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Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin presents a virtual exhibition of works by Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz, Gerstl 2018. Pencil and pinfeather on paper, 66 x 50,1 cm. 26 x 193/4 in. Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. Photo: Jochen Littkemann.

BERLIN.- There is a remarkable painting in the Picasso room at the Kunstmuseum in Basel: a full-length portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire with his muse, Marie Laurencin. It was Henri Rousseau who painted this wonderful picture. Only I had remembered it as a self-portrait of Rousseau with Madame Rousseau. Marie Laurencin was Apollinaire’s muse, Clémence Rousseau was Rousseau’s muse.

As it happens, Franz Marc painted a portrait of Rousseau for Der Blaue Reiter. And Picasso also had a self-portrait by Henri. There’s a quite intimate photograph, tak-en by André Gomés, of Picasso holding Rousseau’s self-portrait in his right hand and the portrait of Rousseau’s wife in his left hand.

Picasso, that constructor of novel objects and audacious paintings, loved Rousseau, the painter of things in rigidified grace. Even Rousseau’s gaze in his self-portrait is stiff, directed at his own work, in which objects that we ourselves are familiar with look different – Gothic, Byzantine, somehow not the way we are used to seeing them.

It wasn’t just the Egyptian Picasso, other image constructors – Kandinsky, for instance – also had pictures of Rousseau. Vasily had the little canvas The Painter and His Wife (1899). De Chirico drew Picasso and friends sitting beneath Rousseau’s self-portrait with palette. And didn’t Beckmann paint Rousseau’s hot-air balloon and his street? I myself have Rousseau’s red lithograph The War (c. 1895), which was also done by Ensor and by Uccello; there’s something similar by Böcklin and also by Stefano della Bella.

I have painted a lot of portraits of my wife and myself in recent years, many showing us dressed as others – sometimes as my parents, sometimes as Lenin and Stalin, but mostly as Otto Dix’s parents. That double portrait of Dix’s parents is also in the Basel Kunstmuseum, with another version in Hanover. So it was to be that kind of double portrait of Elke and my-self, in the guise of Marie Laurencin and Apollinaire, bearing in mind that the beautiful frame of that painting in Basel was also important – in my memory, not face to face.

Last year I bought a lot of old Italian frames and painted portraits to go in them – of Winfried Dierske, of myself, my wife – along with variants on the Rayski pictures from 1960. So far so good. In the end I didn’t put the portraits into the old frames, but Rousseau’s double portrait in Basel in its old painted frame still haunted me. My mind was a jumble of portraits, frames and Rousseau, our anti-realist painter.

Finally, in Italy, I painted Elke and my-self appearing as nudes with the faces of Madame Rousseau and Henri. It turned into a flat-iron and racing-horse construct, which was not at all what I wanted. So, forget that and start again differently, at the beginning, without stimulation, soberly, simply, modestly – yet, for all that, fixat-ed on Rousseau’s marvellous self-portrait (1902–03) with his sawtooth mous-tache: the self-portrait that Picasso once owned. It went well, it turned out well and Romanticism won the day. Following that I made a small detour and painted Madame Rousseau, but of course that wasn’t a self-portrait by an artist, it was a portrait of his muse.

There’s a book in my library by Ludwig Goldscheider: Five Hundred Self-portraits from Antique Times to the Present Day (1936). I leafed through it, but didn’t find much that was of use to me. A review in the Saarbrücker Zeitung described it as “a picture book for grown-ups, in the best sense, a book for tired eyes that can no longer read and just want to gaze.” And, at the very end, as a book “that urges us to modesty and humility.” That’s how it is, that’s how it was. What was in my mind, what did I love? Which artists, which self-portraits? Were there any self-portraits by Pollock, for instance? In fact, there is a small portrait of a Mexican boy; it was shown in an exhibition not long ago alongside a very small self-portrait by Rothko.

So, that set me up for the next few months in the studio: Rousseau, Madame, Munch, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff. Marc painted a portrait of Rousseau, I paint Marc, de Kooning, Tracey Emin, Modersohn-Becker, Clyfford Still, and so on. I also love Arnold Schoenberg’s self-portrait, and his music. Sadly Wolfgang Rihm doesn’t paint.

The portraits should look as if they have been appliquéd to the canvas, with the background black and as flat as possible, spaceless, the head placed on it, mostly with a lot of white paint, applied quite thickly as in the last few years, but always with Rousseau in mind – without descend-ing into a stupor, or into reality, not into the truth of Ingres, but lingering at Romanticism, and at humility. Laughter allowed.

--Georg Baselitz

A virtual tour of the exhibition can be seen here.

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