‘Baselitz was still a painter in a world dominated by abstraction and later the beginnings of conceptual art… The challenge from Baselitz was to fnd a way to break loose from the subject and yet remain true to himself as an artist, and especially as a painter. His problem was how to be part of the Zeitgeist and yet also to remain outside it’ (N. Rosenthal, ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, in Baselitz, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2007, p. 18).
From dense textural swathes of paint, richly applied in gestural layers of deep red, warm mahogany and pale cream, the magnificent head of a cow emerges in Georg Baselitz’s Die Kuh. Painted in 1967, the work is situated within the series of ‘Fracture’ paintings that defined Baselitz’s output during the keystone period between 1966 and 1969. It was during these years that Baselitz sought dramatic new methods of engaging with the medium of paint, visibly rupturing and fragmenting his picture plane in order to challenge the emotive power of his subject matter. In this new trajectory, Baselitz chose as his protagonists deliberately prosaic figures drawn from nature and German romanticism, abandoning the post-apocalyptic ‘Heroes’ that had dominated his output during 1965. Within this new set of parameters, the cow came to represent an important motif for the artist, evocative of the pastoral landscape that fascinated Baselitz following his move to the countryside in 1966. Inscribed with Baselitz’s signature fracture line in the top right-hand diagonal, Kuh shows Baselitz’s disruptive strategies beginning to take shape. As the line meets the cow’s head, a pattern of repetition is set in motion, with the shape of the ear replicated in a descending sequence down the side of its face. The canvas is further divided by the wooden fence that appears to subsume the cow’s nose, creating a subtle planar distortion that gently warps the work’s perspectival orientation. Kuh witnesses the basic formal strategies that would go on to inform Baselitz’s subsequent practice. Forcing the boundaries of legibility, the ‘Fracture’ paintings ultimately paved the way for the fully inverted paintings that would become Baselitz’s signature artistic mode from 1969.
Baselitz’s fracturing technique allowed him to distance himself from the powerful symbolism associated with his chosen motifs and, in doing so, to reconcile his own status as a painter in a turbulent post-War society. Baselitz was keen to remove himself from allegiance to 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. As an artist who felt himself to be an outsider, having grown up in the seclusion of the Eastern bloc, Baselitz’s ‘Fracture’ paintings allowed him to engage with national and art-historical stereotypes whilst fundamentally dislocating himself from those traditions. As Norman Rosenthal has written, ‘Baselitz was still a painter in a world dominated by abstraction and later the beginnings of conceptual art … The challenge from Baselitz was to find a way to break loose from the subject and yet remain true to himself as an artist, and especially as a painter. His problem was how to be part of the Zeitgeist and yet also to remain outside it’ (N. Rosenthal, ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, in Baselitz, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2007, p. 18). In choosing the humble cow as his subject matter, Baselitz subverts the long history of its artistic representation. From Aelbert Cuyp to Vincent van Gogh, the cow had always been part of the landscape, a noble symbol of agriculture and rustic splendour. Baselitz’s representation, by contrast, places a distorting magnifying lens upon its lumbering head; as in Jean Dubuffet’s Cows, Grass, Foliage series of the previous decade, he recasts it as is primal imbecile, a mute and cumbersome being. Baselitz’s cow retreats behind a furry of explosive painterly brushwork and a set of formal ambiguities that serve to unhinge its physical grandeur, embroiling it in a subtle process of dissolution.
The ‘Fracture’ paintings may be seen as a product of the diverse artistic influences to which Baselitz was subjected during the early stages of his career. Most often understood as a pioneer of Neo-Expressionism – a vividly gestural revival of figurative painting that swept both Germany and America during the late 1970s – Baselitz’s outlook was in fact informed by traditions stretching as far back as the Renaissance. In 1965, just two years before the present work, Baselitz had travelled to Florence on a six month scholarship, where he had admired the Mannerists’ ‘addiction to excess, a tangle of tendrils and artifices, coldness and devotion’ (G. Baselitz, November 1961, quoted in Georg Baselitz: Paintings 1960-83, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1983, p. 24). His fascination with the perspectival ambiguities and fragmentations that defined this aesthetic may be seen to underpin the dissections and repetitions of his subsequent fractured canvases. Baselitz’s collection of sixteenth-century prints, particularly those of Hendrick Goltzius and the School of Fontainebleau, also expanded during these years, as did his more contemporary admiration for the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Having previously encountered the work of Jackson Pollock and Phillip Guston in travelling exhibitions in Berlin, Baselitz’s own richly gestural vocabulary was nourished by exposure to this widespread language. Born of the disjunction between these diverse visual sources, Die Kuh bears witness to an artistic language in the process of formation: a language in which surface, form and subject matter would come to exist in a perpetually fractured dialogue. Reflective of Baselitz’s own existential anxiety, it is a work that questions the security of representational strategies in the post-War era.