Thursday, January 24, 2008

The World Turned Upside Down

Born Hans-Georg Kern on January 23, 1938, the artist later known as Georg Baselitz, caused a scene from the very beginning of his career. At his first solo exhibition in 1963, German police responded to public outrage and confiscated two paintings deemed indecent—Naked Man and The Big Night Down the Drain—the latter of which depicted a boy masturbating. Baselitz, who adopted the name of his home town as his own, strove for shock in everything he did, always looking to shake up the comfortable art world and wake up the viewing public to a new way of seeing. Baselitz’s Rebel (above, from 1965) could be considered a type of self-portrait of the artist as a young anarchist, the anti-hero with ideals and unconventional methods.

In 1969, Baselitz literally turned his art upside down, deciding to depict all his figures inverted to thwart attempts to see the person in the image and instead present the image alone. (One of the tricks drawing teachers often use is to have students turn a picture upside down when copying, so that they see only the shapes and not when they represent.) Nude Elke 2 (above, from 1976) shows the artist’s wife in Baselitz’s typical Neo-Expressionist style, which harks back to the style and the goals of the German Expressionists of the early twentieth century. As a young man, Baselitz read writings of the mystic Jakob Böhme and later immersed himself in the spiritually-oriented art theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich. Beneath Baselitz’s sexually-charged and brutally depicted images lurked an inquiring soul longing to see beyond the physical and into mystical realms, much like the first generation of German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Over time, Baselitz the outlaw rebel became Baselitz the representative German artist in several international exhibitions in the 1980s. By the 1980s, Baselitz spread out his vision into other media, such as the untilted wood sculpture above (from 1982-1983). Never one for subtlety, Baselitz literally carved this figure with a chainsaw. The primal aspect of using power tools for art renders a figure that itself seems to be from a primitive. Thanks to Baselitz and the other neo-Expressionists, the first generation of German Expressionists received a critical reappraisal in the 1980s that continues today. Still going strong at 80 years of age, Baselitz, like his predecessors, saw the ills of his time and pointed them out in a raw and loud voice that cut through all the comfortable illusions.

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