For many the name Georg Baselitz immediately brings to mind a painter of inverted portraits. That pictorial strategy was born out of the artist’s desire not to be trapped in a recognizable style; but it also became a defining, perhaps distracting, feature of his art. Baselitz’s role as a key figure reviving German Expressionism and connecting Contemporary painting in Europe to American counterparts like Willem de Kooning and Jean-Michel Basquiat should come back into the foreground when the Centre Pompidou, later this month, opens its six-decade retrospective of the artist’s work, the first in more than a decade.
Curated by the outgoing director, Bernard Blistène, the show Baselitz: The Retrospective opens October 20th and includes significant works like The Big Night Down the Drain (1962-63) and Ralf III (1965), The Girls of Olmo II (1981) and Read in the Cup the Cheerful Yellow (2010).
Here are some of the highlights of Baselitz’s protean career illustrated in the show:
In 1961, East German-born Baselitz emerges in West Germany steeped in earlier non-conforming artists like Edvard Munch and literary figures like Antonin Artaud and Lautréamont. His “Pandaemonium Manifesto” draws from the bleak post-war frustration of German reconciliation. “I had to question everything,” he tells Artforum in 2015. “I had to become ‘naive’ again, to start over.” Baselitz’s work expresses rage at his country’s past but his work provokes its own outrage.
Baselitz’s first 1963 exhibition results in two works—Die große Nacht im Eimer [The Big Night Down the Drain] (1962-1963) and Der nackte Mann [The Naked Man] (1962)— are seized by authorities. A trial for indecency follows.
Baselitz paints a series of self portraits as Oberon (63-64) drawing from Munch’s ‘scream’ images.
Baselitz retreats to a residency in Florence, Italy where he is impressed by Mannerist paintings from the 15th century. He emerges working on a new series of Helden [Hero] paintings depicting poets, partisans and painters walking through devastated forests and landscapes. These works culminate in the Die großen Freunde [The Great Friends] (1965).
Frakturbilder follow next with the introduction of symbolic figures including more heroic figures, dogs and trees. In these works Baselitz is making allusions to imagery that depicts a “transcendent German soul” as well as breaking with some of the conventions of figurative painting. These works begin to foreshadow the inversions that will become so important later in his work.
In 1969, the 30-year-old Baselitz resists both narrative painting and the theoretical freight of abstraction. His solution comes in inverting the image which allows him “the freedom to confront pictorial problems.” The inversions unlock a market for his work. But they also give him the freedom to reinvent his style of painting and subject matter.
Baselitz flirts with abstraction in the mid-1970s with a series of nude paintings that are self portraits or double portraits with his wife.
The artist begins collecting African sculpture in the mid-1970s. Melding the inspiration of these works with German wood sculptures of the medieval period, Baselitz presents Model for a Sculpture in the German pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale. The work provokes an uproar of conflicting interpretations but the furor raises the artist’s international stature.
Vivid colors appear in his work with the Girls of Olmo and his work harks back to the expressionism of Germany at the turn of the century. As the 1980s progress, Baselitz paints works inspired by the Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl which are displayed near the Berlin Wall. Later still in the decade when the wall comes down, Baselitz pays tribute through a series of sculptures to the Women of Dresden who cleared the rubble of city after it was bombed in 1945.
In the 1990s, Baselitz experiments with Bildübereins [Picture-Over-Another] series where images are layered over abstractions and ornamentations.
Baselitz revisits his childhood in East Germany through a series of paintings, Russenbilder, made from 1998 to 2005 that engage with the images of Socialist Realism and Communist propaganda.
In 2006, Baselitz begins to reassess his own work and embarks on a series of Remix paintings exploring earlier themes in his own work and the work of artists he admires like Otto Dix.
Eight years later, Baselitz begins work on the Avignon series referencing Picasso’s late work show in the French city in 1971. These works continue Baselitz’s fixation on aging, memory and loss.