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Georg Baselitz: The Pioneer of German Neo-Expressionism

By Lothar Wolleh -, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Depicting disquieting subjects rendered feverishly as a means of confronting the realities of the modern age and often exhibiting them upside down, the German painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Georg Baselitz, is celebrated as the pioneer of German Neo-Expressionist painting, whose highly expressive work explores the German national identity in a postwar world.

Born Hans-Georg Kern on January 23, 1938, in Deutschbaselitz, Germany, Baselitz renamed himself after his hometown in 1961. In 1956, he began his art studies at the Academy of Fine and Applied Art in East Berlin. He was expelled and left East Berlin for West Berlin in 1957. There he entered the Academy of Fine Arts, where he completed postgraduate studies in 1962.

From his youth, Baselitz was interested in the tradition of German Expressionist painting and its reliance on “primitive” sources such as non-Western art, folk art, children’s art, and the art of the insane. Like his predecessors Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, Baselitz employed a deliberately crude style of rendering and a heightened palette in order to convey raw emotion.

In the mid-1960s, Baselitz turned to the subject of heroes, rebels, and shepherds, often fragmenting the figures and continuing to make the thick impasto carry much of his paintings’ emotional content. He also often used shocking or disturbing imagery to provoke a response in the viewer. In 1969, he began to paint and display his subjects upside down, in which bodies, landscapes, and buildings were inverted within the picture plane ignoring the realities of the physical world.

Drawing upon a dynamic and myriad pool of influences, including the art of the Mannerist period, African sculptures, and Soviet-era illustration art, Baselitz developed a distinct painting language. He also created art in other media which includes etching, woodcuts, wood sculptures, and printing. In these areas, his works are as direct and expressionistically charged as his mature paintings.

Baselitz counts Willem de Kooning as a lasting source of inspiration ever since seeing his work as a student, also citing the influence of Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock. He is closely associated with fellow artists A.R. Penck, and Eugen Schoenbeck, who demonstrate similar stylistic tendencies and emphasis on subject matter rather than strict abstraction.

Baselitz’s provocative subject matter and outspokenness on culture and politics, at times, made him a polarizing figure in the art world. Along with Anselm Kiefer, he was chosen to represent Germany at the 1980 Venice Biennale, exhibiting a monumental wooden sculptural figure that appeared to be making a Nazi salute, causing an eruption of controversy and bringing the question of contemporary German identity to the fore.

Baselitz’s first American retrospective was organized in 1995 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In 2004, he received the Japan Art Association’s Premium Imperiale prize for painting. I 2016, a comprehensive traveling show “Georg Baselitz: The Heroes”- dedicated to the artist’s 1965-1966 series of Hero paintings- opened at the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt am Main to critical acclaim.

Baselitz currently lives and works in Munich, Germany. His works are included in the collections of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Berlinsche Galerie, among others.



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