Now, I’m no fan of Georg Baselitz, the man. Of course I’m not. This is a man notorious for his sexist views on women artists (“they simply don’t pass the test”) considering their lack of comparative success their own fault (“It’s nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners. It’s to do with something else and it’s not my job to answer why it’s so.”).
The guy is a deliberate provocateur. He’s sexist, yes, and he knows what he’s doing. He’s kicking women to create headlines. And because he believes what he says to be true. So, I’m hardly inclined to be sympathetic or warm to his work.
Yet a new collection of recent works, Wir Fahren Aus (We’re Off), that is currently showing at White Cube shows a surprisingly vulnerable side to the man, one perhaps increasingly preoccupied with his own ageing, frailty and mortality.
Two nudes, an elderly couple, recur repeatedly across vast canvases and a multitude of drawings. Their skin is deathly pale, the passing of time evident in the sagging of the skin. The pale pallor hints at ghostliness, and the monochrome tones that define the large oil paintings, in particular, bring a heavy emotional weight. These are bodies increasingly stripped of their life and vitality, as much as they are stripped of their clothes.
The couple in the paintings is actually Georg and his wife, Elke; the images revisiting an early double-portrait of the couple from 1975. However, the figures are a little obscure, their lines a little blurred. It’s as if there is a fog between us and them. In some of the paintings, the focus is so hazy it feels as if the couple are submerged in water, even drowning.
The sterile austerity of the White Cube galleries seems to accentuate the intensity of the pieces even more. Each work has acres of white wall to itself, heightening its isolation. And all of this seems to culminate in the last piece in the show, Oven Soot, where the couple are overwhelmed with darkness, lost in an almost entirely black canvas.
In addition, there are two sculptures Included in the show – imposing black pieces, hewn in wood, before being cast in bronze. In particular, Winter Sleep – a few slim logs bound together and slung over a bare bench – fits the theme well.
All of the pieces on show – the works on paper, the paintings and the sculptures – have been completed in the last year or two. Familiar Georg Baselitz traits are apparent in the inversion of the figures in the paintings – the images appear upside down – and the sculptures have that familiar patina to them.
It’s a sobering collection of work. The frailty and vulnerability is affecting. The sombre tone may well reflect the fact that Georg is in his late seventies. Maybe he’s mellowing? Perhaps beneath that brusque exterior he might now be feeling a little vulnerability? Let’s not get our hopes up. But, if we acknowledge that we can separate art from the artist, then this is a moving collection of works that is well worth a visit.
White Cube Galleries, London to July 3, 2016
All photos by Victoria Sadler