Georg Baselitz

“GEORG BASELITZ: PAINTER,” a brilliantly installed exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, is a real stunner—it’s a pity it is not traveling to the United States. Cannily positioning older works beside newer ones, the show brings to light the cyclical nature of Baselitz’s working process, one that doubles back on itself, and persistently questions the possibilities afforded by the genres, styles, and motifs of painting. It also makes clear that more than merely turning painting on its head, the artist has been attempting to redefine the genre’s borders since the early 1960s.

The show commences with an unconventional image, Porträt mit Untermieter (Portrait with Subtenant), 1997, which is actually a double self-portrait employing two introspective gestures: In one picture, the artist’s head rests lightly on a fingertip as though he is pondering; in the other, his knuckles scratch his head as if he is trying to recall something. Such a representation suggests that the subtenant of the title is actually the doppelgänger of memory, impressions that refuse to be dislodged. Moving into the exhibition, the viewer encounters the eleven extraordinary “P. D. Füsse” (P. D. Feet) paintings of 1960–63, which constitute the first large series of work Baselitz produced. The tortured appendages isolated in these powerful pictures suggest a violent uprooting of sorts, one that mirrors the experiences of the artist, who was forced to leave the former East Germany (DDR) in 1957, having been judged “politically immature” by his professors at the Academy for Fine and Applied Arts in East Berlin.

These vivid initial moments of the show point to one of the great themes of Baselitz’s work: the idea of homeland and the struggle to represent it in paint. Oddly enough, the scope of this subject has scarcely been recognized by Baselitz’s critics. And yet this exhibition leaves no doubt that Baselitz continuously navigates the maze of aesthetic, sociopolitical, and personal histories that shaped his emergence as an artist in postwar Germany. If the “P. D. Feet” paintings can be said to have an ancestor, it might be Der Fuss des Künstlers (The Artist’s Foot), made in 1876 by Adolph Menzel, who by then had become the best-known north German historical painter. The presence of history is also felt in Portrait with Subtenant, which emerged partly in response to Baselitz’s examination in 1995 of files that the former East German secret police (Stasi) had compiled about his final year in the DDR.

Not far from the entrance to the show is Baselitz’s masterful Blick aus dem Fenster (View Out the Window), 1982, in which an alert, profiled face stares out of a porthole. Apparently the “view” afforded by this aperture is something not visible to the intent red-rimmed eyes: There is no landscape or thing to be seen in the outside world, but instead merely a painted white void. Further works draw attention to other self-reflective moments, suggested by motifs not typically associated with “high art”—take for example the dogs, and even the cowboys, that populate several canvases. And yet, just as View Out the Window is not really an outlook on to something tangible, neither are these “cowboys” simply depictions of dudes. A statement by Baselitz included on the brief panel that introduces the exhibition calls attention to the artist’s true agenda in employing such banal motifs: “Paintings are not reproductions of things.” It follows that these seemingly lackluster cowboys—apparently one person, designated in the title of a work from 2002 as Eine seltsame Figur (A Mysterious Figure)—allude not to a type, but to another figure from German history: that of Karl May, whose fictional alter ego Old Shatterhand befriends a Native American named Winnetou. May, who was one of Hitler’s favorite authors, was banned in the DDR, where Baselitz nevertheless read him in secret as an adolescent. Still a hero of many adult Germans, the author, who was once revered, is on the verge of being forgotten by schoolchildren there today. By arranging four images of May astride a horse at right angles, as if to form the points of a compass, Baselitz suggests in this painting an ongoing interest in reexamining deeply ensconced ideological points of reference.

Nearby hang four rarely seen heads smeared to the point of becoming amorphous masses. Painted between 1959 and 1960, they pay homage to the nineteenth-century artist Ferdinand Rayski, whose 1859 painting Wermsdorfer Wald (Wermsdorf Wood) Baselitz admired as a child. Far from forgetting about Rayski, Baselitz returned to him in 1969 when he painted his first completely upside-down composition—Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Wood on Its Head)—based on a reproduction of the elder artist’s painting that had hung on a wall of the auditorium in Baselitz’s secondary school.

Another welcome feature of this exhibition is the large room devoted to works on paper from all phases of Baselitz’s career. Frequently brilliantly colored and full of pathos, these forty-odd pieces illuminate another concern of Baselitz’s oil paintings: the formal possibilities afforded by the fluidity of drawn and painted lines. And two recent lengthy documentaries also help bring the artist at work into focus. In one, we encounter Baselitz in his studio in Derneburg, having just finished Meine neue Mütze (My New Cap), 2003, the only sculpture in this show. The other takes the installation of the artist’s 2004 retrospective at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn as its point of departure. Both films help contextualize the works on view at the Louisiana, a jewel of a show that quietly insists that even for those who think they have Baselitz down pat, it’s time to take another look.

Pamela Kort is a Berlin-based art historian and curator.

“Georg Baselitz: Painter” is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, through June 5.