Nothing I have to say about Georg Baselitz’s sculptures will do justice to their magnificence. And from the start, it must be clear that much of their magnificence has to do with the way they are exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Each monumental sculpture is given its own space, a space it devours with the intensity of its emotion, a space into which we are invited to become embroiled in this intensity. Though it is difficult to privilege any of the sculptures above others, walking around the curvature of the museum space to be met by the Dresdener Frauen was an unforgettable experience.
Placed at the top of the steps, and further raised on their pedestals, the monumental heads and the power of these women of Dresden are overwhelming. I stood still at a distance: their faces are frightening, deformed by a chainsaw to be made unrecognizeable. Painted yellow, in contrast to the works up until this point in the exhibition which are tainted with red, their colour emboldens the women. Their oversized heads are imposing, apparently towering over us, monumental. They look down on us, not to belittle us, but to remind us of the depth of their suffering. Dresdener Frauen is one of the only series of Baselitz sculptures that makes direct reference to German history, though of course it is everywhere present in the tragedy and violence of his sculpted figures. Made in 1989, these women prompt the awareness that the bombing of Dresden is still playing on the German conscience when the Berlin wall falls forty-four years later.
Georg Baselitz with Dresdner Frauen series, 1990, Wood and tempera © Georg Baselitz
Up close the womens' faces, like those of other sculptures, are lost to abstraction. The trees from which they are cut, and into which they are carved, hacked, and slashed are mutilated to make faces, torsos and body parts, that are just as violently and aggressively deformed, permanently scarred by chainsaw and chisels. And all of the aggressivity and anger makes for wounded giants that are both monumental and fragile, a contradiction that, in turn, makes them terribly moving. They are gentle giants who, although they loom over us, are perfectly at peace, and in silent acceptance of their own immobility and fragility.
Georg Baselitz, Volk Ding Zero, 2009, Cèdre, peinture à l’huile, clous, 308 x 120 x 125 cm, Collection particulière, courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris - Salzbourg Photo © Georg Baselitz
The exhibition closes with three “self portraits,” childlike figures, exhibited together, facing each other in a circle. What is most curious about them is the fact that Baselitz turns to the self-portrait in 2009 at age seventy-one. Most artists and writers typically begin their lifelong devotion to their art with self-portraits, and some might repeat the fascination with self throughout their lives. Not Baselitz. Even though these figures look young, innocent and childlike, they come in the latter years of his life. This is made more interesting by the fact that they are childlike: their "hats," the oversized “shoes,” where some earlier figures didn't even have feet, the pink nipples and bare chests, and the awkwardness of genetalia that have been hammered on afterwards.
Unlike Michelangelo’s figures of perfection, these people are not found inside the stone that incarcerates them. Baselitz’s figures are chiseled and hacked out of the wood, formed if you like, by the knives that render them. There is so much tragedy here, the genitalia, the mouth, the eyes, the breasts of the torsos and heads, that is, those places on the body that give us identity are not carved out with care, they are hacked away. These are deformed bodies: the feet cut off, the breasts cut off, and red paint in their place as though the wounds are still bleeding. Even at a quick glance, Ding mit Arm, 1993, is a war-wounded soldier who has been so maimed, mutiliated, amputated and made androgynous. And though this “Ding” has no specific reference to Germany’s history, I see it creating the pain evoked by the piece. The suffering of the Ding reminds me immediately of the World War I heros left to litter the streets in Otto Dix’s drawings in particular.
~Frances Guerin, a writer and film-historian living in Paris
(Image at top: Georg Baselitz, Dunklung Nachtung Amung Ding, 2009, Wood and oil paint, 308 x 105 x 122,5 cm, Hall Collection, Photo: Jochen Littkeman, Berlin © Georg Baselitz.
All images courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris / ARC