'Munch was my starting point'
‘All the works on religious themes are marked by statuesque presence, clarity of form, and large unified areas of colour. These devices are clearly employed to counter the naïve, story-telling associations of the motifs, with their burden of traditional iconography … The brilliant, intense, artificial-looking colour is markedly at odds with the solemnity of the subject-matter; it serves to set the action in an unaccustomed light, and thus to circumvent the viewer’s expectations and trigger a stronger response’
Georg Baselitz’s Die Geisselung (The Flagellation) (1983) is one of an important series of paintings made throughout 1983 and early 1984 in which Georg Baselitz turned to religious iconography, reworking familiar scenes from Christian art history in a startling and radically new way. In the same period, Baselitz made a number of works invoking the art of Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists, whose intense colours and expressive figuration are clearly echoed in this religious series. The monumental canvas of Die Geisselung presents two of Baselitz’s signature upside-down figures, painted with bravura, De Kooning-esque strokes of opalescent blue, yellow, green and orange. The work glows with extraordinary radiance. A vivid yellow haloes the whole body of the Christ figure to the right, who also bears a burst of yellow at his chest like a Sacred Heart. His features are limned in white, as if blazing from within with brilliant spiritual presence. The figure to the left, whose mask-like face and frontal stance closely echo Edvard Munch’s famous late self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), stands ready with a whip. Drawing again on the religious paintings of Emil Nolde, whose 1909 painting of the Last Supper he had invoked in Nachtessen in Dresden and Die Brückechor – his two famed giant paintings of 1983 depicting artists from Die Brücke – in this series of works made soon afterwards, Baselitz concentrated on scenes from Christ’s Passion and other Biblical narratives. Developing the theatrical quality, rough-hewn, marionette-like figures and heightened colour of his two vast Die Brücke paintings in a completely new direction, he created extraordinary and vibrant new visions of this traditional subject matter. Others in the series are held in major museum collections worldwide, including Die Verspottung (The Mocking) (Ludwig Museum, Budapest), Die Beweinung (The Lamentation) (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Die Kreuztragung (The Carrying of the Cross) (National Gallery, Berlin), and Lazarus (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
These paintings were made at a time in the early 1980s when Baselitz was being championed as the leading exponent of a ‘Neo-Expressionist’ tendency in German art. Baselitz, who has sought always to distance himself from the painting of the past, characteristically denied any links with his Die Brücke forebears. ‘People were starting to say that my works had a link with German Expressionism. In fact this only applies to the way I handle the canvas, my manual use of the canvas’, he claimed. ‘I have never had any relationship with Expressionism’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in D. Waldman, Georg Baselitz, exh. cat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995, p. 149). For all his detachment, he clearly shares with Die Brücke an admiration of Edvard Munch, and, in this series of works based on Christian imagery, built on their own engagement with the religious art of the Northern European tradition, as well as the Fauvist and Primitivist elements of their style. While invoking their work directly in a kind of oblique homage, however, Baselitz also clearly wished to use these works as a way of asserting his fundamental distance from the German Expressionists. In a move that echoed his recent experiments carving large totemic figures in wood, Baselitz employed colour and brushstroke in a similarly chiselled and nongestural manner, seeming to carve his incandescent forms out of the abstract spaces of the picture. With their bold, imposing and strangely serene figures set against abstract voids of paint, the bright, artificial-looking flush of these works deliberately foils the usual solemnity of their subject matter. Along with the motif of inversion, which Baselitz first began to use in the 1960s as a way of separating a subject from its ostensible connotations, here form, style and colour have been used to shatter any conventional assumptions about the painting’s apparent subject, iconography and meaning.
Moving beyond the conventions of religious painting and even beyond Die Brücke’s re-invoking of such themes, in Die Geisselung Baselitz has brilliantly reimagined the fourth Station of the Cross – one of the most common scenes in Christian art – in his own uniquely iconoclastic blend of abstraction and figuration, creating a fresh, powerful and enriched sense of pure painting and of painterly possibility. Joyfully bright, highly textural and even playful in the manner in which he integrates this typically sober subject matter into the radical structure of his picture-making, Baselitz renders the episode of Christ’s flagellation with such irreverence and originality that it seems almost as if the viewer were witnessing the event for the very first time. ‘When I make my paintings’, Baselitz has said of such works, ‘I begin to do things as if I were the first, the only one, as if none of these examples (of what other artists had done before) existed’ (G. Baselitz, cited in H. Geldzahler, ‘Georg Baselitz’ Interview, vol. xiv, no. 4, April 1984, p. 83).