Some painters have all the luck. They invent or stumble across a style or a signature gesture early in their careers and then spend their lives refining it and playing with it. They make their best paintings when they struggle most to avoid self-parody and attempt to surprise themselves. There is something almost brazen, for example, about the apparent sameness of Miro’s surreal squiggles, Francis Bacon’s figures, Cy Twombly’s hieroglyphics and Sean Scully’s squares. We must have been right the first time, they seem to be telling us. The task for them then, however, is to paint so that the system which made them famous becomes merely a way of distracting the eye so that other, more mysterious things can happen. Just when you feel you have the measure of them, they can pounce.
Georg Baselitz paints figures upside down. Everyone knows that; and he must be pretty sure that it is a good idea since he has been doing it for so long. What is strange is that this telltale fact might, in reality, be the thing that is least worthy of comment on in his work. Other facts might tell us much more about his uneasy quest as an artist, and the strange and unsettling nature of the images he makes. As a citizen of a divided Germany – he was born Hans Georg Kern in the town of Baselitz in East Germany and came to West Berlin in 1958 at the age of twenty – he has a deep distrust of beauty. He has a great, almost nature facility as a painter which he sees reason to resist.
As a painter, he has seen the need to lie down in darkness, to deal with the flesh and the body, not only as mortal, but as wearing on its surface the marks of decay. His canvases seem deliberately roughed up, with images fragmented, painted with a set of almost violent gestures, worked over, destroyed, restored. This is fascinating because, while it satisfies his essential philosophy, it works against the fundamental grain of his talent. There are times when it is clear that, despite his interest in fragment and chaos, he loves colour, the complex image rendered complete, pattern and – dare I say the words? – emotion and beauty.
For a German born in 1938, the concepts surrounding ‘emotion’ and ‘beauty’ are filled with difficulty. Baselitz’s painting from 1963 ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’, which caused such trouble, was of a figure masturbating. His early paintings of figures with overgrown erect penises, and his depiction of body parts, allowed him to be provocative. Looking at his work forty years later, it is clear to me that his rebellion was not only against his society, but against something in his own make-up, which emerges again and again in his work, a crypto-romanticism, an old German melancholy, a native rhetoric about the battle between the heroic and the ironic, between ‘emotion’ and ‘beauty’ as things that will not go away and the impossibility of those words suggesting anything except a gnarled and tragic history.