Simultaneously iconic and subversive, Georg Baselitz’s Adler (Eagle) is a monumental ode to his most important subject. Stretching over two metres in height, it depicts the eagle – once a proud symbol of German nationalism – upended in the artist’s signature format. Thick, gestural streaks of impasto engulf the bird’s form, rendered in a glowing palette of blue, orange, pink and yellow. With examples held in museums worldwide, Baselitz’s Adler paintings represent the cornerstone of his practice. By choosing a historically-charged motif, the artist sought to question the relationship between mark-making and pictorial content. Pushed to the brink of abstraction, the eagle is reduced to visceral mass of brushstrokes, plummeting towards earth in a fiery blaze. Painted in 1982, the work dates from a period of great professional triumph for Baselitz, who featured in both Documenta 7 and the legendary exhibition Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, that year. In the wake of the Royal Academy’s 1981 show A New Spirit in Painting, where his works had hung opposite those of Willem de Kooning, the artist took his place on the international stage. Infused with the lessons of his Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist forebears, the present work bears witness to the newfound vitality of his artistic language, seen elsewhere in the 1983 masterpieces Nachtessen in Dresden (Kunsthaus Zürich) and Der Brückechor. Wrought with a mixture of brushes and the artist’s own fingers, the eagle is incinerated through the sheer force of its execution. Its symbolic potency is suspended, leaving the viewer to confront the act of painting in its most primal form.
Baselitz had first begun painting upside-down in 1969, driven by a desire to expose the fickle nature of representation. Operating in the aftermath of the Second World War, he deliberately selected motifs that were deeply ingrained in Germany’s national consciousness: symbols of the forest, nature and folklore. By inverting them, Baselitz sought to highlight their lack of intrinsic value, glorifying instead the sensory power of pigment. The eagle, first depicted by the artist as early as 1953, came to play a vital role in this mission. Whilst at school, Baselitz had made friends with a wildlife photographer, whom he helped to compile a book containing pictures of birds. Among them were photographs of eagles, divorced from all nationalistic context, which prompted the artist to reflect upon their symbolic programming. Though placed at the service of Fascist propaganda during the war, the bird had in fact been adopted throughout history: not only in Germany, but also in Roman and Byzantine cultures. It was not until the early Fingermalerei Adler of the 1970s – examples of which are held in the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, and the Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg – that Baselitz first began to confront the motif in earnest. As the decade progressed, his depictions of the eagle became ever-more distorted, its heroic form subsumed by painterly fervour. It has been variously suggested that the eagle came to represent something of an alter-ego for the artist – a sparring partner, perhaps. The present work, along with the 1982 paintings Adler im Fenster (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Adler (Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden), may be said to represent the culmination of this trajectory.
Baselitz’s paintings of the early 1980s stand among some of the finest in his oeuvre. As his work gained international recognition, the artist began to engage increasingly with the work of his ancestors, drawing renewed inspiration from artists such as Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele, as well as the German Expressionist group Die Brücke. His canvases, previously dominated by soft pastoral hues, became saturated with bold fiery tones – a shift evident in the celebrated Trinker and Orangenesser series of 1981-1982. His surfaces, perhaps inspired by the series of wooden sculptural heads he created during this period, became increasingly tactile, as if carved from rivers of paint. At the same time, the present work may be said to witness Baselitz’s dialogue with American abstraction. As a student in Berlin, he had visited the Museum of Modern Art’s touring exhibition The New American Painting, as well as their celebrated Jackson Pollock retrospective. Over the years, he came to appreciate the work of de Kooning, Franz Kline and Phillip Guston, which would inform his use of colour and disruption of the relationship between figure and ground. During the early 1980s, Baselitz exhibited a number of times in New York, with the present work appearing in Art in America in 1983. He would surely have been aware of the young Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom he exhibited at Documenta 7 as well as a group show organised by Diego Cortez in 1982. Paint, long considered dead, had been well and truly resurrected on both sides of the Atlantic. In the present work, Baselitz proclaims it as a subject in its own right: the eagle is usurped by its majesty.