‘The motif of the eagle goes through the work of Georg Baselitz like a keynote’
‘From 1981 onwards, Baselitz markedly intensifies the expressivity of his work. He no longer subordinates the motif to a dynamism rooted in gestural impulses and leading to more or less radical disregard of representational criteria, but pursues a process of concentration. This is sometimes realized in an extremely unconventional way. Baselitz simplifies his representations, and the figures become bulkier, more succinct in their proportions and general aspect, one might even say more primitive’
‘When I was at school I made friends with a wildlife photographer. I helped him take shots of waders, which he made into a book that he gave to me. It became a kind of “motif” book. And there were eagles in that – sea eagles admittedly – but still eagles, although with no programmatic significance. These birds have distinct personalities; you can easily use them as a vehicle for symbolic meaning- something like Prometheus, the nude with the wing, the triangle between the arm and torso’
Executed on a monumental scale, stretching over four metres in height, Georg Baselitz’s Adler is an epic eulogy to his most important subject: the eagle. From a maelstrom of rich, expressive brushstrokes and thick, gestural streaks of impasto, Baselitz’s bird takes flight in a blaze of fiery colour, suspended upside-down in the artist’s signature format. Running like a golden thread throughout his career, and held in museum collections worldwide, the Adler paintings represent the artist’s attempts to come to terms with his status as a painter in post-War Germany. By choosing a leitmotif so deeply ingrained in his country’s national consciousness, Baselitz sought to question its endurance by subjecting it to inversion and deformation. With its caustic, tactile surface, bristling with visceral energy, the present work incinerates the eagle through raw pigment, reducing its once-heroic form to a pulsating, carnal mass of brushstrokes. It is no longer a proud hunter but a semi-illegible scrawl, pushed to the brink of abstraction, demolished by the sheer force of its execution. Painted in 1982, the work dates from the height of Baselitz’s career: a period marked not only by great professional triumph, but also by an apotheosis of his painterly language. The inclusion of his work in landmark exhibitions – A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1981, and Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, in 1982 – testified to the leading role he played in the development of European neo-expressionism. In works such as the Orangenesser (Orange Eaters) of 1982, as well as his legendary Die Brückechor (The Brücke Chorus) of 1983, flaming hues of red and orange seeped into his palette, and a primal immediacy infused his brushwork. Baselitz’s return to sculpture too, is reflected in the almost three-dimensional nature of his paintings, carved as if from a block of wood with his bare hands. In Adler, as his fingers run through the sprawling rivers of colour, the symbolic power of the eagle is erased. All that remains is the act of painting itself. Held in the same private collection since 1985, the work was included in the exhibition Ars 83 at The Art Museum of the Ateneum, Helsinki, in 1983.
Baselitz had first begun to paint upside down in 1969, following on from his seminal series of Fracture paintings. By confronting himself with the challenge of rendering his subjects at a 180 degree rotation, the artist attempted to expose their lack of intrinsic value. Depicting folkloric, romantic subject matter – the flora and fauna of his native Germany – Baselitz’s upside-down paintings initiated a kind of catharsis: a coming-to-terms with the realisation that these symbols had lost their meaning in the aftermath of the War. Pictorial representation, too, had undergone a trauma: the traditional hierarchy of ground and sky no longer held true in a destabilized, uprooted world. As the artist asserted, ‘The hierarchy of sky above and ground down below is … only a pact that we have admittedly got used to but that one absolutely doesn’t have to believe in’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in R. Calvocoressi, ‘Head Over Heels’, Farewell Bill: Willem Raucht Nicht Mehr, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2014, p. 15). As the sun rose upon a new dawn, dispelling the horrors of the recent past, Baselitz proposed a clean slate for art. Its purpose no longer lay in its content – the subjects it depicted – but in its form: in the crude materiality of pigment on canvas, and the unbounded gestures of the brush.
At the centre of this revolution was the eagle. It had been adopted as a symbol of fascism during the War, but its lineage stretched much further back, appearing on the coat of arms of the Federal Republic of Germany, and functioning as a significant motif in Roman and Byzantine cultures. Baselitz had been made aware of the eagle’s symbolic coercion at a young age, when he encountered a picture of the bird in the wild, divorced from its nationalistic context. ‘When I was at school I made friends with a wildlife photographer’, he explained. ‘I helped him take shots of waders, which he made into a book that he gave to me. It became a kind of “motif” book. And there were eagles in that – sea eagles admittedly – but still eagles, although with no programmatic significance. These birds have distinct personalities; you can easily use them as a vehicle for symbolic meaning – something like Prometheus, the nude with the wing, the triangle between the arm and torso’ (G. Baselitz in conversation with Evelyn Weiss at Schloss Derneburg, 22 June 1975, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London 2010, p. 32). In the Fingermalerei Adler of the 1970s – examples of which are held in the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, and the Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg - Baselitz began an assault on its majestic form, physically deforming it with his bare hands. By the 1980s, the majestic birds that populated his earlier canvases were reduced to disfigured specimens. Their grandeur had been vanquished; all patriotic associations had been extinguished. It has been variously suggested that, in his corporeal engagement with the eagle, Baselitz came to view it as something of an alter-ego: an opponent with which he continued to spar throughout his career.
Along with Adler im Fenster (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Adler (Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden), both created in 1982, the present work marks the culmination of the artist’s victory over the bird’s symbolic potency, driven by the newfound expressive freedom of his painterly language. Drawing renewed inspiration from his Expressionist predecessors – Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele – as well as Die Brücke and the Junge Wilde, Baselitz poured himself into a series of visionary tableaux and large-scale, tactile canvases. His subjects, perhaps inspired by the series of wooden sculptural heads created during this period, became almost primeval in their articulation. As Andreas Franzke has written, ‘From 1981 onwards, Baselitz markedly intensifies the expressivity of his work. He no longer subordinates the motif to a dynamism rooted in gestural impulses and leading to more or less radical disregard of representational criteria, but pursues a process of concentration. This is sometimes realized in an extremely unconventional way. Baselitz simplifies his representations, and the figures become bulkier, more succinct in their proportions and general aspect, one might even say more primitive’ (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich 1989, p. 156). Appearing before the viewer like a cave painting – a hieroglyphic fragment carved into an ancient wall – the present work bears witness to this assertion. Reduced to a primal, burning effigy, the eagle is consigned to the past once and for all.