Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

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.
His work with the human body, which takes its bearings from masters such as Grunewald, Rembrandt and Soutine, who loved raw and flayed flesh, was also tempered and loosened up by his seeing the work of American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston as soon as he arrived in Berlin in 1958. The heroic, he realised, could be restored to painting by sheer gestural freedom, by statements of pure and intense ego made by the angry, uncompromising masculine self. Energy itself becomes thus a way of fracturing and tearing asunder, and then designing, offering a challenging completion, a sort of ease, to the universe.
But it is impossible to pin Baselitz down to a set of influences. Indeed, it would be hard to name any central, or often marginal, force in European painting which has not affected his imaginative process.
He began to turn his figures upside down in 1969. None of his efforts to explain this, nor those of any of his critics, have done much to help us understand why. Baselitz just did it because he could; his paintings, it can be said, look strange and interesting like that. They became brave pictures rather than representations of anything. ‘Art,’ he has written, ‘contains no information…the only way of using it is to look at it.’ He has also written that he cannot imagine making pictures ‘without spilling your soul onto the canvas’. His soul is deeply complex; it haunted by the darkness of not only history but of the images of the past that have mattered most to him. And yet his sensibility cannot discard the possibility of joy, even if it is just the fleeting joy of making an image in colour which is an act of will, and then hesitating for a moment before turning to look at it. His genius resides in the excitement of those moments.