‘The hierarchy where the sky is at the top and the ground down below is in any case only an agreement, one that we have all got used to, but one that we absolutely do not have to believe in’ (‘Georg Baselitz in conversation with Walter Grasskamp’ in Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings & Interviews, London 2010, p. 84)
Elke 1945 (12. I. 97) is a typically bold example of Georg Baselitz’s thrilling inversion of illustrative structure, literally flipping art on its head. Bodied forth in lurid, splashy gouache and ink, raw white paper glinting through his teeth, a smiling figure beams from an upside-down portrait. His eyes, overloaded with deep blue ink, drip down the paper in evidence of Baselitz’s process: rather than inverting a finished painting, he begins and ends the work in this format, working in an entirely new compositional logic that carries an undeniable and revitalising visual shock. ‘Whenever I start a painting,’ Baselitz has said, ‘I set out to formulate things as if I were the first one, the only one, and as if all the precedents didn’t exist – even though I know that there are thousands of precedents ranged against me. One has always to think of making something, something valid. That’s my life’ (‘Georg Baselitz in conversation with Jean-Louis Froment and Jean-Marc Poinsot’ (1983) in Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings & Interviews, London 2010, p. 71).
Baselitz’s radical and dissonant paintings break aggressively with convention, taking to task traditional modes of thinking and seeing with uncompromising pictorial force. Born in Soviet East Germany, he was expelled from the Academy of Art there in 1956 for ‘sociopolitical immaturity.’ Moving to West Berlin, he rose to prominence amid frequent controversy in the 1960s as a pioneer of German Neo-Expressionism, his distinctively tense and agitated works exploring the identity of the artist in Post-War Germany through a voracious and irreverent treatment of art history. Apart from his inversion of the picture plane, he also often employed obscene, offhanded subject matter and painted with his fingers rather than a brush, making profane and bathetic the sanctified art object. Alongside hints of Socialist Realism in his saturated blonde hair and gleaming grin, the rich purple raiment and gold ornamentation of the figure in Elke 1945 (12. I. 97) weight the subject with associations of tradition, history, and even royalty, sharpening Baselitz’s iconoclastic edge: this is an image of upheaval, contravention and taboo-breaking, confronting us with a wicked and knowing smile.