Georg Baselitz, The Modern Painter, 1965, oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 51 1/4".

Georg Baselitz, The Modern Painter, 1965, oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 51 1/4".

Georg Baselitz

Georg Baselitz, The Modern Painter, 1965, oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 51 1/4".

Among the works in the exhibition “The Heroes” was The Modern Painter, 1965, showing a male figure against a light background, some brushes sticking out of his backpack. This painter, however, is not able to paint, since both his hands are stuck in traps on the ground. He is one of the many handicapped heroes that Georg Baselitz painted in the series known as “The Heroes” or “The New Types,” in 1965–66, when he was in his late twenties. Forty of them were on display in this exhibition, together with thirty drawings from the same era.

These hero-painters are survivors of battle. Lonely and disoriented wounded warriors, dressed in ragged uniforms or shabby civilian clothes, they wander through a bleak postwar landscape. Blocked Painter, 1965, is missing one leg; he rests on a stick and leans against a tree while holding his palette and brush. A bloodred flag appears in several paintings. These “heroes” seem to be in a lamentable state, yet the paintings render them layered, almost opulent. The torn clothes appear as patchworks of color; figuration turns into virtuoso abstraction through inventively variegated paint application. The counterpoint between what the painting depicts and how the pigment is laid on and organized makes these paintings rich and contradictory. The painter-hero is pitiful but also strong and sovereign.

Two experiences were decisive for the artistic development of the young Baselitz. The first was his 1958 encounter, while still a student, with American Abstract Expressionist painting in Berlin; the second was a six-month-long fellowship in Florence, in 1965, where he studied the European old masters. Both made him aware that to create his own space in painting he would have to rely on his own biography rather than copy an existing style. The trees and rural scenery around the heroes can be traced back to the Saxon countryside where Baselitz grew up. The figures themselves spring from early memories of partisans and refugees he saw in the aftermath of the war. Aided by a rebellious spirit (“I was against everything at that age”), Baselitz developed his own “schweinerei,” as he called his “bad” yet powerful kind of figurative painting, which was not exactly fashionable at the time in Germany.

Baselitz has exhibited “remixes” of this early “Heroes” paintings over the past decade or so, often brighter in color and mood, and it is interesting to see so many of the early and original “Heroes” together in one exhibition. Back then, some of them ignited scandal because they were thought to be indecent. Fifty years later, this can hardly be a concern; we can look at the works beyond a moral perspective and see how free and poetic they are. In retrospect, the burst of energy that gave rise to these unexpectedly mature works by a young artist with little recognition seems astonishing.

Baselitz kept changing his manner of painting, and he continued to break the figure in different ways. Works in the last two rooms of the exhibition showed a shift toward a fragmentation of the figure in three horizontal cuts. Something of the melancholic magic of the wounded hero is gone in these works; the emphasis seems more on formal elements, and the paintings seem less distinctive and driven. This transition seems to close a short but defining episode in postwar German painting—a remarkable accomplishment that is, even for the artist himself, hard to surpass.

Jurriaan Benschop