Georg Baselitz at the Royal Academy

Baselitz is a German painter and sculptor. I thought that I knew nothing about him at all, but when I got to the exhibition several of the paintings turned out to be familiar.

Baselitz was born in East Germany, his father had been a member of the Nazi party, and he was studying at an art college in West Berlin when the Berlin Wall went up and separated him from his family and home town. So it’s not surprising that a lot of history and politics gets into his paintings or that they tend to be a bit angry. In fact, his earlier paintings, which are figurative but distorted and blocky, are reminiscent of some of those similarly angry-looking Picassos.

The Woodmen

Later he developed a different quirk: upside-down paintings. They are, apparently, actually painted upside-down, but they look like they’ve just been hung that way. It’s a surprisingly effective way of transforming even quite mundane paintings into something more interesting, and the early examples are fairly mundane, as though the point of them is the upside-down-ness and so the paintings themselves are much more straightforward representational works than those he had been doing before. Interestingly, as the paintings then get more abstracted, they stay upside-down, but because the subject is less clear the upside-down-ness is also less obvious.

The Gleaner

More recently Baselitz has started producing ‘remix’ paintings: new versions of his early works. So, for example, there’s a painting, I think from the 60s, called ‘The Great Friends’ that depicts two people among ruins and in front of a fallen flag. The new version is the same design, but painted in different colours and with different technique; he’s taken to painting them on the floor, making much use of dripped paint. No doubt this is partially the normal looking back of an old man. It was noticeable in the Louise Bourgeois show at Tate Modern that she has also returned to motifs from her childhood as she gets older. But also it is surely related to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany stirring up the whole messy subject of C20th German history.

I got the audioguide for the exhibition, which was interesting if not exactly sparkling, and it included contributions from Baselitz. Rather admirably, he never made any attempt to tell you what the paintings were about, or explain their symbolism or even their personal significance for him. Everything he said was to do with how he painted them and what visual effect he wanted to create. For example, he said about one painting that he wanted as much of the canvas as possible left unpainted and he was pleased because he largely managed to get it right first time and didn’t need to do much overpainting. He didn’t provide any reason why he wanted the canvas left bare; presumably he thinks he paintings should speak for themselves.

» The exhibition website is short of useful pictures, so the two I’ve included are from other sources. They’re not really the examples I would have picked given a free choice, but I wanted some kind of pictures, so they’ll do. The top one, ‘Meissen Woodmen’, is from the National Gallery of Australia; the other is ‘The Gleaner’ from the Guggenheim in New York.


Rodin at the RA

I went to the big Rodin exhibition at the Royal Academy today. It offered one of the simplest of art pleasures – looking at striking objects. His work has real presence, and not just because it’s made out of big lumps of bronze or marble. Their status as representational work seemed less important than the sheer physicality of them.

That’s not entirely true, of course – you can’t separate it out in that way and pretend that they’d somehow be just as effective if they were abstracts. I’m not sure the claim would even mean anything. So what do I mean? I guess there’s a kind of impersonality to them. Whereas a painting is to some extent experienced as a window onto another reality, this work never had that kind of illusionistic quality; they are experienced much more directly as art-objects. Some of that is the medium, some of it is his style.

Much of the work in the show was fairly familiar — a lot of the exhibition is built around The Burghers of Calais, The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates Of Hell. I didn’t realise he’s done quite so many sculptures of nekkid girls embracing each other, though. They all had different titles — The Earth and Moon, or whatever — but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he just got a bit of a kick out of doing them. There were also various erotic drawings he’d done that featured girls prominently displaying their lady-bits, so I don’t think I’m jumping to any outrageous conclusions.

It made me think how few famous sculptors there are, especially since some of the most famous artists of the Renaissance (Bernini, Michelangelo) were sculptors. Between the Renaissance and abstraction, Rodin is almost the only really big-name sculptor I can think of, compared to the dozens of painters I could come up with at a moments notice. I guess the great ages of sculpture tend to be when it’s much in demand for architectural dressing; Greek temples and medieval and Renaissance churches seem to have been thick with the stuff. But still, that’s not really an adequate explanation. Even with sculpture relatively out of fashion, there were many thousands of statues, monuments, tombs and so on put up in the C17th – C19th, but somehow none of the sculptors managed to carve out a place in the public consciousness. Which I guess makes Rodin all the more exceptional.

Culture Nature

Modigliani at the RA

I went to see Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy today. In a sense, there was nothing very surprising about the exhibition since Amedeo Modigliani only really seems to have painted rather stylised portaits and very pink nudes, including this one of Joan Collins from 1917:

It (she?) looked pinker in real life.

The stylised portraiture is intriguing, because although the basic characteristics were fairly consistent — long neck, rounded shoulders, elongated face — and the paintings all have the Modigliani look about them, the overall effect varied considerably. Some came across as caricature, including this one:

Others have a rather impersonal quality that suggests that the particular model is almost irrelevant, that the subject is just a generic woman. This portrait of his lover/common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, seems to me to tend to fall into that category, although not as much as some of his other pictures of her:

To get a sense of how stylised the portraits are, this is a photo of Jeanne Hébuterne:

Many of the portraits did manage to look like portraits — like they showed a real personality rather than a caricature or a blank —but I didn’t note down any titles in the exhibition and haven’t managed to track down good pictures on the web to use in this post. Which is a bit unfair on Amedeo, but them’s the breaks. I did enjoy the exhibition; the best of the paintings have a real presence to them, and they’re never less than likeable.

The most intriguing of his stylisations is perhaps the blank eyes. Some of his portraits have irises, but most have blank eyes. I can only guess that he chose to leave the eyes blank because otherwise they were too distracting. In that sense they unbalance a portrait.

In Green Park (the nearest tube station) I was amused to see that someone had scratched out the eyes on a movie poster in what I would like to believe was a reference to Modigliani, but was probably just because they were bored. I didn’t have a camera, but here’s a reconstruction:

And finally, a bonus picutre. When googling Modigliani, I discovered Cyclommatus modigliani:

I assume the beetle is named after some other Modigliani — an entomological relative — but you never know, perhaps it was named by an art-loving beetlist.


‘China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795’ at the RA

The Royal Academy’s own website doesn’t seem to be working at the moment (Tibetan hackers?), but Goldman Sachs, the corporate sponsor of the show, have a Flash slideshow you can see here which gives an idea of what it’s like.

I found it a bit dull. The exhibition is huge and the quality of the items is obvious, but it seems a bit same-y; and (because it’s all court art?), it’s all rather formal and grand. I also found it surprisingly un-surprising, somehow. I don’t know much about C18th China (anything, really) so I would have expected it to be more interesting just out of novelty value, but somehow it all seemed rather familiar. Perhaps I just haven’t got the enough knowledge to see the subtleties, or perhaps it actually is all a bit repetitive. It might have been a good idea to get the audioguide. These very big exhibitions are always a bit off-putting anyway; if it was a quarter the size, it might have focussed my mind a bit.