The vibrant orange pigment used to paint the citrus fruit near the center of Georg Baselitz’s Orangenesser VII is a bright pop of color that illuminates an otherwise deeply atmospheric canvas. As is the case with all of Baselitz’s paintings since 1969, the work was painted and is presented upside-down; literally upending the figurative tradition so that it takes on new, more abstract, qualities. With its series of energetic brushstrokes, Baselitz’s painting is ferociously gestural without losing the deliberation needed to form the figure. Diane Waldman, the curator of the artist’s 1995 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, writes: “The upside-downness in Baselitz paintings has the effect of nullifying the significance of the figure—freed from gravity, it becomes one image among many, taking its place as part of the artist’s investigation into the nature of painting” (D. Waldman, “Georg Baselitz: Art on the Edge,” Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, p. 72).
In Orangenesser VII, Baselitz breaks the close relationship between his paintings and sculptures of the previous decade to instead concentrate fully on painterly concerns of color and brushstroke. As art historian Andreas Franzke—the author of Baselitz’s 1989 monographic study—writes of the artist’s Orangenesser series, “These works spring more directly from the use of paint and are more expressive, and above all more colorful, than Baselitz previous paintings. Many are dominated by a positively aggressive color scheme of reds and yellows. The individual brushstroke is emphasized: it not only structures the pictorial layout, it also contributes substantially to the increasing forcefulness with which the thematic idea is handled and the individual motif developed and varied...The figure seems shaken from within by the consequences of their own compulsive actions: explosive trails of paints hold them together” (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich, 1988, p. 140).
Baselitz made the decision to begin painting his figures and landscapes upside down a decade into his fifty-plus year long engagement with the medium. The German artist’s first exhibition in 1963 would come two years after the erection of the Berlin Wall. A lithograph of a landscape painting by the nineteenth century Saxon artist Louis Ferdinand von Rayski that hung in Baselitz’s primary school auditorium would serve as the source of the artist’s first upside down painting in 1969. Rayski was an artist from Baselitz’s home region, and the contemporary artist’s choice to literally invert this work and the context from which he obtained the image, demonstrates the artist’s iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian tendencies. As the artist has said, “My work broke with all the conventions. I rebelled against all forms of restraint. If people said you could only use this kind of paper or that brush for watercolor, I tried to do exactly the opposite. It was like trying to do a charcoal drawing with a pencil on a piece of glass” (G. Baselitz, quoted in F. Dahlem, “An Imaginary Conversation Between Baselitz, Dahlem and Pickshaus,” Georg Baselitz, Derneburg, 1990, p. 25).
Waldman concurs, “Baselitz’s upside-down images mark one of the most radical departures from painting convention dating to the rules of perspective developed in the Renaissance. The illusion that the viewer of a painting was seeing an accurate reflection of the world was maintained until the nineteenth century, when photography replaced the painted image with a more convincing depiction of the real world. It was Baselitz’s intention, as it has been for many twentieth century painters, to break with tradition—to make new paintings—without sacrificing the appearance of actuality. By distorting his subjects’ form, volume, and relationship to the world—literally turning them upside-down—Baselitz forces the viewer to accept an inverted world as a new pictorial convention” (D. Waldman, op. cit.).
Upon the debut of the Orangenesser paintings in New York at Fourcade Gallery in February 1982, art critic Donald Kuspit wrote, “These paintings are not only upside-down they are inside-out: the figures have a flayed, raw look that goes with spiritual nakedness. We seem to have a rogue’s gallery of mutants for whom even the simplest act—eating a fruit, drinking from a bottle—is difficult, a horrendous, urgent event. It is no accident that such elementary acts are depicted—acts of survival, which show the human figure in a simple yet tortured or maddened state of being, as if only by such stark simplicity could inherent suffering be made self-evident.” Kuspit continues by situating the paintings within the art historical tradition of the mundus inversus in his Art in America review: “The ‘reversible world,’ the sense of ‘topsy-turvydom’—of everything stood on its head—is also a comic acknowledgement of the world’s craziness, a picaresque way of calling it into questionableness. Very simply, it is a way of ‘challenging orthodoxy’—negating what seems the proper order of things, upsetting propriety with its sense of uprightness. The crudity, verging on the grotesque—Baudelaire calls ‘absolute comedy’—of Baselitz figures already does this. The strategy of upside-downness completes the upset. It is a traditional tactic for generating critical consciousness, used to renew the failing criticality that is the soul of modernism” (D. Kuspit, “Georg Baselitz at Fourcade,” Art in America, February 1982, pp. 139-140).