Georg Baselitz, Creator of Upside-Down Art

georg baselitz
Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Georg Baselitz (born January 23, 1938) is a Neo-Expressionist German artist best known for painting and exhibiting many of his works upside down. The inversion of his paintings is a deliberate choice, aimed at challenging and disturbing viewers. According to the artist, he believes that it makes them think more about the grotesque and often disturbing content.

Fast Facts: Georg Baselitz

  • Full Name: Hans-Georg Kern, but changed his name to Georg Baselitz in 1958
  • Occupation: Painter and sculptor
  • Born: January 23, 1938 in Deutschbaselitz, Germany
  • Spouse: Johanna Elke Kretzschmar
  • Children: Daniel Blau and Anton Kern
  • Education: Academy of Visual and Applied Art in East Berlin and Academy of Visual Arts in West Berlin
  • Selected Works: "Die Grosse Nacht im Eimer" (1963), "Oberon" (1963), "Der Wald auf dem Kopf" (1969)
  • Notable Quote: "I always feel attacked when I'm asked about my painting."

Early Life and Education

Born Hans-Georg Kern, the son of an elementary school teacher, Georg Baselitz grew up in the town Deutschbaselitz, in what would later be East Germany. His family lived in a flat above the school. Soldiers used the building as a garrison during World War II, and it was destroyed during a battle between Germans and Russians. Baselitz's family found refuge in the cellar during the combat.

In 1950, the Baselitz family moved to Kamens, where their son attended high school. He found himself heavily influenced by a reproduction of Interlude During a Hunt in Wermersdorf Forest by 19th-century German realist painter Ferdinand von Rayski. Baselitz painted extensively while attending high school.

In 1955 the Art Academy of Dresden rejected his application. However, he began studying painting at the Academy of Visual and Applied Art in East Berlin in 1956. After expulsion due to "socio-political immaturity," he continued his studies in West Berlin at the Academy of Visual Arts.

In 1957, Georg Baselitz met Johanna Elke Kretzschmar. They married in 1962. He is the father of two sons, Daniel Blau and Anton Kern, who are both gallery owners. Georg and Johanna became Austrian citizens in 2015.

georg baselitz
Lothar Wolleh / Wikimedia Commons / GNU Free Documentation License

First Exhibitions and Scandal

Hans-Georg Kern became Georg Baselitz in 1958, when he adopted his new last name as a tribute to his hometown. He began painting a series of portraits based on observations of German soldiers. The focus of the young artist was the German identity in the aftermath of World War II.

The first Georg Baselitz exhibition took place in 1963 at Galerie Werner & Katz in West Berlin. It included the controversial paintings Der Nackte Mann (Naked Man) and Die Grosse Nacht im Eimer (Big Night Down the Drain). Local authorities deemed the paintings obscene and seized the works. The ensuing court case was not settled until two years later.

georg baselitz various signs
Various Signs (1965). Hans-Georg Roth / Getty Images

The controversy helped propel Baselitz into notoriety as a rising expressionist painter. Between 1963 and 1964, he painted the Idol series of five canvases. They focused on profoundly emotional and disturbed renderings of human heads echoing the emotional angst of Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893).

The 1965-1966 series Helden (Heroes) represented Baselitz at top form. He presented ugly images that were designed to force Germans to confront the ugliness of their violent past during World War II and political suppression in East Germany.

Upside-Down Art

In 1969, Georg Baselitz presented his first inverted painting Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Wood on its Head). The landscape subject matter is influenced by the work of Ferdinand von Rayski, Baselitz's childhood idol. The artist has frequently stated that he turns the works upside down to irritate the view. He believes that people pay closer attention when they are disturbed. While the paintings displayed upside down are representational in nature, the act of inverting them is considered a step toward abstraction.

Some observers believe that the upside-down pieces were a gimmick to draw attention to the artist. However, the prevailing view saw it as a stroke of genius that rattled traditional perspectives on art.

georg baselitz st georgstiefel
St. Georgstiefel (1997). Mary Turner / Getty Images

While the subject matter of Baselitz paintings stretches far and wide and defies simple characterization, his upside-down technique quickly became the most easily identifiable element of his work. Baselitz was soon known as the pioneer of upside-down art.

Sculpture

In 1979, Georg Baselitz began creating monumental wooden sculptures. The pieces are unrefined and sometimes crude, like his paintings. He refused to polish his sculptures and preferred to leave them looking like rough-hewn creations.

georg baselitz bdm gruppe
BDM Gruppe (2012). FaceMePLS / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0

One of the most celebrated of Baselitz's sculpture series is the eleven busts of women he created in the 1990s designed to commemorate the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Baselitz memorialized the "rubble women" he saw as the backbone of efforts to reconstruct the city after the war. He used a chain saw to hack away at the wood and help give the pieces a crude, defiant appearance. The emotional intensity of the series echoes the 1960s paintings of the Heroes series.

Later Career

In the 1990s, Baselitz expanded his work into other media beyond painting and sculpture. He designed the set for the Dutch Opera's production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy in 1993. In addition, he designed a postage stamp for the French government in 1994.

The first major U.S. retrospective of the work of Georg Baselitz took place at the Guggenheim in New York City in 1994. The exhibition traveled to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Georg Baselitz continues to work and produce new art in his 80s. He remains controversial and is often highly critical of German politics.

georg baselitz white cube gallery
Georg Baselitz exhibition at White Cube Gallery (2016). rune hellestad / Getty Images

Legacy and Influence

The upside-down art of Georg Baselitz remains popular, but arguably his willingness to confront the horrors of World War II in Germany in his art has the most enduring impact. The emotional and occasionally shocking subject matter in his paintings exerted a powerful influence on Neo-Expressionist painters around the world.

Oberon (1963), one of the most recognized masterpieces by Baselitz, demonstrates the visceral impact of his work. Four ghostly heads stretched into the center of the canvas on elongated and distorted necks. Behind them, what looks like a graveyard is drenched in a bloody red color.

georg baselitz oberon
Oberon (1963). Hans-Georg Roth / Getty Images

The painting represents the rejection of the prevailing winds of the art world in the 1960s directing young artists toward conceptual and pop art. Baselitz chose to dig even deeper into a grotesque form of expressionism laying bare the emotional horrors that continued to impact post-war Germany. Discussing the direction of his work, Baselitz said, "I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn't want to reestablish an order: I'd seen enough of so-called order."

Sources

  • Heinze, Anna. Georg Baselitz: Back Then, In Between, and Today. Prestel, 2014.