In living colour: Licht wil raum mecht hern (2013), one of 11 self-portraits in Baselitz’s Farewell Bill series.
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Down on the upside: the topsy-turvy painting of Georg Baselitz

Three concurrent London exhibitions showcase work past and present by the East German born neo-expressionist.

Farewell Bill
Gagosian Gallery, London WC1

Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation
British Museum, London WC1

Renaissance Impressions
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

Georg Baselitz is now 76 and it is more than 50 years since he outraged Berlin gallery-goers with a dark and visceral masturbatory painting called The Big Night Down the Drain (1963). In 1969 he turned shock into bemusement when he produced his first upside-down painting, The Wood on Its Head. His rationale for painting upside-down pictures was that it was a way of being simultaneously abstract and figurative. Viewers were forced to see the pictures as collections of marks rather than as representations of motifs. As Baselitz put it: “The reality is the picture, it is most certainly not in the picture.”

His art has always been an attempt to work out what it means to be a German of the immediate postwar generation. Baselitz was born in East Germany and moved to West Berlin to study art in 1958, shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. Under the influence of the American abstract expressionists he treated his tangled heritage in series called Heroes, New Types and ’45 and consistently used the German eagle as a subject.

What was bold in the 1960s and 1970s, however, now looks quaint or hackneyed. In his more recent work the Teutonic element is minimal but the expressionism is as strong as ever – and he is still painting upside-down pictures.

In one of those coincidental groupings that sometimes occur, there are three Baselitz exhibitions running in London. The Gagosian Gallery is showing a series of self-portraits entitled Willem raucht nicht mehr – literally “Willem smokes no more” but colloquially Farewell Bill. Bill refers to Willem de Kooning, and these 11 canvases, painted last year, are a recognition of one of the artist’s heroes and perhaps a valediction, too. All feature Baselitz, often with a skull’s jaw, wearing a cap emblazoned with the word “Zero”, the name of his paint supplier. And it is paint that is their real subject.

The pictures are variations, each using a slightly different colour combination: in one, an unmixed red; in another, Philip Guston pink scumbles with blues and yellows; in a third, we see ice-cream shades, and so on. When he painted them Baselitz put the canvases on the floor and laid on marks from every angle. They bear pigment-smeared footprints and the circles of paint-tin bases as well as his full array of intentional splashes, flicks, smears and strokes.

Their size, some 12 feet square, and their vigour (“Most of what you see as freedom is de Kooning,” Baselitz has said) give the pictures a tangible presence and their massing increases the effect exponentially. Yet there is also something of what might be termed the fallacy of the white gallery about the group. They are best seen as an ensemble in a specialist space; taken individually, their potency wanes. Together they are a paean to an important figure in Baselitz’s life but out of context they are something rather less intense: paintings about painting.

If de Kooning has been one influence on Baselitz the evidence of others lies in his collection of prints, a selection of which is on show at the Royal Academy in “Renaissance Impressions”. The images are all chiaroscuro woodcuts, a form developed in the 16th century that made special play of light and shade and that used separate tone blocks to supplement the design given by the original black-line print. It was a highly technical medium that engaged minor masters, from Germans such as Hans Burgkmair and Hans Baldung Grien to the Dutchman Hendrick Goltzius and the Italian mannerist Domenico Beccafumi. Some of them both drew their own designs and cut their own blocks; others took their images from the likes of Raphael and Parmigianino.

Their lure for Baselitz surely lies in their painterliness: they have a variety of tone that other prints of the period cannot match. His own Heroes pictures have an identical sense of monumentality.

Some of these drawings can be seen in the British Museum’s “Germany Divided: Bas­elitz and His Generation”, which is based around a gift of 34 German works on paper (17 by Baselitz) from the industrialist Christian Duerckheim. Many of the images by Baselitz feature a lumbering creature – part man, part monster – involved, to the point of inertia, in some unnamed Sisyphean struggle against fate or the weight of history.

The exhibition shows, however, that Baselitz was not alone. His “generation” also included other East German artists such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, A R Penck and Markus Lüpertz. All of them rejected the prevailing socialist realism of their homeland and headed west in order to paint what and how they wanted. Perhaps the surprise is that only Baselitz ended up painting upside-down pictures of their upside-down world.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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