Two major retrospectives are presented simultaneously in Basel. At Beyeler, dive head first into the powerful artistry and brutal expressiveness of Georg Baselitz (until 29 April), at Schaulager, wander through the flow of an artist’s mind with Bruce Nauman (until 26 August).

Georg Baselitz, Beyeler

The upside-down Georg Baselitz

Beyeler celebrates the 80th birthday of Baselitz, one of the most original and irreverent artists of modern times. The hand-picked selection that covers his entire career is a touching tribute to the excesses of an artist provocateur who has now mellowed with age. Rarely has the foundation’s Renzo Piano architecture worked so well.

Artist provocateur

The reputation of Baselitz, the artist who made his name with upside-down paintings, hinges on a succession of scandals, but none too great to obscure his radical talent. The 80 paintings and 10 sculptures from 1959 onwards presented in Basel are a shortcut through the career of an artist who courted controversy from the very beginning.

“The things that I made had to be ugly. That was important to me; they had to be aggressive, they had to be off-putting.”

Georg Baselitz

Non-conformist

It was a strange strategy, but it worked. Lesser artists might not have survived the various incidents that contributed to making Baselitz one of the most feared and revered artists of our times:


  • Expulsion from art school at the age of 18 for not espousing the prevailing socialist ideology of the DDR, where he lived.

  • The confiscation by the public prosecutor of an ‘immoral’ painting from his first solo exhibition in 1963: Die grobe Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain) shows a midget in school clothes with his fly down, masturbating an enormous penis.

  • The dubious reception of Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The wood on its head), that ushered in the Baselitz hallmark upside-down figures in 1969.

  • The accusation of fascism with Modell fur eine Skulptur (Model for a Sculpture) at the Venice Biennale in 1980 (the sculpture of an inclined figure was seen as brandishing the Nazi salute).

  • The hysteria generated by a 2013 interview in which Baselitz expressed his doubts on whether a woman would ever have enough character to become as great an artist as a man.

“Art is discarded swiftly if it is too conformist.”

Georg Baselitz

Neo-expressionism

Born in 1938, Baselitz endured the bombing of Dresden, the capitulation and the division of his country during and after the second world war. Brought up in Soviet-occupied East Germany, he arrived in Berlin to attend art college in a state of western art virginity. Heaped in Soviet-style realism, he responded to American expressionism, and to the discovery of the much-admired Jackson Pollock, by reconnecting to his own German roots.

“All German painters have a neurosis with Germany’s past: war, the postwar period most of all…”

Georg Baselitz

While modern art went off on the tangent of abstraction, Baselitz founded the neo-expressionist movement inspired by German expressionism, the ‘degenerate art’ so hated by the Third Reich. In honor of the place where the fiercely nationalistic artist was born, Hans Georg Kern adopted the name of Baselitz.

Beyeler enhances the hidden beauty of Baselitz 

As the years have passed, the artist has mellowed, especially in the new works that are presented in public for the first time at Beyeler. Instead of encountering Baselitz’s hallmark brutal brushstrokes and sculptures chain-sawed in wood, we bathe in art that is full of expression and more tender than expected.

The celebration of the 80 year-old artist by the Beyeler foundation comes in time to discover Baselitz’s hidden poetic nature. The airy rooms of the foundation give the oeuvre of the controversial artist a delicate poignancy that comes as a complete surprise.

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Basel / Washington DC

The Baselitz exhibition has been organized in cooperation with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, where it will be shown subsequently in a modified form. In parallel with the presentation at the Fondation Beyeler, the Kunstmuseum Basel will be exhibiting a selection of Baselitz’s works on paper.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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