‘These motifs are intimate, there’s a personal connection… the motifs I paint – birds, landscapes, portraits, interiors – are actually very personal, very private and consequently uninteresting in terms of their content’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in conversation with Evelyn Weiss, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London 2010, p. 32).
Exuding life and energy from its impulsive brushstrokes, Georg Baselitz’s emphatically visceral work, Haubentaucher, 1972, was executed during the decisive period of 1969-72 when Baselitz first began to paint his canvases in the now signature style of working upside-down. Rendered on a monumental scale, Haubentaucher is an important example of the artist’s iconic early inverted works, examples of which are held in the collections of the Tate Modern, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Depicting a great crested grebe in a forest setting, it is one of the very first works in this innovative series to make use of the technique of fingermalerei, or finger painting, to accentuate the gestural and material application of the paint, encouraging the viewer to engage with the work’s palpable tactility. Through the artist’s particular compositional and textural virtuosity, Baselitz creates a work of touching allegorical resonance, deeply compelling and articulate: ‘[what lies in front of me on the canvas] exists somewhere [already] behind the canvas or under the floor, and needs only to be captured, that it needs to be drawn and made visible... I’m a German artist and what I do is rooted in the German tradition’ (G. Baselitz, in R. Shiff, ‘Georg Baselitz Grounded,’ Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, ‘Negotiating History: German Art and the Past,’ Chicago 2002, p. 49).
Responding to and embracing the artist’s German history, the present work is an eloquent example of the way in which Baselitz engaged with his nation’s troubled past by merging two powerful Germanic themes: natural history and the forest. The forest depicted in the present work also takes on a bibliographic quality for it was in 1972 that Baselitz relocated to a new studio in Musbach on the edge of the Black Forest. By inverting the mystical woodland scene in Haubentaucher, Baselitz furnishes the viewer with an entirely unconventional way of seeing, an ontological shift in perspective that encourages interaction with the very processes of painting and the materiality of the paint. Baselitz began to explore the concept of the inverted motif with an upturned figure in Waldarbeiter, 1967-68, however, it was only in 1969 that he fully engaged with the critical potential of turning an entire composition upside down as shown in the woodland scene Der Wald auf dem Kopf. As numerous scholars have observed, the forest is of particular national significance in Germany: ‘not in any modern nation in the world has the spirit of identification with the forest [Waldgefühl] remained so vital’ (E. Canetti, quoted in N. Rosenthal (ed.), Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2007, p. 121). Considered in this light, Haubentaucher is positioned in an interesting trajectory whereby the inverted landscape not only encourages a fresh engagement with painting but also subverts the forest’s symbolic power as signifier for the nation. A forceful representation of post-war dislocation, the artistic statement that Haubentaucher makes finds its verbal counterpart in Baselitz’s succinct remark: ‘I was born into a destroyed order and I didn’t want to re-establish an order’ (G. Baselitz, interviewed by D. Kuspit, in ‘Goth to Dance,’ in Artforum 33, Summer 1995, p. 76).
Certain birds, like the historically resonant Adler or eagle which stood as an emblem of the Nazi party and standard of ancient Rome are, much like the motif of the forest, inextricably bound up in Germanic folklore and the cultural memory of the people. The artist’s interest in birds, however, also resonates on a deeply personal level. In his youth he forged a strong friendship with a wildlife photographer who would go on to give him a book of all the photographs he took which Baselitz referred to as his ‘motif book’. For Baselitz, ‘these motifs are intimate, there’s a personal connection… the motifs I paint – birds, landscapes, portraits, interiors – are actually very personal, very private and consequently uninteresting in terms of their content’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in conversation with Evelyn Weiss, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London 2010, p. 32).
In Haubentaucher Baselitz takes his exploration into the substance of paint and the process of painting into a new dimension by using his fingers to modulate parts of the surface of the canvas. As a result, he furnished a new intimacy and physical connection with his materials; a relationship that is apparent in the deft splatterings and streaks of paint in the present work which accentuate our belief in the human drama wrought on the surface of the canvas. While Baselitz’s finger painting puts emphasis on surface shapes and textures, it also points to larger issues not only of art historical precedent but also the role of the artist. Stylistically, the overlapping, clustered application of colour with the artist’s fingers in Haubentaucher owes much to the aesthetic of the New York School. Having seen the exhibition The New American Painting in 1958 that included works by Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still fourteen years before executing the present work it is clear that these works had a pervading influence on Baselitz. As Norman Rosenthal remarks, Baselitz ‘has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history, to make them 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,’ Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2007, p. 15).