Georg Baselitz Smuggles a Suite of Swastikas into the Heart of the English Aristocracy
Georg Baselitz has a long history as a provocateur, stretching back to his expulsion from art school in the former East Germany for “political immaturity,” and hitting an early peak with the confiscation from his Berlin gallery of a 1963 painting in which a misshapen dwarf modelled on Hitler proffers his penis to the viewer. He came to the wider attention of the international art world in 1980, when he presented a large-scale sculpture in which a bound golem seems to struggle up from the floor, his right hand raised in fascist salute. Taking a different tack, on at least two occasions (first two years ago and again last week) he controversially explained away the relative dominance of the art world by male artists as symptomatic not of any institutional bias but rather due to his opinion that “women don’t paint very well.”
All of which makes it slightly surprising to discover that he has been selected to exhibit a series of new works at that last and seemingly most secure bastion of the English gentry, Glyndebourne. This is the stately home on the grounds of which John Christie, in a move of which Charles Foster Kane might have approved, built an opera house for his soprano wife. The festival’s program is a staple of the old aristocracy’s social calendar, opening alongside the first day of the Lord’s Test match and the Boat Race. Yet, despite its rather fusty associations, the opera house is thriving, having succeeded in broadening its appeal to the extent that the 1,200-seat auditorium is sold out every night for the duration of the summer.
It is in the context of this attempt to reach out to new audiences that we should perhaps understand Glyndebourne’s collaboration with contemporary art gallery White Cube. The project has been realized in a compact new pavilion (designed by the London-based architectural firm Carmody Groarke) that perches elegantly on its grounds. The pop-up space will, over the course of three summer seasons, house new work by an artist from the gallery’s roster, beginning with the 77-year-old enfant terrible. Among the reasons for extending the invitation to Baselitz was, according to curator Andrea Schlieker, his love of music, albeit German folk music. Any claims for the artist’s close affinity to Glyndebourne’s musical program were rather undermined by his statement to The Guardian that “I don’t even like classical music that much—it bores me. Except for Bach. But he didn’t write opera.”
Taking inspiration from music, dance, and other areas (of which more later), Baselitz has created a suite of paintings, each a variation on the theme of four legs springing out like spokes from a central hub, like four-legged Triskelions. High heels push off from the inside edges of the gilt frame, as if attempting to spin it into a wheel, and stretched across the four walls the paintings seem to chase each other around the room. That their four corners make poor wheels lends them a kind of urgent, ugly ungainliness which is characteristic of Baselitz’s best work. Less typical is the light, skittering line in which the legs are sketched, a twitchy expressionism that draws to mind Egon Schiele, even Baselitz’s stable mate at White Cube, Tracey Emin. Painted with brushes and sticks, the splatters and spots that litter the painting attest to the speed with which they were composed, while smudges of translucent, veil-like color suggest that the canvases were laid on the floor, with thin washes of pigment allowed to swim around and eventually pool before soaking into the surface of the material.
Schlieker talks about how the Baselitz’s treatment of feet and legs can be traced back to the artist’s early “Pandemonic Feet” series, albeit a “light, frivolous” take on the same theme. She sees “windmills, turntables, clock hands” in the paintings, tying their sense of movement and velocity back to the themes of music and dance upon which the series is ostensibly premised. The paintings’ titles reference music or sound (Yesterday Wagner, today Bach (Gestern Wagner, heute Bach) (2014), Brass Music, Twittering (Gezwitscher) (2014)) and it’s possible to imagine those noises over the clatter of heels against the frames.
None of which can distract from the fact that these paintings are, immediately and unmistakably, swastikas. For all of the expressiveness of the marks, their sense of movement and speed, the curiously old-fashioned clash of ink blue pigment against gold frame, it is glaringly obvious that Baselitz has smuggled a suite of swastikas into the heart of the English establishment. It’s a remarkably provocative statement expressed in a visual language—figurative, expressionistic, frivolous—that seems designed to disguise it. Something of the old rebel remains, it seems.
Georg Baselitz is on view at White Cube at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, May 21–Aug. 30, 2015.