Visitors to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
have the opportunity to see Georg Baselitzs work Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale, 2008, considered by critics to be one of his finest achievements and a masterwork of European painting.
Installed in gallery 103 and part of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao collection since 2010, this work is currently on view within the exhibition Selections from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection II, which will open to the public on November 15. One of the most prominent artists of the post-World War II era and one of the greatest inspirations for generations of younger artists, Georg Baselitz was present.
Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale is a series of sixteen large paintings (each one measures 300 x 250 cm), subdivided into two groups, eight of the works featuring colorful brushstrokes against a white background and the other eight with quieter colors on black. What makes the series cohere is the repetition in each painting of the same compositional pattern: the inverted figure of two men, sitting side by side, their penises exposed to view and hands solemnly at rest on their legs. This two-figure motif originates in the celebrated 1924 portrait by Otto Dix, The artists parents (Die Eltern des Künstlers). As occurs in many of Baselitzs finest works, the sixteen-part series refers deferentially to the art of the past.
From this context, Baselitz composes an elaborate symphony of historical references (Mrs. Lenin is in fact Lenin himself, known for his many disguises, and the nightingale is Stalin, known, among other things, for his voice and his interest in poetry) interwoven with autobiographical allusionsBaselitz was just seven years old when Dresden was firebombed and his family was forced to flee as refugees.
About society in East Germany the artist says, I was educated in an almost secular version of religious fanaticism. Lenin, Stalin and the lost war led to a new society being established in Germany. It was a socialist, communist, anti-fascist society and was clearly marked out to follow the politics of bygone days, with no choice and no critical thought about alternative political systems.
All sixteen works have their own individual titles, something that adds further layers of meaning, both to each painting and to the series as a whole. As Helsinki Art Museum Director Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén suggests, if the work as a whole achieves full significance from an initial platform of dictators, European history, and the history of art, each individual painting in the series is a private melody inspired by Baselitzs own personal encounters with other individuals, most of them artists, or by what he thinks about them. The paintings also feature puns and enigmatic phrases associated with artists like Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach.
The series makes an extraordinary companion piece to the major works of contemporary German art already in the GMB Collection, which has artworks by such leading names as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, and Gerhard Richter. It also complements the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation collection, which has a number of works by several of these artists.
Georg Baselitz is one of the leading European artists of the post-World War II period and a genuine benchmark for generations of younger artists.
Born Hans-Georg Kern in Deutschbaselitz, Saxony (later part of East Germany) in 1938, Baselitz moved to East Berlin in 1956 to study painting at the Academy of Fine & Applied Arts, from which he was subsequently expelled for political immaturity. He continued his studies at the Fine Arts Academy in West Berlin, where he settled in 1958. It was at this time he adopted the name Georg Baselitz as a tribute to his home town.
Baselitzs first one-man show at the Werner & Katz gallery, Berlin, in 1963 provoked a public scandal. Two paintings, The Big Night Screwed (Die groβe Nacht im Eimer, 1962/63, today in the Ludwig Museum, Cologne) and Naked Man (Nackter Mann, 1962), portrayed figures with huge, erect penises, and were confiscated for being immoral. The lawsuit that followed dragged on until 1965, when the paintings were finally returned to him.
His work arises from a deep-felt commitment to the spiritual, cultural and social void of the postwar years in Germany. As he once put it, Germany was empty. Everything, intellect, tradition, had gone. People had to be re-educated to be democratic again. And art had to be brought to Germany.
Featuring a return to figuration, Baselitzs oeuvre harks back to the German Expressionist tradition of the early 20th century, and to artists like Edvard Munch, and even 16th-century German master Matthias Grünewald. However, as Baselitz stresses, the things I was doing had to be ugly. This was important to me; they had to be aggressive, unpleasant. They needed to be extraordinary not for their beauty, eloquence, or elegance, but for their ugliness and stupidity: bad, horrible images.
In 1965 he spent six months in Villa Romana in Florence and, from that time on, has traveled regularly and enjoyed long stays in Italy. In the late sixties he painted his first pictures with the motif inverted, in a bid to transgress and to get away from the markedly narrative and figurative nature of his early work. No painting, no paper, has a natural orientation in itself, no up, or down, right, or left. I mean, simply, an agreed form, a convention. And Ive got to the stage where I can produce paintings that contradict that convention, by inverting the motifs, says Baselitz.
In the 1970s Baselitz started to use his fingers to paint, later using his mouth and feet, as a result of his need to be intimately committed to the image, not just mentally or spiritually but also physically, through his body: Anyone drawing in the sand gets easily to the beach.
1976 saw Baselitzs first retrospective at the Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst in Munich, and in 1980 he represented Germany at the Venice Biennial with his first sculpture Model for a sculpture (Modell für eine Skulptur, 1979/80). For decades he worked as a teacher, first at the Karlsruhe State Fine Arts Academy and subsequently at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Today, Georg Baselitz lives and works by Lake Ammersee in Bavaria and in Imperia, Italy.