Baselitz Explores His Cultural Roots in Abstract Forms

Article excerpt

The German painter George Baselitz, whose 30-year retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden includes more than 100 works - 31 of them the Hirshhorn's own drawings, which have never been seen before in this country - is strongest when digging into his cultural roots and expressing what it means to be German in the aftermath of World War II.

Mr. Baselitz, as part of the group of German artists who emerged after the war, including Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, helped form a new national school that used specifically German subject matter. He also looked to the aggressive brushwork of pre-World War II German Expressionists such as Max Beckman, Ludwig Kirshner and Oskar Kokoschka.

Born Georg Kern in 1938 in Deutschbaselitz, in eastern Germany, in 1961 he took a shortened form of the town's name as his own, following the custom of Renaissance artists. But very early on he adopted the rebellious, explosive stance that characterizes his art and career: He was thrown out of the Hochschule fur Bildende und Angewandte Kunst in East Berlin for "social-political immaturity" in 1956, and two paintings were confiscated from his first 1963 Berlin gallery exhibit for "obscenity."

Though exposed in his school days to American abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, and later Joan Mitchell, he wanted his art to engage the burden of the German past, especially its then-most-recent past and the Holocaust. He was an artist in search of a style, and his style would be German, especially one drawn from the German figurative tradition.

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That style, through all its variations of the "Heroes" and "Fracture" series paintings of the 1960s, the "Upside Down" works of the 1970s, and the oversized paintings of the 1980s and 1990s that fill the final galleries of the exhibition, is strongest when the artist is manipulating the figure.

However, when Mr. Baselitz dissolves the human form, or makes it disappear into gestural abstraction or big fields of roughly pigmented color, the work becomes weak and uninteresting.

Paintings such as "Volkstanz" ("Folkdance," No. 153, 1989) - in which Mr. Baselitz clusters squared jugs and rectangular pitchers of colors much like Philip Guston's paintings of the 1950s - and the "Schwester Liebchen" ("Sister Darling," 1992) series, which look like Brice Marden's calligraphic paintings but aren't as good, lose the figurative punch of his better works.

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It was difficult in those postwar days for a young man from East Germany to become an artist. Baselitz exhibit curator Diane Waldman writes in the catalog that when the artist came to West Berlin from East Germany, he thought of himself as a revolutionary. He wrote manifestos, some of which are printed in the exhibit catalog, but they had little impact. His first gallery show aroused more controversy than interest.

In 1965, however, there was a turning point with a six-month fellowship in Florence. There, he was able to experience the great Italian museum collections and a happier way of life than the one he knew in Germany.

He was especially attracted to the 16th-century Italian mannerists Agnolo Bronzino, Jacapo Pontormo, and Parmigianino, in whose art distortion and disquiet played a major role.

Mr. Baselitz began his first big series in Florence, the "Heroes" paintings that showed defeated German soldiers returning to their wrecked homeland after World War II.

Painted in less than a year, the "Heroes" series inspires all his later work. The men are downtrodden heroes, or anti-heroes, at once poignant and heroic. Barefoot, in tattered clothing, they fill the canvas rendered through a wonderful, powerful calligraphic black outline and the almost nauseating colors of war - simmering blacks, reds and ochers. Reminiscent of the figure in Edvard Munch's "The Scream," they sum up the anguish of post-World War II Germany. …