‘Not only is the image inverted, which, in the context of the subject matter is in itself a thought-provoking blasphemy, but Piero’s triumphant Mediterranean banner has been replaced by a sickly fir tree, a symbolic inversion toward the North’
Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) is one of the finest in a highly important series of paintings on the theme of Christ’s Passion that Georg Baselitz made between 1983 and 1985. These paintings, which also include a number of pictures invoking the art of the German Expressionists, formed a large and vibrantly-coloured series – today recognized as being among the artist’s best works – that re-engaged with many of the great themes and styles of painting from the past. In the case of Baselitz’s pictures on the theme of the Passion, these were works that openly sought to re-invent and reinvigorate the grand, but largely forgotten, tradition of history painting in German art.
Distinguished by a surprising and then hitherto unseen burst of vibrant colour into his work, along with a deliberate rawness of brushwork that prompted some observers to label Baselitz a ‘Neo-Expressionist’, this series of paintings began in 1983 with the painting, Nachtessen in Dresden (now in the Kunsthaus Zurich). This vast and now famous canvas took as its starting point Emil Nolde’s equally well-known 1909 painting of the Last Supper. A fusion of traditional Christian iconography with the heightened colour and painterly gesture of German Expressionism, it was the first of two paintings on the theme of the Last Supper (along with Der Brückechor) in which Baselitz portrayed several of the members of the Brücke group of Expressionist painters. Here, the figures of Nolde, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rotluff et.al. along with that of Edvard Munch – an artist to whom Baselitz has repeatedly paid homage – were depicted, like totemic German elders, upended and seated around a table.
‘People were starting to say that my works had a link with German Expressionism’, Baselitz has remembered, and he wanted, he said, to demonstrate that he had ‘never had any relationship with Expressionism ... I have always invented the objects and the various figurations that I wanted to show. I have never had a model. That is something that has remained entirely alien to me, something that does not suit me at all’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Solomon. R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, pp. 149-150).
Soon after making these upside-down paintings of Expressionist forefathers having a ‘Last Supper’, in 1984 Baselitz began a sequence of similarly large-scale, but vertical paintings on the ensuing religious theme of Christ’s Passion. This was a grand and traditional theme in painting that, with the solitary exception, perhaps, of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, was, up until this point, almost entirely unknown in the post-war era. Baselitz, who since the mid-1970s had been dividing his time between Germany and Italy, has said also that he ‘was thinking about Piero della Francesca when I painted …those [paintings] of the Passion’ (G. Baselitz, 17 March 1985, quoted in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz Collected Writings and Interviews, London 2010, p. 132).
In a move that echoed his recent experiments in carving large totemic figures in wood, Baselitz’s new religiously-themed paintings comprised mainly of solitary standing figures isolated against an empty, abstract background. ‘My point of departure’ Baselitz has said of these works, ‘was the death room. The first death rooms in painting are found in portrayals of the Death of the Virgin. Obviously not all the death rooms ever painted go back to this early model, but the imagery of the Deathbed and the Death of the Virgin has existed since then. It cannot be denied. It affects Munch as much as it does Beckmann or Picasso’ (G. Baselitz, 17 March 1985 quoted in ibid, p. 130).
Baselitz’s totemic human figures are carved out against the apparent void of the picture with vibrant colour and brushstroke – in a chiselled, non-gestural manner similar to that of the artist’s recent wooden sculptures – in such a way that they gain a stark, existentialist sense of vigour and life. The radiant and deliberately artificial-looking colour that Baselitz has used joins the ever-present upside-down awkwardness of his figures in deliberately subverting and reinterpreting the otherwise traditional solemnity of these paintings’ religious subject-matter. Like the inverted motif that has distinguished and defined Baselitz’s painting ever since the late 1960s, the vivid chromatic character of these works is aimed at separating the subject matter from habitual associations and convention. Form, style, colour and content are used as purely painterly, non-associative tools through which to radically reinvent ‘history painting’ on a grand and traditional theme: even as he pays homage to that tradition, Baselitz’s shocking, unorthodox, coarse, and proudly self-assertive pictures shatter and counter all the religious and iconographic conventions hitherto associated with it.
‘Piero della Francesca once painted an angel’s wings red and green, as dictated by the terms of the picture regardless of naturalistic explanations – a purely pictorial invention’, Baselitz argued in respect to these paintings of the Passion. He pointed out further, and perhaps with direct reference to Die Auferstehung, that in this series he had also ‘made analogous discoveries’ to the apparent arbitrariness of Piero’s colouring of angels’ wings, such as ‘when faced with the problem that the figure in the centre should be the whole picture. No action, no illustration, nothing in the picture moves; the figure remains isolated. And then you paint one eye red and the other blue; that’s what happens in the picture. The only explanation for every brushstroke you make comes from the picture itself and is made possible by it. Everything is arbitrary’ (G. Baselitz, 17 March 1985, quoted in ibid, p. 132).
Even though Die Auferstehung therefore appears to be based upon what is probably Piero’s most magisterial painting – his iconic fresco of the resurrected Christ in Sansepolcro – this too is ultimately only an arbitrary feature of this painting. As Norman Rosenthal has written about Die Auferstehung: ‘not only is the image inverted, which, in the context of the subject matter is in itself a thought-provoking blasphemy, but Piero’s triumphant Mediterranean banner has been replaced by a sickly fir tree, a symbolic inversion toward the North’ (N. Rosenthal, ‘Scenes of the Passion’ in Georg Baselitz, exh. cat. Mary Boone Gallery, New York, 1984, n.p.). Here, all the conventions and associations of depicting the resurrected Christ rising in triumph from his grave have been stripped away to become a simple existentialist icon of what now looks like a falling figure set against a distinctly Nordic void. The imagery of the painting, its iconographic associations and its traditional, religious and historical power are, the picture asserts, reduced to nothing. These elements serve only as a support for the truly vitalizing and invigorating act and process of painting itself – a physical act of making. It is only in this creative act – here made plainly visible through the vigour of the artist’s brushstrokes and the radiance of the vibrant colours glowing against the dark and foreboding background of the picture – that any real sense of resurrection is possible.