The first work encountered by visitors to the Baselitz exhibition at Fondation Beyeler in Riehen is a large-scale Dystopisches Paar (Dystopian Couple, 2015). In an echo of Otto Dix’s Die Eltern des Künstlers (The Parents of the Artist, 1924), Baselitz addresses transience – of time and of the body. The two larger-than-life ghostly figures seem shrouded in ambiguity, setting the tone for the whole exhibition.
The first room features a series of deeply disturbing works, including Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain, 1962/63). The painting shows a slender male presenting his enormous member to the viewer, and a figure, whose immobility makes it look like a lump of flesh lying on the floor. It’s easy to imagine why the piece caused an outcry in economic-miracle Germany, in which Manuela’s harmless tune, Schuld war nur der Bossa Nova (Blame It on the Bossa Nova) hit the mood of the time. On the opposite wall are several mercilessly direct depictions of severed feet, each of them a symbol of human suffering.
The next room does nothing to dispel the oppressive feeling. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of works from the Helden (Hero) series and an allegedly idyllic Sommermorgen (Summer’s Morning, 1964) seems to reinforce it. These paintings resemble the painterly exploration of a breakdown; they do not celebrate glorious, triumphant heroes, but show exhausted creatures, broken by war, who are unable to cope with the consequences of this catastrophe. Baselitz’s world is not an ideal world and probably never will be.
The adjacent room offers a selection of fracture paintings in which parts of human and animal bodies are seemingly connected but at random and in grotesque ways. It also shows Fertigbetonwerk (Ready-Mix Concrete Plant, 1970), one of his early motif reversals. In 1969 Baselitz decided to turn his paintings upside down. The results not only demonstrate an abstraction of the figurative, but also question conventional viewing habits.
At the end of the 1970s, Baselitz began to make wooden sculptures. His Modell für eine Skulptur (Model for a Sculpture, 1979/80), which can be seen at Fondation Beyeler, caused a scandal when it was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1980. The outstretched right arm of the figure – only partly and roughly cut out of the wood and painted in red and black – was immediately misinterpreted as a Hitler salute. The artist, however, sees the roots of this gesture in African tribal art.
It is not the only work in the exhibition that introduces Baselitz the sculptor. His radiant yellow Dresdner Frauen (The Women of Dresden, 1989/90), a homage to so-called Trümmerfrauen – the women who helped clear debris after WWI – dominate the adjacent hall, while a pair of huge sculptures, Meine neue Mütze (My New Cap, 2003) and Frau Ultramarin (Mrs Ultramarin, 2004), do the same in room nine.
A number of Baselitz’s finger paintings are also on display in Riehen. As the name suggests, he refrains from using brushes in these paintings, instead using his fingers and the ball of his thumb. With this method he creates, among other things, eagles, nudes and landscapes.
These and other subjects, above all depictions of his wife Elke, appear again and again in the artist’s work. The painterly repetition gives him the opportunity to change motifs, to vary colours and to resume ideas of works finished long ago. This is particularly evident in his Remix pictures, in which he has been reinterpreting important works of his œuvre since 2005, without the seriousness and gloom of earlier works.
The series of Orangenesser (Orange Eaters, 1981), exhibited in room six, demonstrates that seriality is an important part of Baselitz’s work. Each of the four canvasses shows a figure bringing an orange to its mouth. The colour and position of the body differ in each of the paintings, thus creating a different atmosphere.
One of the exhibition’s most impressive works is in Hall 10: the monumental Avignon Ade (2017), in which Baselitz relentlessly documents the decline of his own body. The figure, fragile despite its enormous size, is divided vertically into two halves. The severed right foot refers back to the early works – and so we’ve come full circle.
The art of Georg Baselitz is not easily accessible. His controversial statements (on the subject of women artists, among other things) don’t help matters. However, the exhibition, curated by Martin Schwander, is so very well done that a visit is worthwhile, even for non-fans of Baselitz.