In Hong Kong show Georg Baselitz, a towering figure of post-war German art, revisits the past
Painter and sculptor pays homage to his influences
White Cube has championed contemporary German art in Hong Kong since setting up shop here in 2012. “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom”, a solo exhibition of new works by Anselm Kiefer, was among the Central gallery’s first shows. And its latest offering is another giant of the German art world: Georg Baselitz, whose works were also featured at Ben Brown Fine Art’s survey of German art last month.
There is good reason to showcase post-war German works in any serious, contemporary art gallery.
Baselitz and his peers born in the 1930s and ’40s, such as Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, are counted among the most important contemporary European artists of their generation. Their works are informed by the intense soul-searching undergone by a nation that inflicted great horrors on humanity in the second world war, a nation subsequently riven into two ideological camps and a nation that has seen those wounds heal.
As such, they tap into a collective consciousness of guilt, identity, reconciliation and other weighty, universal themes that make great art. Yet, the fact that these artists are seen to hail from such a specific, Teutonic background means that they are far from being household names in Asia.
Looking at works by Baselitz is a good way into German art because he constantly pays visual homage to artists who have influenced him, and many are his fellow countrymen – and they are all men since he has made the ludicrous pronouncement, more than once, that no good, female, artist exists.
Baselitz has never been a stranger to infamy. Part of the reason is because he has created such unforgettable images as 1963’s The Big Night Down the Drain, which was confiscated by the German authorities for indecency: it features a dwarf-like, grim-faced figure stroking his giant, tumescent penis. But reception to his more recent works has been mixed, with some critics finding his rapidly executed “remixes” of previous works too gimmicky.
His response – in an email to questions – is that he revives past works for good reason. Because “the pressure of the past” has “evaporated”, he can now engage in “artful play” instead. Also, pictures he created 50 years ago can suddenly become close again and of contemporary importance.
“I have covered a vast repertoire and have created many paintings. Every day I work on my past,” he says.
As an example of how he revisits past motifs, the Hong Kong show will include panels that feature four, ghostly, disembodied legs wearing heels arranged in an X shape that are set against a black background, framed in gold.
Earlier this year, he had produced a similar series in white for White Cube’s pop-up gallery at the Glyndebourne opera festival, though he started using “legs that turn like a windmill”, as he describes it, in the early ’60s.
Baselitz says he cannot explain why he uses this image time and again. Nor can he explain why the legs are shaped like a Swastika. They are “statements”, he says, and he has put these paintings in golden frames for that purpose.
The gallery says the legs appear “obsessively throughout his oeuvre, which functions almost like a personal symbol or emblematic self-portrait”.
But the artist is also definitely making a statement about his gratitude to earlier artists. That same arrangement of legs was used by German artist Otto Dix in his 1920 woodcut Lärm der Strasse (Street Noise). Dix, who Baselitz acknowledges as a major influence, had often used fragmented limbs to suggest an inharmonious world and in Street Noise, the four legs form the spokes of a spinning wheel.
Another series in the exhibition features portraits that only fill one half of the canvas, depicting either the lower or upper half of a body, with the rest left blank. Again, this is a recurring style. “I have been using this style for many decades. I paint fragments, unfinished paintings, I stop and resume work, creating fractured paintings,” he says.
The awkward angles in which the figures hold themselves are reminiscent of another strong influence, Egon Schiele, and also of Antonin Artaud. In particular, the method used to paint the portraits is “crucial”, he points out.
The combination of thick swipes of colour and “refined lines” is a homage to the group of figurative artists loosely known as the School of London, which includes Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.
“The London School of painting methods has influenced my work strongly. The [school] really does interest me deeply, in the sense of a mysterious avant-garde interlude,” he says.
He acknowledges other German artists in another Hong Kong-bound work, a large patinated bronze sculpture called Winterschläfer, or hibernation. Here, a bundle of chopped off legs are bound together with rings, like twigs about to be thrown into the fire.
“While working on this sculpture my thoughts swung back and forth between Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer [The Sea of Ice] and Jospeh Beuys’ Schneefall,” he says. The former is a dramatic oil painting of a sinking ship after it rammed into ice sheets; the latter an installation of three pine tree branches poking from beneath layers of felt.
“It is very difficult for me to ignore our German history, which I have, after all, been part of since 1938,” he says.
“Georg Baselitz”, White Cube Hong Kong, 50 Connaught Road Central, Tue-Sat, 11am-7pm. Until December 5