‘I was born into a destroyed order’
(G. Baselitz, quoted in D. Kuspit, ‘Goth to Dance’, Artforum, Vol. 33, Summer 1995, p. 76).
‘The Heroes paintings represent an extraordinary achievement for the artist, for in their image he found himself. Painted in less than a year, they have continued to inform all his subsequent work. Issues concerning the figure, form, colour and line, with which he had experimented since his student days, were resolved in these canvases’
(D. Waldman, quoted in Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, p. 56).
‘Standing within a long tradition of German art, and using time honoured media, Baselitz has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history to make the new and fresh in a manner that can only be described as heroic; heroic because his art has consciously gone against the grain of fashion, while always remaining modern’
(N. Rosenthal, ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, in Baselitz, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London 2007, p. 15).
Rendered with liquescent washes of colour in rich, earthbound hues, Heimweg (Way Home) and Ohne Titel (Heimweg II) (Untitled Way Home II) of 1967 are exquisite examples of Baselitz’s Fracture works, demonstrating the lingering impact of the Heroes upon his psyche. Though cloaked in rural disguise, armed with fresh game and axes, the two protagonists are unmistakably haunted by traces of these lone, lost figures: isolated within broken landscapes, they traverse the cracked earth with their bare feet, their pale physiques swathed in bedraggled, war-torn garments. Following his move to the countryside the previous year, Baselitz had attempted to dispel the post-apocalyptic solemnity of these earlier paintings by casting fresh eyes upon traditional Germanic imagery: its forests, its pastures, its game animals, hunters and woodsmen. Yet all around him, the traces of war – the ghosts of tanks and army vehicles that once dominated the landscape – still hung in the air. Confronting his romantic subject matter as if through a shattered mirror, Baselitz began to fracture his compositions, unhinging and dislocating his trees, terrains and figures across the picture plane. The Heroes, however, continued to prey upon his mind, and many of the early Fracture works – such as the present examples – are infused with their characteristics. Like the iconic B for Larry (Friedrich Christian Flick Collection), created during the same year, Baselitz’s two figures are avatars torn between two worlds – between a lost age of pastoral innocence and an uprooted, destabilised post-War landscape. In these pictures, we see Baselitz grappling with the deeply moving realisation that it would never be possible to see the world in the same way again – that any sense of homecoming was beyond the reaches of art.
For Baselitz, fracturing was not simply a case of abstract formal play: rather, it was a means of distancing himself from the powerful Germanic symbolism of his chosen imagery. Having grown up in East Germany before taking up permanent residence in West Berlin in 1958, Baselitz felt himself to be an outsider, and his complex relationship with his own national and artistic roots was to become one of the driving forces within his oeuvre. Still scarred by the atrocities of the Second World War, and now isolated from Western Europe, the city had provided the desolate backdrop for the Heroes. Widely regarded as self-portraits, these lone figures – part solider, part shepherd, part prisoner-of-war – sought to express the broken state of the German psyche in the aftermath of the Third Reich. Following his relocation to rural Osthofen, however, a new set of archetypes began to infiltrate his vocabulary: his disenfranchised wanderers merged with a cast of Teutonic men and beasts, emblematic of folklore and the natural world. The colours of the forest – a camouflage spectrum of olive green, mahogany, grey and umber – came to dominate the artist’s palette, creating a fresh, fertile counterpart to the sombre tones of his previous output. However, like his contemporary Gerhard Richter – who painted the German countryside as seen through the camera lens – Baselitz found he was unable to look these motifs directly in the eye. Their grandeur and symbolic power had been extinguished. Baselitz’s fracturing process was a direct response to this realisation – an attempt to distance himself from the romantic ideals of the past. The ruptured surface of these works would, just two years later, give way to Baselitz’s first inverted canvases, inaugurating a format that would become his modus operandi for decades to come.
The Heimweg pictures bear witness to the diverse influences that nourished Baselitz’s early practice. Unlike Polke and, to some extent, Richter – both of whom responded to American pop culture and its capitalist implications in the early 1960s – Baselitz remained attracted to a more expressive, figurative idiom. His fluid, intuitive line and gestural application of paint demonstrates his lineage in the Expressionist traditions of Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka and Die Brücke – artists whom he greatly admired. At the same time, his intricate mark-making and deliberate flattening of perspective may be understood in relation to his growing personal collection of sixteenth-century woodcuts and prints, as well as the Mannerist drawings he had encountered two years earlier on a scholarship excursion to Florence. Captivated by Chaim Soutine’s depictions of distorted flesh, Baselitz read widely on the subject of anamorphosis, and was particularly intrigued by its manifestation in the work of the Surrealists – most notably in the cadaver exquis, based on an old parlour game in which players took it in turns to draw segments of a figure on folded sections of paper. This particular influence is palpable in the Heimweg pictures, whose subjects are divided by stacked, almost horizontal fissures. In both works, there is a subtle interplay between figuration and abstraction, in which recognisable forms morph into alien, disconnected fragments. In the disjuncture between the various visual registers at play, we see Baselitz attempting to construct a new language – an alternative system of representation equipped to confront the fractured, divided nature of his homeland.