PRINT Summer 1982


THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an ongoing tradition of painters in Germany. It took Albrecht Dürer a great deal of energy and effort to overcome the narrow mentality of the medieval guilds; he was the first artist to establish an identity for the artist in the consciousness of the public, yet that identity was unable to sustain itself as a cultural tradition. In Adam Elsheimer Germany produced another painter of European significance, but the numerous talented artists who emerged in the early 19th century fought and lost the battle against Goethe’s unsensual idealist concept of art. German Romantic landscape painting was not ambitious enough in its goals to produce work comparable to that of Goya or Delacroix. The post-1900 generation that participated in the Modern departure was impressed with the artistic achievements of 19th century France, but also sought, in manifestoes and theoretical writings, a stance that would allow it to envisage an independent German art; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the most passionate theoretician among them, attempted in several essays to formulate a position that could establish such a tradition. But with the rise of Nazism and the subsequent events of history, developments in German Modern art that might otherwise have taken place were precluded. Of those who managed to leave the country, Max Beckmann was the only artist who succeeded, during his years in the Netherlands, in analyzing the exile experience and placing it with self-confidence in a wider context. For Kirchner and many of the others, exile meant, among other things, the disruption of their artistic development.

The postwar generation of German painters based their work on the abstract language of the Informel style propagated from Paris, and in only a few cases attempted to restore severed national art-historical links. Ernst Wilhelm Nay in particular addressed himself to the problems that Kirchner had left unsolved after his unsatisfactory experiments with large-scale figurative painting. Like Kirchner, Nay also tried to clarify his artistic position by the construction of a theoretical framework. In the ’50s, his work was practically the only yardstick available to the young German painter—such as Georg Baselitz—who was starting to work.

While Baselitz’s early work has little stylistically in common with the work of his predecessors, one can observe in it a consistent concern that suggests a continuity with the enterprise of German art of this century: in investigating artistic problems, German painters tend to work simultaneously on problems relating to their own disrupted sense of identity and of art-historical position. Whenever they are trying not to conform to the stylistic patterns imported from the world’s art centers, but to react to their special historic situation, German painters characteristically make the “I” their subject matter. Severed from tradition, the space for exploration provided by their own subjective experience is a link to the world.

The attempt to find symbols and vocabulary for self-realization took Baselitz’s iconography into the dimension of his series of “hero paintings,” which he began in the mid-60’s. An a priori condition of Baselitz’s art is an insistence on keeping open the possibility of a “realistic” identification; his image structures have the properties of a “figure” even where they do not explicitly show one. And it is the androgynous figure—a recurring motif in the hero paintings, as in, for example, Die grossen Freunde (The Great Friends), 1965—which symbolizes for Baselitz the awakening of the creative genius. As he traveled a psychologically credible distance from his origins, symbolized by landscape and earth (the hero paintings, in their progression from a crouching to a standing figure, suggest a separation from the earth and thus from native memory), and toward the defining of the figure, he could establish a new basis for his art. The hero paintings’ alternative title, “Der neue Typ” (The New Man), taken from the literature of the Russian revolution, suggests Baselitz’s identification with the philosophical aim of Suprematism—the creation of a new cosmos and a new human being. His point was to radically reject the existing stance in painting, which had evolved during the ’50s into what he considered an inconsequentiality, what had once seemed liberating in it long since buried under a complacent ornamentalism.

Baselitz broke away from the dialectic by allowing a center in his paintings. Figures crystallize the axis of the image; they do not define actions. He faced the problem of reconciling the conflict between the realistic tradition of 19th century art and Modern painting’s own epistemological needs by analyzing the intersection of horizontal and vertical forces in the image, thereby discovering the shape of the cross—a shape endowed with significance not only for the esthetic structure of the painting, but also for its content. The cross had become the pictorial theme in some of Baselitz’s work from 1964, though there was as yet no human figure; it recurred in the hero iconography—for example, in Vorwärts Wind (Forward Wind), 1966, in which a figure with spread arms stands in front of a tree as if crucified.

The idea that the directions of the forces in a picture plan can basically be represented as a cross had been shown by Kazimir Malevich in his revolutionary painting Black Cross, ca. 1913. Baselitz’s reconstruction/restoration of the Russian model emphasizes its realistic element. He uses the pure forces implicit in painting and image in order to establish a German painting that transcends Expressionism, modifying it in keeping with the demands voiced by Malevich and other crucial artists of the ’20s. Malevich’s “alogism”—or deliberate illogicality—formed the foundation for a progressive concept of the image which enabled Baselitz to go beyond the decorative banalities of abstraction and become “realistic.” The structure of Baselitz’s pictures is abstract, paratactical, based on contrasts, formally self-contained—yet the works are informed with the mysticism of icons and the warmth of a living psychological substance of form and color—the figure.

Malevich’s significance for this new definition of the position of painting cannot be overrated, since, unlike the dismantlement of reality achieved in Cubism, Malevich’s concept of painting freed the picture from any idea of top or bottom, in fact from any fixed ideas of gravity or mass. The intersections in Baselitz’s later pictures and his eventual inversion of the figure indicate that he is working on a set of problems inherited from Malevich. The balance of intersecting horizontal and vertical forces in the picture remain an important concern for him, and one that he has returned to over the years. It is useful to note that it is the paintings with the crosslike structure in particular that point to the notion of the androgynous figure and the concomitant surmounting of separation and isolation—a realization of the creative impulse, which, in one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s phrases, is “merely something like a name for the friction of the bisexual in us.” Baselitz creates a holistic idea of the figure, and, with this, a painting that advances to the point where it breaks with realistic illusion.

Instead, the properties of color are used as an analogy for the object painted. Because their structure is conceived in spatial rather than temporal terms, the paintings allow for ruptures and contradictions that do not grind to a halt in some inappropriate synthesis such as a pictorial plot. The work on conflicting forces that Baselitz achieved in the compositional principle of the cross became concretized in a certain type of figure in the hero paintings, but in the early works in the series it was not resolved insofar as the relationship of figure and ground was passive. In fact, the relationship of the hero to his environment was passive. Later, however, Baselitz’s painting limited the application of color to a few special spots in the picture, where their effect was downright explosive. Baselitz had developed his painting so as to manipulate color to state material values.

Der Dichter (The Poet), 1965, painted in Florence the year after Baselitz left art school, was the first of the hero paintings. In Italy Baselitz discovered the work of the Mannerists, and it was at this point that the human figure entered his work—though here man was no longer the center of the world and the measure of pictorial proportions, as he was in the Renaissance, but rather the prisoner of the rationalism that he has invented for himself. A concentric circle with radial rays, deliberately painted in a rough, seemingly naive manner, entraps like a spider’s web a ludicrously small male figure who is desperately trying to escape. A sense of idle, unused power is suggested by the helpless man’s large sex; here Baselitz was registering the protest of a young painter whose creative potential was going to ruin in a sterile society. Anger at the inertia and narrow-mindedness of Berlin and the West was also the driving force behind Die grossen Freunde. Baselitz cannot accept the pseudo-reality of Iron Curtain socialist realism, but he also rejects the vacuous gesticular esthetic of Western painting, which, for him, means the road to esthetic non-commitment.

Further sources for the gestural language of the heroes can be found in Baselitz’s interests in Mikhail Vrubel, August Strindberg, Gaston Chaissac, Antonin Artaud, and the art of mental patients (according to the catalogs of his shows in Basel in 1970 and in Hamburg in 1973). He has also studied commercial art and other forms which he prefers to be as “unartistic” as possible. Der Dichter is apparently based on an Italian source, but other works of the series seem to stem from late 16th century German prints that show working people typical of various occupations in a “primitively” direct way. More or less at the same time as he was working on these paintings Baselitz produced a group of woodcuts that refer directly to the prints of the Mannerist period and of the Baroque. His work had absorbed the “paradoxical” style that the Mannerists had developed from the art of the Renaissance (a style that was in some measure influenced by German art of the Dürer period); he had adopted Mannerism’s formalized gestures, which permit the construction of psychological motives but do not lend themselves to pathos in representation. From these works, Baselitz arrived at the possibility of an abstract construction of the body—or, rather, one that makes heavy demands on abstraction while endowing the figure with psychological content. The complex gestural language of the figures, with their internal shifts of scale, is not a reversion to Expressionism but a vehicle for the finding of new meaning.

While “realistic,” then, these paintings are not a mere representation of reality but are endowed with a language potential in the Modern sense. Their contingency with the German situation—the loss of an intellectual center and the disruption of tradition—can be found overtly in those pieces that specifically refer in their titles to the Romantic/Realistic German painter Ludwig Richter. Like others among the heroes, this painter figure is shown on the way to work—to working on his own identity.

Dr. Siegfried Gohr is the director of the Kunsthalle in Cologne.

Translated from the German by Frederic J. Hosenkiel.