Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn
In 1969, Georg Baselitz produced “The Wood on Its Head”, a view of trees among snow, as his first upside-down painting. Baselitz was not a stranger to controversy, having been expelled while still a teenager from art school in East Germany for anti-social tendencies. However, more than almost any other postwar German artist, Baselitz continued expressionism of his past, albeit often in deliberately coarse terms--such as the two paintings of naked men with immense phalluses that caused a court investigation. An artist with a good eye for publicity, Baselitz at the same time is a major lyrical painter, passionate in his idiosyncrasy, both from a technical and a thematic point of view. “The Wood on Its Head” is roughly painted, but even in its inverted state communicates a romantic notion of the woods, as well as the ambiguous, slightly alienated state of an imagery turned around and thus given, quite literally, a new point of view. This forces Baselitz’s viewers to see the image with new eyes.
In Baselitz’s current exhibition “Pivotal Turn” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, one of the most striking inverted paintings--the exhibition comprises six works done in 1969--"Portrait of Elka I”--a study of the artist’s wife with a taciturn expression, a fixed gaze, and shoulder-length brown hair. She wears a light brown shawl, a dark shirt, and a brightly embroidered scarf. But of course, the image, turned upside down, lacks the immediate cohesion of a regularly oriented portrait. It results in the wish to invert one’s own head, so as to see the painting with a degree of rational clarity. But that’s the point--by painting and displaying his subjects in an inversion, he introduces an element of detachment, demanding that color and form and overall composition are seen more or less as abstractions. Despite the highly conventional treatment of his subjects, painting them with their heads beneath their bodies introduced an element into his romantic expressionism. This is important, in the sense that it updates a style that is already a couple of generations past and its highest point of expressionist achievement. Going further back, Baselitz painted his sitters turned upside down, a simple but brilliant move to introduce discord into a portrait painting tradition that had its high moment in the Renaissance, several hundred years ago.
As a visual decision, the 1969 change to inversion was a choice of brilliance, as the portraits on view indicate. In “Working Man from Dresden--Portrait of M.G.B.”, a study of Baselitz’s good friend, the journalist Martin G. Buttig, the man’s blonde hair and squared face become nearly abstract, while his clothing, the blue overalls and large tan dog on the upper right are completely unreadable in their current alignment. If we turn the image right side up, the painting becomes a somber study of Buttig, whose gaze seems a bit troubled. But it is next to impossible to see the way the painting has been painted (it was done from an inverted snapshot) and shown. Strangely, but entirely effectively, Baselitz’s rearrangement of the paintings alignment allow him to wrestle, successfully, with tropes established some time ago--we remember that when the artist made these works, he was caught between the abstraction popular in West Germany and the Socialist Realism of East German art. His decision, while simple, upended the false dichotomy between the two styles he was living with.
“Portrait of H.M. Werner” also shows, in inverted fashion, the head and upper torso of the gallerist Michael Werner as a younger man. His shock of yellow brown hair is a striking feature, as well as lighter tans of his face. He wears a dark gray sport coat, as well as a dark bow tie or scarf around his neck. His shirt is light blue. Even though the painting is hard to read, we can gain some sense of an open sensibility. It is a pleasant challenge to read the personality of these sitters, whose upside-down countenance makes it impossible to capture their emotion clearly, unless we turn the image around--something not possible in the museum! “Portrait of K.L. Rinn”, another good friend, shows the man with a short haircut and round glasses, wearing a light gray sport coat and dark cravat. It is impossible to note, the way the painting is shown, the sitter’s slightly amused expression, which is observable when the painting is rotated upward. These portraits, while meaningful for the way in which they were painted, are also psychological studies of genuine subtlety.
Why would Baselitz invert his paintings--now accepted as a major decision and change on the artist’s part? It may well be that he was still in love with the expressionism that preceded him, as well as the portrait genre--surely a trope not particularly popular in 1969! Sometimes, after viewing the upside-down works for a while, Baselitz’s efforts can feel gimmicky and one-dimensional. But mostly they are experienced as quirkily brilliant works of art rather than a facile change of orientation. This exhibition continues the tradition of upside-down art, in a more refined fashion, more than half a century after he reworked his view of things. The late paintings are as strong as the ones described here, proving that the work is not a one-off trick, but a change of substance, made at a time when expressionism was not popular and needed to be looked at as something new. In his wish to reinvent a historically based genre, Baselitz made the correct choice; the abstracted, hard to read results remind us that the new ways of seeing can be awkward at first but yield exciting results.
All images are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Baselitz Family, 2020, (c) Georg Baselitz 2021 Photo: Jochen Littkemann