Georg Baselitz Action Portraits: A Reflection Of The Artist’s Unconscious

The Britannia Street Gagosian gallery is currently showing the works of Georg Baselitz in Farewell Bill. The new Baselitz paintings are self-portraits that pay reverence to the great artist Willem de Kooning. Baselitz encountered Kooning’s gestural paintings, Woman I  and Woman II, as a student in Germany in 1958.  

 A traditional portrait depicts a realistic image of a person, through exact proportion and anatomical details, while gestural painting is done through an artist spontaneously putting paint on a canvas without any grand plan. An action painting is often interpreted as a reflection of the artist’s unconscious. Baselitz explores these conventionally separate art forms together and intentionally deprived himself of any overview of his canvas during his artistic process, making his self-portraits a reflection of both his outward appearance and psyche.

Baselitz makes the viewer aware of his creative process through his gestural painting style. The impressions of paint cans and footprints linger on the canvas as evidence of Baselitz’s artistic process. The whole composition comes together as a self-portrait, with recognizable facial features within the swirling muddle of colours. Baselitz has repeatedly depicted himself upside down, which is a common theme in his lifetime of work, wearing a hat with the word “ZERO,” the name of the paint manufacturer, sprawled across.

 Some Baselitz pieces are more recognizable as portraits, such as Auch wirt lern helmt mich (Able fwill red). For this piece, Baselitz has distinctively painted the background in a reddish coral and rendered the body in white outlined with black. He has added a slash of red for the tie and partially dotted his shirt. The only crossover between background and portrait is the red brushstroke that snakes from the background to form the lips of his face.

One of Baselitz’s more abstract pieces, Raum licht wiln echt mehr, is less recognizable as a self-portrait but conforms to the general pattern of his creative process. Baselitz has used a rather large “ZERO” hat, which for this piece could equally be his t-shirt. He has painted in the four corners of the canvas with different colours, which then converge at the centre of the work and face. For this particular piece, Baselitz has stuck mostly to black and gray though he has also used pale orange and green. On close inspection, it is possible to make out the vague oval shapes of black eyes that have been painted over with a discoloured white, and an orange slash descending from the hat that could be a nose. However, it is unclear if this is intentional or from a desperate attempt to find facial details amongst the chaos of colours. For this work, Baselitz really freed himself from adhering to a recognizable portrait, which makes it a more accurate reflection of his psyche.

George Baselitz is hot in London at the moment, with his work included in the British Museum show, Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation, and the upcoming exhibition in the Royal Academy, Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts from the Collection of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, opening in mid-March. The Gagosian show will run until March 29th.

Words: By Katherine Morais Photo: GEORG BASELITZ by Martin Müller courtesy Gagosian Gallery London © 2014