‘Painting is not a means to an end. On the contrary; painting is autonomous. And I said to myself: if this is the case, then I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, p. 71).
Whirling, expressive brushwork in exclamatory primary colours comes together to form the roughly-hewn features of Georg Baselitz’s Der Abgarkopf. With intense dynamism, the artist manipulates cerulean and viridian, coral and amber, allowing white highlights to spark and refract from the rich, jewel-toned surface. Liberated from their traditional role of modelling volumes in light and shade, the disobedient colours overflow, bisecting the face into interlocking planes. The heavy brow, deep-set eyes, broad nose and downturned mouth are roughly sketched in using black pigment, suggesting, with minimal means, a fiercely atavistic face. Activated by Baselitz’s brush, every element becomes volatile, every mark swirls in an expressive rhythm, every colour explodes into an unexpected narrative.
Painted in 1984, at the height of the artist’s most innovative and experimental period, this work is a powerful example of Baselitz’s reinvention of the realist idiom. Baselitz was keen to distance himself from all forms of ‘official’ art, including the practices of Art Informel favoured in Western Europe, the Socialist Realism sanctioned by East Germany and the discourses of American abstraction. By turning the painted world on its head, now such a hallmark of his work, he sought to entrench the power of the figurative image by reenergising it, to reinvest realism with a new sense of purpose. ‘Painting is not a means to an end,’ the artist explained this decision. ‘On the contrary; painting is autonomous. And I said to myself: if this is the case, then I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995, p. 71).
Der Abgarkopf is central to Baselitz’s interest in Christian imagery in the years 1983-1984. In works dating to these years, the artist variously featured Lazarus, the bearing of the Cross, the crowning with thorns, and, on a monumental scale, the last supper – in Nachtessen in Dresden (Supper in Dresden), 1983, in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich. This religious motif was a continuation of Baselitz’s confrontation with his national heritage, whose histories and geographies he had previously mined for imagery with which to explore the country’s traumatic past. The artist’s early works featured archetypal Heroes or New Types, alienated and disempowered, stumbling brokenly across the barren landscape of post-War Germany. In a 1985 manifesto, having in mind the Christian symbolism which had dominated his work for the past two years, Baselitz explained: ‘No painter goes hunting for motifs, that would be paradoxical, because the motif is in the mind of the painter, the mechanism that thinks’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in Georg Baselitz. Painting & Sculpture 1960 – 2008, exh. cat., Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Mönchsberg, 2009, p. 43).
Der Abgarkopf illustrates the legend of King Abgar, who, as a reward for his piety, received a missive from Christ, an image miraculously created when Jesus pressed a cloth to his face. A popular medieval source described the resulting portrait as having good eyes, a strong brow, and a long face with straight features. In Baselitz’s work, these characteristics are retained, as is the close-cropping of the face, which recalls the original, uncomposed image. Yet Der Abgarkopf is forcefully, unrepentantly iconoclastic: Baselitz defies the latent power of the deified image by literally overturning it. This technique allows him to distance himself from the powerful symbolism associated with his chosen motif and, in doing so, to affirm his own status as a figurative painter in a turbulent post-War society. Der Abgarkopf becomes an icon, not of religion, but of humanism, allowing the artist to break loose from the subject and yet remain true to himself.