings shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Now in the possession of Henry Pinault.

Huge paintings.  These deal with the artist’s experience of World War II as a young man.  




Beginning the artist calls this work.




Beginning, 2011, oil on canvas, and detail.  Private collection.




Metaphor. Among the most potent of Sapiens’ creations to survive the difficulties of human life and the unpalatable inevitablity of death.


Bodies are equated with stars and planets and human relationships with astral maps. 


With that of our sun: molten hot and streaming flares. 

With pale pink-sepia stars cooling after the explosion of their birth. 

With moons which, without light sources of their own, reflect in brilliant silver-grey-white the light of their suns.

With planets which have cooled to frozen rock-grey.

With black holes.


The artist’s painted figures are not like galaxies, sun, planets, moons. They are the sun, the stars, the planets of our galaxy.





A Green One, Kaput ’67 (Remix), 2007, oil on canvas, and detail.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The heroic woodsman of German myth reimagined as as sun and earth and sky





Dystopian Couple, 2015, oil on canvas.  Courtesy of the artist and White Cube




I’ve had this surreal tendency for a while now, 2010, oil on canvas and detail.  Private collection




Who All?  What All?, 2016, oil on canvas and detail.  Private collection 

The genesis of this painting is a 1924 portrait by Otto Dix, 1891-1969, of his parents.  Dix’s work was condemned by the Nazis.




Downward for the Moment, 2017, oil on canvas.  Private collection

The museum notes that this painting is based loosely on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

Baselitz has transformed the nude into two figures who have become ethereal, and are, in late age, moving downwards. 

Of course, the painting is upside down and perhaps the two are climbing.




Spark Dot, 2013, oil on canvas.  Private collection



Here is the artist well advanced on a journey which began in the destruction of his homeland to arrive, bit by bit, at his identification with our universe(al)  homeland.


We’re off he says in the work below.




We’re Off, 2016, oil on canvas. Private collection





Rosa E., 2017, and detail.  Private collection, Stockholm

  A reworking of an earlier portrait.




Dierske, 2017, oil on canvas.  Private collection

  A reworking of a portrait which the Museum suggests indicates a tension between the facts and the artist’s memory.

  One could equally say that the artist has held his friend, whose 1959 portrait is above, close for approaching six decades 




It cannot be said now that the artist’s style is not equal to the substance of these late paintings.


This change of palette, this burst into the universe and into universal themes, these vast canvases, this painted affirmation of the place of Sapiens in his vastest homeland.

A homeland which we cannot destroy either by war or by ideology. 


Wonderful works and, for all that death hovers, heartening for the acceptance that we are but stardust and must accept that fate.






The artist grounded in his painted universe in a recent photograph (unknown provenance on the web)