Upside-down, Rebellious, Endless
Baselitz — The retrospective
Centre Pompidou, October 20, 2021- March 7, 2022
Suzy Park
Courtesy of the Centre Pompidou
"An object painted upside down is suitable for painting because it is unsuitable as an object.”
— Georg Baselitz
© Georg Baselitz 2021. Photo: BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-GP/ [image BPK] Georg Baselitz, Fingermalerei – Adler [Finger Painting – Eagle], 1972, Oil on canvas, 250 x 180cm. Bayerische Staatsgem–ldesammlungen, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich. Loan from the Wittelsbacher Ausgleichsfonds

This painting is part of the series of finger paintings (Fingermalerei) in which the artist experimented with a new technique. Here the artist is playing with the ambiguity created by the inversion of the painting: is it an eagle taking flight or falling from the sky? Is it a motif from the coat of arms and a symbol of Germany or is it a childhood memory from the countryside where Baselitz observed birds from the side of a pond? Present in his earliest paintings, this emblematic motif often recurs in the artist's work. (Source: Baselitz – The retrospective press kit)
A person is standing upside down on the canvas. Some viewers lean their faces to the side to look at the work. In order to get a proper look at a painting that breaks away from the usual plane of perspective, viewers cannot leave the upside-down painting for very long. The size of the picture also overwhelms them. The texture of thick, rough paint—which is both dynamic and strangely emotional—is well exposed on the surface. This “painting [seemingly] hung upside down” is by Georg Baselitz. Born in 1938, Baselitz is one of the most celebrated contemporary German artists, and a living legend of contemporary painting. Held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from October 2021 to March 2022, Baselitz – The retrospective was an important exhibition that marked a significant turning point for the artist, and covered many of his masterpieces from the past six decades. It made headlines as Bernard Blistène, who served as the director of the Centre Pompidou’s Musée national d’Art moderne until 2021, closely communicated with Baselitz and personally curated the exhibition. From his initial paintings to the Pandemonium Manifesto of the early 1960s, the Heroes series and the Fractures series of upside-down motifs begun in 1969, the exhibition also showcased successive ensembles of works in which Baselitz experimented with new pictorial techniques. In addition, the exhibition featured his Russian Paintings series and two of his self-reflective works, Remix and Time.
Georg Baselitz, B f–r Larry [B for Larry], 1967, Oil on canvas, 250 × 190 cm Private collection © Georg Baselitz 2021. Photo: Jon Etter
This exhibition was grandly organized and made use of the entire space at Centre Pompidou’s Gallery 1, featuring 11 sections in total. Starting with “Discovering the avant-gardes,” the exhibition revealed a long journey along “Self-portraits of an experience,” “Fallen Heroes,” “Fractured images,” “Reversing the image,” “Between abstraction and figuration,” “Beyond abstraction,” "Zeitgeist," “The space of memories,” “From the ‘Russian Pictures’ to ‘Remix’,” and ends with “What remains.” To some, this may seem monotonous, as the exhibition is presented in chronological order, from Baselitz’s early days to the present day, yet it is worth doing for someone who has so many powerful works in each period of his artistic activities. On top of his paintings, the exhibition also displayed other major works—from sculptures of human figures to drawings—all of which were selected to allow the public unfettered access to the artist’s work process over the last 60 years. The course of the exhibition is a testament to the complexity of life as an artist in post-war Germany, and reveal his endless line of questions concerning the possibilities of representing his memories, variations in technique and traditional motifs of painting, aesthetic forms developed over the course of art history, and the formalisms dictated and conveyed by the various political and aesthetic regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries. The fact that one artist’s work can be viewed in such a variety of categories shows just how diverse and devoted Baselitz’s artistic journey has been. As it is impossible to cover this colossal exhibition in one article, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on the enticing philosophy the artist proposes through the “Reversing the image” section in which Baselitz’s most famous and oldest motif appears.
In order to understand the respect and praise poured onto Baselitz by countless people, we first need to know more about his life. To begin, Baselitz is not his real surname. His real family name was Kern (Hans-Georg was his given name). He attended a fine arts college in East Germany, but when Baselitz began to draw on the work of Picasso for the paintings he produced in school, he was expelled, according to his teachers, for a lack of “socio-cultural maturity.” Later, he crossed the border and renamed himself after Deutschbaselitz, a town in the eastern German state of Saxony where he was born and grew up. After entering West Germany, Baselitz pursued his studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin in West Berlin from 1957 to 1963.
Georg Baselitz in his workshop château de Derneburg, 1984 Photographed by Benjamin Katz
In post-war Germany, the sociopolitical topography divided into East and West Germany also influenced art. In those days, East Germany and West Germany bluntly emphasized opposite political philosophies—social realism and lyrical abstraction, respectively. The art world of West Germany, which had suffered from self-denial with the fall of Nazism, was immersed in Art Informel for seven years after the war. Art Informel means “art with no form,” and refers to the trend in lyrical abstract painting that emerged after World War II, which left behind unimaginable loss and confusion. This art form was a complex result that was influenced by reflection on civilization, disillusionment with sociopolitical factors hindering art, and an art world moving towards an American-oriented center after the war. This was also the reality that Baselitz faced in West Germany after he was expelled from the art college in East Germany that was pursuing social realism.
Georg Baselitz, Die große Nacht im Eimer [The Big Night Down the Drain], 1962-1963, Oil on canvas, 250 x 180cm. Museum Ludwig, K–ln. Gift of Sammlung Ludwig, 1976 © Georg Baselitz, 2021. Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin
The situation in which Baselitz had to choose and accept “either this or that” provoked a rebellious spirit within the young artist. It is no exaggeration to say that his work sprang from his rebelliousness against mainstream art. In his first exhibition at the Berlin gallery Werner & Katz in 1963, a couple of paintings were confiscated by West Berlin authorities for their “pornographic character.” Apparently, this was due to the exaggerated expression of a little boy’s genitalia. The art world and the public in West Germany, where lyrical abstract painting and pop art were the mainstream, were embarrassed and uncomfortable with Baselitz’s surprising painting. Given the time and place, perhaps it was close to something unacceptable in that atmosphere. For Baselitz, however, only art itself was important. This is because he believed that art was inevitably subjective and that he should keep his distance from any act of making painting a tool or disguising it as something else. Naturally, his paintings were not welcomed either in East Germany or West Germany.
“I am not an artist. I am a painter. Artists express themselves, while painters paint pictures that express themselves.”
- Georg Baselitz, interview with Fondation Beyeler
Later, Baselitz’s work captured his philosophy like a gesture as clearly as a manifesto through “upside-down paintings,” which he began producing in 1969. Baselitz stubbornly insisted on renewing painting when advocates of conceptual art at the time declared that “painting is dead.” At 30, Baselitz started reversing the objects in his paintings. This simple yet unconventional action overturned the art world and created a sensation. Encountered with upside-down paintings, people faced fundamental questions posed by art, such as “What is it that I see in the world?” and “Can I say that what I see is what I know?”
Georg Baselitz, Die Mädchen von Olmo II [The Girls of Olmo II], 1981, Huile sur toile, 250x249cm –Georg Baselitz (Photo credits: © Audrey Laurans - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP/Image references: 4Y02940)
Whereas existing paintings tended to erase the viewer’s existence by persuading them to focus on the message of the work, Baselitz’s upside-down paintings made the viewer more focused on their own act of appreciation. This attempt that changed the direction of creation and appreciation was like bestowing upon the artist a kind of freedom. In order to avoid being associated with the same “style” throughout his career, Baselitz continued working with different media, such as sculpting and drawing. Furthermore, the principle of “upside-down image” was also varied in diverse ways each time he created one. After all, his “upside-down image” completely changed the whole process of painting, displaying, appreciating, and thinking about paintings. It was a kind of Copernican shift in the art world.
Georg Baselitz,  In der Tasse gelesen, das heitere Gelb, [Read in the cup, the playful yellow], 2010, Huile sur toile, 270x207cm –Georg Baselitz (Photo credit: © Jochen Littkemann, Berlin)
For living artists, a retrospective is ambivalent. This is because the event is precious and glorious while at the same time being fear-inducing and burdensome. From an active artist’s perspective, a retrospective provides the pleasure of being recognized by contemporaries for the work they have done while alive, but it often feels like a kind of “grave.” The Centre Pompidou’s Baselitz – The retrospective focused on the process of constant renewal and bold initiatives by a great artist named Baselitz. Even after completing the journey of all 11 sections, visitors will most likely ask themselves: “What new work will Baselitz create in the future?”
Baselitz boldly pursued the essence of painting between conflicting arguments, and the resulting “upside-down image” remained the master’s great innovation of being simple and intense. Baselitz, who has spent much time on this great journey, constantly finding his own artistic path, still does not hesitate in the untiring exploration of painting. Indeed, the joy of discovering the dynamic shift of ideas and perspectives from this extraordinary artist’s attitude is still valid to this day. This is because Baselitz’s experiment has not yet been completed even after such a remarkable retrospective.
"I had seen more than enough of so-called orders. I had to question everything, I had to become ‘naive’ again, to start over.”  
Georg Baselitz, interview with D. Kuspit, “Goth to Dance: Donald Kuspit Talks with Georg Baselitz,” in Artforum 33, no. 10 (Summer 1995), p. 76
Georg Baselitz, Weg vom Fenster [Away from the Window], 1982, Oil and tempera on canvas, 250x250cm -Georg Baselitz (Photo credit: © Robert Bayer)
Georg Baselitz, Bildneunundzwanzig [Picture-Twenty-Nine], 1994, Oil on canvas, 290x450cm –Georg Baselitz (Photo credit: © Jochen Littkemann, Berlin)
Georg Baselitz, Modell für eine Skulptur [Model for a Sculpture], 1979-1980, Linden wood and tempera,178x147x244cm –Georg Baselitz (Photo credit: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Walz, Sabrina,2001, rba_c015132)
Suzy Park
Suzy Park is an independent curator based in Seoul. She runs an exhibition agency called “AGENCY RARY”. She has worked as a curator at the independent culture space Agit; as editor-in-chief for B-art, a critical journal on arts and culture; a coordinator of the curatorial team of the Jeju Biennale 2017; and a curator for BOAN 1942, an art space in Seoul. She has curated exhibitions such as Seven Intellectuals (2020), Zoom Back Camera (2019), Siren Eun Young Jung: Foolish or Mannish (2018), Kim Jungheun X Joo Jaehwan: Pleasantly Bluntly (2018), and Minjung Art 2015: Freundschaft (2015). Park was also selected for the Korea Research Fellow 10x10 project (2018, 2019) and the Doosan Curator Workshop (2019).
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