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“Extremes of formalism, combined with a visionary intensity of expression, also characterize the two largest and most ambitious paintings of the early 1980s [Nachtessen in Dresden (Dinner in Dresden) (Kunsthaus Zurich) and Der Brückechor (The Brücke Chorus)]. Both in content and in form, they are the outstanding examples of this period of Baselitz’s work. Significantly, Baselitz dedicated them to the Expressionist artists who belonged to the Dresden group Die Brücke. These two works represent the culmination in a line of evolution that begins with Das Strassenbild and takes in all the impulses derived from sculpture; they also mark the transition to a radically new approach to the figure and to representation in general, with which the artist aims to open up new areas of iconography” (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich, 1989, p. 193).
Painted on a monumental scale of nearly ten feet by fifteen feet, Der Brückechor (The Brücke Chorus) (1983) is a masterpiece by Georg Baselitz. Exhibited in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, it is the sister painting to the seminal Nachtessen in Dresden (Dinner in Dresden) now held in the Kunsthaus Zürich. Together, these two works mark the triumphant culmination of the artist’s achievements to that date, and a turning point in his practice. As you cast your gaze across the painterly landscape of this staggering painting you are met by four faces, engulfed in vivid color. From left to right, the chromatic scales shift from brilliant blue, to canary yellow, to rose pink, to scarlet and inky black. Impulsive gestures cover vast swaths of territory to build blocks of vibrant abstract color. At the same time, these painterly strokes are deeply expressive, creating a profound and symbolic figuration. With their wide stares and open mouths, the giant figures have a remarkable, spectral quality. Like saints on an altarpiece, they cast their glow from above onto the viewer beneath them. Painted upside down, these figures represent the key figures of the Die Brücke (The Bridge) expressionist movement. Hovering between the bowing figure of Nolde and the figure of Schmidt-Rottluff conducting his prayers is the floating head of Edvard Munch. As the artist has proclaimed, “Munch was my starting point” (G. Baselitz quoted in, Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2007, p. 31). In this masterpiece, with its explosive iconography and awesome color, we see Baselitz professing his great admiration for his forebear. Indeed in Baselitz’s great composition, where the world has been turned on its head, only Munch appears the right way round. Out of the maelstrom of brushstrokes, Baselitz conjures up a haunting and contorted cry reminiscent of The Scream (1893). Der Brückechor has been exhibited in major museum retrospectives of the artist’s work throughout its history. These include Vancouver Art Gallery, Carnegie Institute, Milwaukee Art Museum, Kunsthaus Zürich and Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf.
In the mid-1970s, Baselitz moved to Derneburg, near Hildesheim and took up a professorship at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe (1977–1982) and the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in West Berlin (1983–1988 and 1992–2003). During this period the artist began to divide his time between Germany and Italy, opening himself up to a wealth of new color and painterly freedom. He began to embrace heavier subject matter on a new and impressive monumental scale, with variations on compositions by Munch or re-interpretations of Christian narratives such as The Brücke Chorus and Dinner in Dresden. The compositions of these paintings are loosely based upon the traditional arrangement of figures used by artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Emil Nolde, in depicting the sacred Last Supper.
Situating his figures in a similar, horizontal row, Baselitz has replaced Christ and his apostles with the artists of Die Brücke, the vanguard German Expressionist group established in Dresden in 1905 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Otto Müller, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl and joined by Emil Nolde for a time. As Andreas Franzke has described, “the arrangement of the simplified marionette-like figures in this work has something solemn and theatrical about it; there is a hint of an almost religious intensity of utterance, which is reinforced by the brilliance of the color. In the light of such a painting, a turn to religious subject-matter comes to appear as a logical next step. Characteristically, however, Baselitz combines that step with a fundamental reorientation of his compositional principles” (A. Franzke, op. cit., p. 194).
In Der Brückechor, we find Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in the center of the painting, Otto Müller to his left, the figure of Emil Nolde to the far right and Edvard Munch’s disembodied head floating mysteriously to the right of center. As in other analogous, contemporary paintings by the artist including: Edvards Geist (Edvard’s Spirit) and Edvards Kopf (Edvard’s Head), “Munch is unmistakably being evoked rather than depicted. The painters who belonged to Die Brücke were also very much drawn to Munch; and so it is quite logical for Baselitz to incorporate this figure, with whom he identifies himself so strongly in Der Brückechor: Munch’s phantom makes its terrifying apparition in the midst of a clearly defined Expressionist line-up” (A. Franzke, op. cit., p. 194).
In Dinner in Dresden, we see Baselitz’s figures with their mask-like faces, sitting behind a table with oranges at either side of their hands; an explicit reference to the Temptation in the Garden of Eden and the Last Supper. In Der Brückechor, we see the table now replaced with a loosely drawn melody-line weaving across the figures’ ankles. Müller’s hands appear clenched in tight fists, while the others hold their hands clasped in prayer. Their rounded mouths are all open, as if to sing, but their wild, wide-eyes suggest the hysteria of Munch’s harrowing Scream. In this painting Baselitz marries Nolde’s Pentecost to the agitated brushwork and existentialism of Munch. As Andreas Franzke has described, “even more extreme, in its figurative syntax, is the row of standing figures in the later painting The Brücke Chorus. Here, dramatic and visionary expression even more insistently dominates the picture. The figures are reduced to terse formulas reminiscent of woodcarvings. Arranged vertically in a line, they are charged with tension by harsh discords of color and dissonant contour lines. The consistency of the paint alternates between a relatively heavy impasto and a transparency that allows underlying layers to show through. Just as in the sculptures made a short time before the marks left by the artist’s tools are visible and part of the effect, in these paintings the strokes of the brush are factors that underpin formal relationships. Gesture has lost most of the intrinsic importance that it had in Baselitz’s earlier paintings” (A. Franzke, op. cit., p. 193).
Throughout his oeuvre, Baselitz has consistently used color as a method of challenging the cognitive and representational function of his painting. As Danilo Eccher has described, “[in Baselitz’s painting] color, like gesture, does not merely support the figure, its task is not cosmetic, the chromatic element plays an active and leading role in the work, by outlining a narrative that takes shape in an unexpected blinding luminosity or in a mysterious darkness. The atmosphere that envelops and absorbs the iconic design is thus rendered even more unreal by the shock of disobedient over-flowing color, color that brings its own rhythm and its own narrative expression to the work” (D. Eccher, “Georg Baselitz: In Praise of Painting,” in Baselitz, exh.cat., Bologna, Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, 1997, p. 31). From the earthy tones of the 1960s, to the shades of green and vivid sky blue in the 1970s, to the acid tones of violet, flesh pink and bright orange of the 1980s, Baselitz explored the possibilities of color, building upon the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the history of German Expressionism, while radically reinvigorating the practice of painting.
From the beginning of the 1980s, Baselitz had begun creating ever-bolder canvases, with his important series of Orange Eaters and Drinkers undertaken in searing oranges and yellows reminiscent of the Fauvists. This exploration of color reached its dramatic climax in the extraordinary paintings, Der Brückechor and Dinner in Dresden where the colors: shining pink, canary yellow, scarlet, ink blue and black, sing from their monumental canvases. As the artist has described, “in The Brücke Chorus, it’s as though a cylinder seal had been rolled across the canvas from left to right, so that as each new figure appears, the colouration changes from yellow to blue and light to dark. I suppose you could call that the concept of this picture” (G. Baselitz, in conversation with D. Koepplin, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London, 2010, p. 127).
In Der Brückechor, the artist develops a more deliberately crude method of working, pouring out all of his energy, in an intense physical labor, using thick impulsive strokes of the brush to lend an emotionally charged atmosphere to the monumental canvas. As Baselitz has described, working on the vast-scale canvas of Der Brückechor was both a radical, new, mental exercise and a challenge to his practice, as well as a great physical commitment. As the artist explained in 1985: ‘Two paintings that I’ve done in the same large horizontal format as The Night over the past two years, Dinner in Dresden and The Brücke Chorus, show several adjacent figures. Their large horizontal format was a natural consequence of putting several figures next to each other, which would have been the same size in vertical pictures. You have to imagine that you are working on a picture and you’re standing 50 to 60 cm. away from the white canvas in order to start drawing something on it. Once you’ve made up your mind that there are only going to be two or three figures on this huge canvas, then you simply have to take the consequences and magnify everything you do. That is something I’ve never done before. I have never dealt with the abstraction of enlargement in this way. Everything I’d done so far was more or less life-sized or just slightly enlarged” (G. Baselitz, in conversation with D. Koepplin, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London, 2010, p. 125).
The same year Der Brückechor was completed, Baselitz held his first-ever exhibition of sculpture, at the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne. Rather like his practice of making sculpture with giant tree trunks and an axe and chainsaw, Baselitz’s monumental canvases pushed the artist to new levels of ambition. Each canvas, like the carved contours of each wooden sculpture, bears the marks of the artist’s hand. As he explained, “when I’m not satisfied with the plans I’ve designed, when the execution doesn’t work, I can’t simply adjust the details and put the whole thing together like a puzzle. Instead I have to re-work the whole picture each time… then there’s also the oversize of the individual objects. I think the outcome can be compared with my first sculpture” (G. Baselitz, in conversation with D. Koepplin, in D. Gretenkort (ed.), Georg Baselitz: Collected Writings and Interviews, London, 2010, p. 127).