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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis