‘Everything is a self-portrait, whether it’s a tree or a nude. It’s how the artist sees it … Everything that you see is a reflection of yourself’
‘I prefer to deny the figure any particular shape or meaning – to keep it on the level of a general concept … Our tendency is to mimic the conventions of body language or facial expression. I try not to do that. I would like to operate between expressions, an expression or stance that is not so identifiable’
With a distinguished provenance that includes both the Saatchi Collection and the Galerie Beyeler, Dreieck zwischen Arm und Rumpf (Triangle between Arm and Torso) is a monumental work from Georg Baselitz’s ground-breaking series of inverted self-portraits. Executed in 1977, the work was originally slated for inclusion in documenta VI that year: a historic event shrouded in political scandal. In protest of A. R. Penck’s exclusion in favour of four other ‘official’ East German artists, Baselitz, Gerhard Richter and Markus Lüpertz withdrew their paintings from the exhibition – including the present work. It was subsequently included the 1983 group show Expressions: New Art From Germany at the Saint Louis Art Museum, in which Baselitz, Lüpertz and Penck were reunited. Taking its place within the story of Germany’s divided past, the work quivers with visceral painterly power. A naked figure, his arm outstretched, is suspended in the centre of the composition, rendered in Baselitz’s signature upside-down format. Paint streams down the length of the canvas, applied in coarse streaks of impasto that filter into delicate rivulets. Thick passages of black are juxtaposed with scrubbed white pigment, backlit by fiery tones of red and orange. Placing himself in dialogue with the venerated tradition of self-portraiture – from Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, to Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso – Baselitz extends the physical immediacy of his earlier Fingermalerei, in which he used his own fingers to fashion his likeness on canvas. Here, like a sculpture carved from a block of stone, the figure takes shape through intimate, tactile strokes. As if captured in motion, his form stutters with repeated traces of both arm and head. For Baselitz – ‘born into a destroyed order’ at the outbreak of the Second World War – painting upside down was a means of challenging the innate emotive power of his subjects (G. Baselitz, interview with D. Kuspit, ‘Goth to Dance’, in Artforum, Summer 1995, p. 76). Whilst the present work conjures memories of saluting armies, its loaded imagery is ultimately subsumed by its formal and technical narratives. All that remains – as the title suggests – is a triangle between arm and torso.
Baselitz had first begun painting upside down in 1969, following his seminal series of Hero and Fracture paintings. Rendering his subjects at a 180-degree rotation – a technical feat in itself – allowed him to expose their lack of intrinsic meaning. Harnessing folkloric, Teutonic imagery – German flora and fauna, eagles, forests and game animals – Baselitz’s inverted paintings brought about a kind of catharsis: a coming-to-terms with the realisation that these symbols had lost their potency in the aftermath of the war. Once upended, their connotations were eclipsed by their execution. ‘The hierarchy which has located the sky at the top and the earth at the bottom is, in any case, only a convention. We have got used to it, but we don’t have to believe in it. The only thing that interests me is the question of how I can carry on painting pictures’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in F. Dahlem, Georg Baselitz, Cologne 1990, p. 96). For Baselitz, these works – regardless of their subject matter – were fundamentally self-projections: symbols of his own position in an uprooted, destabilized world. ‘Everything is a self-portrait, whether it’s a tree or a nude’, he explained. ‘It’s how the artist sees it … Everything that you see is a reflection of yourself’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in, M. Auping ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, in Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p.15). During the 1970s, Baselitz would literalise this statement in a series of canvases that deliberately incorporated his own features – among them Fingermalerei- Akt (1972) (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) and Fingermalerei-Schwarzer Akt (1973) (Kunsthalle Kiel) and Fingermalerei-Akt (1972) (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), as well as the present painting. With these works, artist and technique had finally become one; painting, in all its tactile glory, had triumphed over content.
Baselitz’s approach to portraiture was deeply influenced by his encounters with Abstract Expressionism. While studying in Berlin, the artist visited the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-breaking exhibition The New American Painting, which toured Europe in 1958, as well as their major Jackson Pollock retrospective. He was particularly impressed by the latter’s all-over approach to painting, as well as the work of de Kooning, Kline and Phillip Guston. Baselitz’s use of colour, as well as his spatial innovations, were very much inspired by this new breed of American artists. Indeed, his decision to invert the traditional orientation of the canvas owes much to their break-down of the hierarchy between figure and ground. In Dreieck zwischen Arm und Rumpf, the human form teeters on the brink of abstraction, its stance reinterpreted as a mere marker of geometric space. ‘I prefer to deny the figure any particular shape or meaning – to keep it on the level of a general concept’, Baselitz explained. ‘… Our tendency is to mimic the conventions of body language or facial expression. I try not to do that. I would like to operate between expressions, an expression or stance that is not so identifiable’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, in Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 15). As the horrors of the recent past lingered in the world’s psyche, Baselitz proposed a clean slate for art – one that celebrated materiality over meaning. Though the artist’s likeness hovers at the centre of the work, its ‘self-portrait’ is ultimately located in the nature of its execution: in the unbounded sweep of the brush, the crude fusion of pigment and fibre and the burning imprint of colour upon the retina.