Elke
1976
Georg Baselitz
German, born 1938

Oil on canvas
98 1/2 x 75 inches

You can lose the model, but you don’t lose the subject. The painting takes its course but Elke comes in and out of the picture. It’s complicated. I begin with an idea, but as I work, the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea that I preconceived in advance and the picture that fights for its own life . . . . You have to fight the conventions of the genre and the subject itself in order to make something new. The point of portraiture is to leave the portrait behind so that you can go forward.[1]

 

Portraiture has always been one of the most fundamental ways of contemplating ourselves and our relationship with others. Greek legend has it that the first work of art ever made was a portrait from the silhouette of a loved one’s shadow cast upon the wall.[2] Such a minimal description was apparently enough to trigger a Corinthian woman’s memory of her departed lover. Although its form has changed radically over the centuries, and particularly during the twentieth century, portraiture has lost none of its attraction and intrigue. In an age of Conceptual art, large-scale Earth art projects, performance art, and site-specific art, portraiture quietly remains one of the most widely practiced forms of representation today. Every artist of note has engaged it in one way or another, often stretching its definition in new directions.

Among those who have significantly complicated our view of this ancient genre is the German artist Georg Baselitz. Over the past three decades, Baselitz has invented a series of pictorial strategies that range from the unconventional to the disorienting. His most well-known device in this regard is the practice of turning his figures upside down.

Prominent among these are images of the artist’s wife, Elke Kretzschmar Baselitz. Married to Baselitz for more than thirty years, Elke has been a part of the artist’s imagery almost from the beginning. The Elke paintings constitute the largest single group of Baselitz’s portraits, making them a constant, a kind of litmus of the artist’s representational wanderings. Moreover, they are a meditation on the open-ended evolution of the twentieth-century portrait, unfolding as it has from an analysis of a subject’s physical characteristics, personality, and moods, to an analysis of the artist.

Baselitz executed his first painting of Elke in 1969. The fact that the subject is upside down notwithstanding, it is a relatively traditional portrait. The artist focused his attention on the head and face, where in traditional portraiture the personality of the subject typically makes itself felt. Placing her head squarely in the center of the canvas, the artist depicted a beautiful but unsmiling woman with short-cropped hair. Those who know Elke would easily recognize her. The background of the portrait is a slightly foggy blue-gray which, along with Elke’s ambiguous expression, projects an edgy, melancholic atmosphere.

Subsequent portraits of Elke have been increasingly subjective. Elke II: Fingerpainting on Elke’s Head, 1972 (Private Collection), painted three years later, is also a shoulder-length portrait, but the mood is quite different. Elke stares out of the picture with bright-eyed enthusiasm. She is wearing a yellow blouse and is placed against a sparkling blue background. Two yellow daubs of paint, like butterflies, float in the lower right section of the painting. The artist, in a moment of self-mockery, says of the sweetness and optimism apparent in Elke II, “I probably had too much wine to drink when I painted that.” He then goes on to say, “The demands of the painting dictated the character of the portrait. I’m not trying to paint a story.”

Elke also downplays her role in the making of these portraits. “I was just available. We live very closely together since we met in 1958. We hardly spend any time apart. So I am always around . . . . In Georg’s paintings, the subject doesn’t always matter—if the image is a tree, a flower, a bird, or me. What is important is the painting itself.”3 Nonetheless, Elke is clearly an emotional vehicle, inspiring a mood or memory. She points out that the first portrait was inspired by a photograph taken while they were visiting friends in East Germany when the Berlin Wall still divided the country. “We were sitting at a table. It was a difficult and emotional moment. We were very happy to see our friends, but we were conscious of the separation that existed between East and West. We grew up in the East and then moved to the West. Unless you have experienced that kind of move, it’s hard to explain the conflicted feelings.” Through both Elke’s face and the sober atmosphere of the dull blue background in the painting, Baselitz imparts the ambiguous emotional tone associated with the memory of that day.

It is possible, then, to say that Elke’s psychological disposition at that moment is part of the meaning of the painting. For Baselitz, to read this type of content into his portraits is not inaccurate, but it is to read them backwards. He challenges himself essentially to deny or suppress specific emotions and focus on pure visual structure. Baselitz’s first instinct is to attack and dismantle his subject. He does not want his subject dictating how he should paint. In the end, he will settle for what he calls “neutrality,” but finally admits to the impossibility of that condition in portraiture. According to Baselitz, “Neutrality is a myth, but you cannot give up the fight. You have to fight the conventions of the genre and the subject itself in order to make something new.” It is tempting to think of Baselitz’s portraits in the same sense that Jasper Johns’s flag paintings are flags: they are and they are not. In both cases, the painting and its subject are flip sides of the same coin.

For Baselitz, the model is essentially an excuse to paint, to engage in the struggle of representation, to represent his process of constructing a painting through his subject. He paints his subjects upside down so that the subject cannot dominate that process. It’s important to know that Baselitz did not paint these early pictures right-side up and then, as a purely conceptual act, turn them upside down. Holding a photograph in one hand, he paints the image as being naturally upside down. This disorients and distances him not only from the image of Elke, but from the conventions of portraiture, so that what is left is an invention rather than a transcription. The integrity of Baselitz’s method is proven when one turns his pictures “right-side up.” They simply do not work. Their existence as a system of line, shape, and color is intrinsically wed to being painted upside down.

In a unique double portrait (Bedroom, 1975, North Carolina Museum of Art), Baselitz and Elke, both nude, sit in chairs side by side, looking away from each other in a distracted manner. Baselitz’s pinkish skin is placed against a blue background, while Elke’s dark flesh is contrasted with a background of warm reds and yellows. Both figures stand out, but their upside-down position and the expressive paint-handling employed to depict their forms neutralizes their differences. They are simply two entities that balance a composition, not unlike two apples in a Paul Cézanne still life.

By the time the artist painted the Modern Art Museum’s Elke, 1976, both the figure of Elke and her surrounding pictorial field had become increasingly expressive and more abstract. The subject remains seated but not on a chair. As if to suggest a chair-like support, Baselitz adds a huge brushstroke underneath the seat of the model. A typical interior setting has been replaced by an abstract, gestural field of brushmarks, and Elke’s body is intertwined with a field that radiates an explosive, painterly velocity. Large arcing gestures are puzzled together with tonal zones that coalesce into stormy grays and blues, with occasional bursts of pink and green. This new pictorial energy is made even more forceful by the increased size of the 1970s portraits. In portraits from the mid-1970s forward, Elke’s body becomes increasingly mutable and at the mercy of the artist’s intuitive distortions. A tremendous plasticity sweeps everything together so that blunt cursive gestures, filigree strokes, drips, splatters, broken scumbles, and opaque overpainting run into one dancing optical medley. The potency is in the allusiveness. The figure turns into ground, imagery becomes abstraction, and vice versa. The model and the painting have become one.

Michael Auping




[1] Georg Baselitz. Quotes from the artist are from conversations with the author, 5–6 December 1996.

[2] On this subject, see Robert Rosenblum’s excellent essay, “The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism,” The Art Bulletin (December 1957): 279–90. Also, George Levitine’s addendum, The Art Bulletin (December 1958): 329–31.