‘His singularity makes him appear ‘abstract’ and, at the same time, if not more, as a realist. Rather than maintaining equilibrium he tries to resist being torn apart between the dialectical poles of 20th century art’ (R.M. Mason, ‘Image and Painting’, Georg Baselitz: Painting and Sculpture 1960-2008, exh. cat., Salzburg, Museum der Moderne, 2009, p. 37).
‘Taken as a whole, the works of the early 1970s are marked by what is, for Baselitz, a surprisingly open layout. There are two immediate reasons for this. He is, firstly, experimenting with the possibilities of a new technique, namely finger painting: and, secondly the deliberately light, bright coloring he uses in these compositions favours an impression of transparency… This textual openness has its counterpart in Baselitz’s choice of subjects… Whether the subject is birds - suggested by a friend’s collection of photographs - or undergrowth, corpses, interiors, eagles, eagles’ wings, or, finally, a long series of nudes, he always succeeds in focusing attention on the brilliant subtlety of the application of the paint itself’ (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich 1989, p. 112.)
‘Everything is a self-portrait, whether it’s a tree or a nude. It’s how the artist sees it. What’s important is to paint in certain traditions, in certain genres. That’s all I really want to do, just like any other artist. Matisse or Rembrandt chose to paint in certain genres. That’s what I want to do. What interest me is to work in a convention and destroy it at the same time, to make the convention mine… Everything that you see is a reflection of yourself. When research is carried out to determine the authenticity of a painting from the Renaissance, for example, one of the ways in which the study is undertaken is to pick out physical traits like ears and eyes and noses – Titian always painted the same eyes and ears regardless of who he was painting. He always painted the ears in the same way. That’s the point I’m making about it being a reflection of myself’(G. Baselitz quoted in, M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p.15).
‘I prefer to deny the figure any particular shape or meaning – to keep it on the level of a general concept. This is notas easy as it sounds. 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. I also disorientate the figure to come from different sides of the canvas, but in the beginning it was important to just paint the figure upside down. That was the most disruptive in terms of breaking convention. It creates a healthy disorder. To reinvent painting for yourself, you must address the obvious and the marginal, disrupt the predictable by using what people don’t want to look at or are not familiar with’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 15).
Painted in 1972, the same year that Baselitz was invited to exhibit at Documenta 5, Fingermalerei – Akt belongs to the artist’s early, seminal group of upside-down self-portraits. Rare in the artist’s oeuvre and demonstrating his special talent with paint, this self-portrait rendered with the very tips of the artist’s fingers, belongs to a series of intimate paintings undertaken by the artist of himself and his wife Elke in the early 1970s. Radical, bold and unabashed, this painting is full of youthful alacrity – a man brimming with vitality. Shoulders firmly squared towards the viewer and eyes gazing out from the picture plane, the portrait has a profound intensity, reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s late Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed (1943). However, its powerful, visceral quality brings it closer to Lucian Freud’s near sculptural, great self-portrait nude, Painter Working, Reflection (1993). Part of a tradition of nude self-portraiture dating from Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, to Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso, these artists all explored the contours of their bodies, courageously baring themselves to the world. First exhibited at Kunsthalle Bern in 1976, Fingermalerei – Akt was accompanied by further nude self-portraits by Baselitz now housed within major museum collections, including Fingermalerei-Schwarzer Akt (1973) (Kunsthalle Kiel) and Fingermalerei-Akt (1972) (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).
Silhouetted in rapid, dark lines around the crown of his head to the curve of his forearm and bulge of his thigh, Baselitz’s figure is built up from a wealth of expressive brushstrokes. Sun-blushed, his skin is pink and bronze in tone, especially where the parting of his shirt has let sun warm the flesh around his neck and collarbone. Highlighted by strokes of white below the waistband and tufts of black around his chin and loins, the figure is every bit a man. And yet, with its wedges of colour, its sea of blue, grey, saffron and crimson strokes, and its subject turned entirely on its head, Fingermalerei – Akt becomes so much more than a self-portrait. It offers an exploration of the two poles of painting, abstraction and figuration, probing the liminal space between the two. As Baselitz has described, ‘a painting is built one brushstroke at a time. You can see the figure or you can see the brushstrokes. It doesn’t really matter to the painter’ (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. 30).
The inversion of the image has come to be a touchstone for Baselitz’s practice over the past forty years, using the visual challenge to free his compositions from any simplistic or literal reading. The concept was not totally novel, for classical painters had previously used mirrors in their studios to correct the form and execution of their paintings, while in the twentieth century artists such as Kandinsky had been known to turn their paintings upside down to test their work. However, in Baselitz’s paintings such as Fingermalerei – Akt, we see the artist dare to elaborate his subject upside-down from scratch. The artist painted his full-length nudes entirely using his fingers, coming into immediate contact with the luscious and lustrous medium of oil paint. In this painting in particular, Baselitz has delved deep into the composition, energetically applying his fingers to the surface of the canvas. As the artist has described, ‘the idea was to simulate a handicap, one I didn’t have and to work with this handicap… so it occurred to me not to use a brush or a spatula, but my fingers instead. You very soon get the hang of it. After three days of fumbling around with your fingers, it comes very quickly. But it also produced an effect that was very interesting: the surface of these paintings was very smooth – like the wax cloth we used to have on the kitchen table. I found this smoothness very interesting, as well as the fact that you don’t see the texture of the canvas any more because you rub the paint into all the pores’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in Artemak: Interview with Georg Baselitz, 17 June 2008, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London 2010, pp. 310-311).
By using his fingers to depict his own naked body, Baselitz was also making a bold statement about his own physical materiality. As the artist has described, ‘when you are painting a figure you are not thinking about a story, you are thinking about the body, what it can do and how you can experience through paint. You paint using your own body, and that is part of how you identify with your subject, a form of empathy’ (G. Baselitz quoted in, M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 15).
Baselitz’s move towards inverting his compositions evolved during the late 1960s following the birth of his second child in 1966. The artist moved with his family from Berlin to the remote German countryside of Swabia and began to paint traditional motifs such as huntsmen, birds and dogs. He began to explore his sense of dislocation by fracturing his paintings, focusing on the potentials of paint applied with broad brushstrokes in dense shades of green, brown and blue. This exploration of the mis-en-abime, displacement, dissociation, marked the critical step towards Baselitz’s inversion of his subject. In so doing, the artist moved away from the horizontal arrangement of a composition towards a vertical arrangement as in Waldarbeiter (1968) (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Mann am Baum (1969) (Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich). For Baselitz, this inversion was ‘the best way to liberate the portrayal of content’ (G. Baselitz quoted in, R.M. Mason, ‘Image and Painting’, Georg Baselitz: Painting and Sculpture 1960-2008, exh. cat., Salzburg, Museum der Moderne, 2009, p. 37).
Baselitz’s approach to portraiture was deeply influenced by the experience of seeing the radical new inventions of Abstract Expressionism. While studying in Berlin, Baselitz visited The New American Painting exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art touring Europe in 1958 and the Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956 retrospective. Particularly impressed by Pollock, deKooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston, the new art from America helped to inform Baselitz’s own approach to painting: his use of colour and spatial organization. Just as Guston had the ability to imbue a brushstroke with rich colour, never quite formalizing into a shape or identifiable form, so Baselitz would build his figures, wavering on the border between abstraction and figuration. Just as Pollock broke down the conventions of up and down, or left and right, Baselitz too would create a new type of figurative space in his paintings. As the artist has described, ‘the figure cannot conquer the painting. It makes a diplomatic treaty with it to create a certain type of spatial configuration’ (G. Baselitz quoted in, M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 20).
Another formative moment in the genealogy of Baselitz’s painting was a visit to Paris in 1961. It was here that the artist became familiar with the work of the Art Informel: Wols, Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, and perhaps most important of all, the archexistentialist and Surrealist poet Antonin Artaud, who was also a remarkable self-portraitist. As Germain Viatte has described, in the years after the War, ‘there was a need for direct and brutal communication… to supplant dead forms of language, a need to explore the force and potential of the human body, to question the predetermined, and an exasperation with the materials and forms associated with all artistic traditions, including modernism’ (G. Viatte, quoted in, M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 21).
This was the same impetus that drove Baselitz to create in such a radical new way in Germany. As he himself has explained, ‘I was born into a destroyed order… and I didn’t want to establish an order’ (G. Baselitz interview with D. Kuspit, ‘Goth to Dance’, in Artforum, Summer 1995, p. 76). Born in 1938 in Grossbaselitz in Saxony, which later became part of East Germany, the artist had experienced the effects of Nazism during World War II, Communism and West German capitalism in Berlin where he moved shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. Witnessing the dominance of Socialist Realism in the East and Abstraction in the West, Baselitz maintained a defiantly ambiguous path between the two poles and has continued to do so ever since. ‘Rules and conventions are necessary, but always too extreme’ the artist has explained, ‘I prefer disorder - that is where something can actually be invented’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in, M. Auping, ‘Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke’, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, 1997-1999, p. 30).