BASELITZ-ACADEMY: THE MAN WHO INVERTED HIS PORTRAITS EXHIBITED AT GALLERIE DELL’ACCADEMIA IN VENICE, WHICH FOR THE FIRST TIME HOSTED A GREAT SOLO OF A LIVING ARTIST
Text by: Fiammetta Cesana
“It was a ten-months scholarship. In Italy I worked wonderfully, I created paintings that later I found problematic, because they were too frivolous, but at that time I also started preparing the “Heroes”. It was very positive, but after six months I got rid of money. Moreover, in Florence I found myself very bad. The Renaissance was wonderful, the city was wonderful, but I had problems with Italians. Later, all this changed and I became a passionate of Italy.” Baselitz, now in his eighties, tells Kosme de Barañano, curator of his exhibition in Venice, remembering when he moved from Berlin to Florence at 27 thanks to a scholarship at Villa Romana.
A lover not only of Renaissance but also of Abstract expressionism, his artistic research takes an opposite path both from the rules of the past and from the rebellion of modern times. According to him, painting doesn’t need to have a purpose, it is an autonomous language that doesn’t depend on the represented object. “The object expresses absolutely nothing,” and it is so secondary that it can be freely turned upside down…
Unlike the works of many of his contemporaries, in fact, who use art as the outlet for the turmoil of their own psyche, Baselitz’s ones do not want to push the observer to ask himself what is behind his pieces, which are the reasons of the subject or the artist’s feelings, but instead want to legitimize the importance of the action of painting as such.
“Georg Baselitz is one of the most significant artists of the second part of the twentieth century and deals with the great theme of painting not reducing it to its essence but rather attacking its convention,” says de Barañano, art historian and internationally recognized curator.
The exhibition “Baselitz-Academy”, the first at the Gallerie dell’Accademia to be dedicated to a living artist, has collected a series of his works, dividing them into seven thematic rooms, according to a contextualizing “Warbugian” perspective, as de Barañano says, including drawings, prints, sculptures and paintings, where the iconic huge nudes definente stand out. Following his career that moved from the 50s socially and culturally divided Berlin to the classic-charming Florence, the aim of the exhibition is precisely to explore the relationship between Baselitz’s work and Italy.
After being expelled from the Academy of Visual Arts in East Berlin for “socio-political immaturity”, Hans-Georg Bruno Kern, then renamed “Baselitz”, moved to the Academy of West Berlin at 19, of which he would later became meisterschüler in 1962. Here, he begins to reproduce the works of the great masters by developing his own creative ability in knowing how to instinctively capture what he considers essential in a work. He was conquered by the fascination of American Abstract expressionism, especially of Pollock’s works, while always remaining linked to the art of the past. The artistic panorama of Germany, in particular of Berlin, of the post-war period in fact well reflects the imaginative spirit of Baselitz himself, straddling modern informal art and traditional painting techniques.
His thoughts on the role of art, from past to present environment, are expressed frankly with a real programmatic manifesto, the so-called “Pandemonic Manifesto”, which he shows at his first exhibition in 1961 in the rooms of an abandoned house, stating “to put the world upside down” – apparently an unconscious premonition of when he would inverted his portraits. Then, at the age of 27, he won a scholarship and moved to Florence where consolidated a true passion for Italian Renaissance artists.
BASELITZ AND ITALY
From Rosso Fiorentino to Parmigianino, Giovanni di Paolo, Raffaello and Jacopo di Pontormo, the artistic tradition of the Bel Paese is preserved in the works of Baselitz. Thus the authority of great Italian masters unites in the artist’s canvas with the intensity of the unconscious reproduced by the action painting of Pollock and also of Guston (of which the Galleries hosted an exhibition in 2017).
After the experience at Villa Romana, his artistic success in Italy grew on institutional scale, also involving sculptural works. In 1980 the German artist participates at the Venice Biennale – presenting his first plastic work “Model for a sculpture”, which was hit by many criticisms due to the subject’s alleged Nazi salute – and later in 2015 with the famous upside-down portraits.
BASELITZ AND CLASSIC ART – MEANING OF PORTRAITS’ REVERSAL
Often the modern artist’s reaction to the classical rules is to go for the minimalism of forms. Baselitz chooses a different path. Instead of reducing everything to its essence, he faces the confrontation with ancient art, trying to sort it out through unconventional solutions, such as the deconstruction of traditional portraiture. His action is both provocative and exploratory. Although he has often repeated that he turned the portraits upside down only to make himself known, actually his in-depth historical and technical knowledge of art reveals a far deeper meaning of this gesture. His goal indeed is to destabilize the concept of space, of perspective, leading to the awareness that there is no natural positioning of the canvas, that “right”, “left”, “above” and “below” are only artificial conditions. As for the expressionists, Baselitz discovers that the need to paint goes beyond the mere representation of subjects, but his approach is opposite: he doesn’t overturn the image to represent the impulses of the psyche, but to go deeper into the value of form. The form itself is destroyed: in the Negativ Bilder paintings he almost nullifies it, overturning not only its perspective but also its color tones and contrasts through dark works, making the line between form and surrounding context even more blurred. No longer having to worry about the form, the artist is finally free to paint.
ART AS INDEPENDET STRUCTURE
Freedom is a crucial element in Baselitz’s production. What counts for him is the direct expression: the canvas is a structure, where each part contributes to the overall unity, and in which the artist records his own instinctive sensations. Many of his works, in fact, are made with fingers, without any preparatory drawing and impossible to correct. The Fingermalerei as well as the enormous nudes express his need for frankness, to free himself and a Germany trapped between the uncertainties of the WW2 aftermath. His aggressive declaration is detached from the abstract and conceptual movements, not focusing on the form’s reduction, but on the idea that it is the objective act of painting, impulsive and vital for the artist, to build the image, not vice versa.
“This experience [painting fracturing] led to the idea that an object does not have much to do with the value and reality of a painting. It is not a necessary thing. This doesn’t mean that I do abstract painting. It’s just that there is no connection, no relationship, between the object and me. […]
Painting is not a mean to an end. On the contrary, painting is autonomous. And I told myself that if it was so I should take the things which used to be traditional part of painting as subjects – that is to say a landscape, a portrait, a nude – and turn them upside down. This is the best way to empty what is painted of meaning.
In painting an upside-down portrait is impossible to be said ‘this portrait represents my wife, and I gave her a particular expression.’ This method leaves no room for literary interpretation”.
From “Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews”: Baselitz in conversation with Froment and Poinsot, 1983