Magazine article The Spectator

German Giants

Magazine article The Spectator

German Giants

Article excerpt

Germany Divided: Baselitz and His

Generation

British Museum, until 31 August

Renaissance Impressions:

Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

Royal Academy, until 8 June

Strange Beauty: Masters of the

German Renaissance

National Gallery, until 11 May

It's German Season in London, and revealingly the best of three new shows is the one dealing with the most modern period: the post-second world war era of East and West Germany and the potent art that came out of that split nation. In Room 90 is another immaculately presented British Museum show of prints and drawings, focused this time around Georg Baselitz (born 1938). Of the 90 works on display, more than a third has been donated to the BM by Count Christian Duerckheim, the remainder lent by this assiduous collector.

The show begins with Baselitz's contemporaries and I was surprised to find myself quite liking some things by Gerhard Richter, currently the most overrated artist in the world. Not his traced-from-photos Pop Art drawings but four watercolours, his first in the medium, together with his smudgy graphite drawings of a hotel and pedal-boat riders. A flat cabinet of Sigmar Polke's drawings comes as light relief and a series of blue watercolours by A.R. Penck is more expressionist and direct than his usual cybernetic stick-figure language. Marcus Lupertz comes across strongest here, with savage drawings of helmet heads and a richly structured gouache entitled 'Monument - dithyrambic' (1976), slightly reminiscent of John Walker. This is art with real bite.

On this showing, the only good thing about Blinky Palermo is his name, but the star of the show is Baselitz, who is given the whole of the second half of this large gallery. Whatever you think of his characteristic upside-down imagery (which he initiated in 1969, conceiving, composing and executing his work thus thereafter), his best work is deeply affecting and often uncomfortable.

Baselitz was inspired by Renaissance chiaroscuro woodcuts, which he began to collect and emulate, and various of these - by Urs Graf, Ugo da Carpi and Hendrik Goltzius - are exhibited beside his own efforts. These are certainly worth studying but of greater import are the more abstract images, the eagles and upside-down landscapes from the Sixties and Seventies. A show to savour.

In the RA's Sackler Wing are more of the chiaroscuro woodcuts that exerted such a powerful influence over Baselitz, including a number from his own collection, augmented by works from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. More than 100 prints are on display in what is a valuable, if rather dry, exhibition. Anyone interested in technique will find it fascinating, but for the non-specialist the variants and repetitions may become tedious. A film of the painter and printmaker Stephen Chambers (born 1960) making a contemporary chiaroscuro woodcut helps to explain the technique in very practical terms, and this is shown in a booth off the first room of the exhibition. Essentially, this revolutionary but short-lived technique of 16th-century colour printing is all about modelling through the interplay of light and dark, with unprinted areas of the paper used for highlights.

The exhibition has been thoughtfully designed with prints in the first and last rooms hung both on the wall and displayed on angled tables beneath, affording easy access for study. …

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