Georg Baselitz – an Art of Disharmony – Part 1

Texts in the category Baselitziana are based upon Feet too Big, an essay by Richard Schiff, in the Royal Academy catalogue for the 2007 exhibition; Baselitz.

“I proceed from a state of disharmony” Georg Baselitz, 1988

The Big Night Down the Drain

The Big Night Down the Drain
Royal Academy

During the Summer of 1950, five years after the end of World War II, a number of noted commentators came together in Darmstadt, Germany, for a three day symposium, under the auspices of the exhibition The Image of Man in our Times. Among the speakers at this so-called ‘Darmstadt Gespräch’ was Theodor Adorno, who took the opportunity to condemn examples of modern art that sought to create harmonious representations of the world, labelling them backward-looking in their attempts to restore what the recently ended war had destroyed. He called for modern art to break with the past, as;
       Every attempt to achieve harmony directly in modern art … shows that …        the … connection to the past … should … be broken

Yet, as Richard Schiff points out, the past is with us in the present, although in the case of postwar Germany the connection between the two was a negative one, one of disharmony. Therefore art could only find its place in postwar society if it accepted this condition of disharmony. In this narrative the only possible reconciliation, between art of the past and art of the present, was to acknowledge the impossibility of reconciliation and move on.

Here, modern art, in its discontinuity with the past, exists in a state of disjointed temporality. It is the understanding of the negative environing context of the past, what Schiff calls its “material force”, which ambitious representational painting should seek to reflect in its images.

In this analysis figurative artists need to be aware of the historical condition into which they are born. This is the case with Baselitz, who defines postwar society as a “destroyed order”. Attempts to rebuild the façade of a culturally ordered society, through a process of harmonious representation, would be “… a fantasy at best and at worst an ideological imposition on others”. Therefore Baselitz’s stated position, with regard to his work “I proceed from a state of disharmony, from ugly things”.
       The social value of art … lies in its potential to represent the ugly; and this        becomes the means of confronting twentieth-century history. (Schiff, 24)

Schiff details how Baselitz’s work achieves a literal representation of this ambition for ugliness, both in the images he creates and in the way in which he creates them. The figures in Baselitz’s work have an evident grossness, bodily features, from feet to penises to heads are crudely enlarged. They are painted without any regard for accuracy of representation. The desire for ugliness extends beyond the representational imagery created, it is also evident in the way in which they are painted. The painted marks he uses to construct the images are never allowed to approach the condition of calligraphy, that is they are never allowed to be elegant and expressive in themselves. The painted marks are also not allowed to harmonise together in their creation of representational details. As Schiff says, Adorno would have appreciated Baselitz’s art for its radical attempts at ‘keeping clear of aesthetic ideals’.

And yet Schiff professes to finding an ‘uncanny beauty’ in Baselitz’s art, how can this be ……. ?

To read Part 2 of this blog click here

Derek Hampson


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