4 September – 14 November 2020
White Cube Mason's Yard
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Since the beginning of his career, Georg Baselitz has painted ‘monstrous’ hands and feet. His famous ‘Heroes’ series of the mid-1960s, for example, show battered figures with over- or undersize extremities standing in blasted landscapes. Their hands bear stigmata or hold tiny burning buildings or farm implements – symbols, perhaps, of the cycles of destruction and regeneration in 20th-century Germany.
In his new paintings, Baselitz creates striking images of hands that emerge out of dark backgrounds and hang open and limp. In them, as in all his paintings, Baselitz is uninterested in conventional representation. His skillful draftsmanship is evident in related ink-on-paper drawings, which are more traditionally realistic, tracing intricate folds of skin and expressive configurations of the fingers. By contrast, in the paintings Baselitz works against his own dextrousness to produce something that exists in a realm between abstraction and figuration.
To accomplish this estranging feat, the artist uses a monotype printing process. He begins by painting an image of a hand on one canvas and then places another on top of it. Pressure from the back of a push broom is then used to transfer the image to the second canvas before discarding the original. According to Baselitz, the gold paint has two effects: it confounds pictorial space and imbues the subject with portent. ‘I wanted an apparition’, he says, ‘something that appears out of the depth’. For this he sees the cut and punctured canvases of the Italian abstract painter Lucio Fontana as an important model.
The exhibition also features new sculptures, the artist’s first since 2013: fire-gilded bronze bas-relief hands that hang on the wall. Although they are named for artists Baselitz admires, including Wols, de Kooning and Fontana, Baselitz denies any symbolic or biographical meaning to these titles. Rather, he says, these hands represent nothing but themselves – ‘emblems’ of identity like the hands in cave paintings or ‘fingerprints in a passport’.
Vital sense organs, hands are a primary means with which we connect with the world. And, beginning with a childhood experience of digging up ancient artefacts near his birthplace in Deutschbaselitz, Germany, Baselitz says his artistic orientation has been ‘downward looking’ and tactile. He distinguishes himself from more spiritually oriented ‘Mediterranean’ artists who depicted angels and other images of transcendence. ‘Our contact with the other world does not occur via the sky but the earth. That’s why north of the Alps there are Germans, along with all these northern beings: trolls, forest creatures, water creatures, and nymphs!’
Artists from Albrecht Dürer to Caravaggio to Henry Moore depicted hands as a means to demonstrate their skill. Noting that images of hands also appear in the earliest cave paintings, Baselitz acknowledges the motif’s importance: ‘What’s right in front of you? Hands!’ His own work, he states, has become ‘more and more freighted with citations’ over the last decade, although these are seldom obvious. One of the inspirations for his hand imagery is Otto Dix’s Portrait of My Parents II (1924) showing his elderly mother and father seated on a couch, gnarled fingers resting on their knees. Other influences are depictions of the Annunciation by Italian Renaissance painters, including Fra Angelico, Duccio and Tintoretto.
The ‘Darkness Goldness’ paintings either continue or disrupt Baselitz’s signature inversion of his subject matter, which he began in 1969 as another strike against naturalism. The artist does not comment on whether his new images are indeed upside down, since there is no proper orientation for the mobile human hand. He does, however, recognise their protean power, seeing in them a host of ghostly figures, including striding devils and flying spirits. By reconceiving the subject and distancing it from painting’s traditionally handmade nature, Baselitz conjures a fresh and surprising take on his characteristic dance between subject and style. Quite literally hand-prints, these images are at once familiar and fantastical, rich with uncanny bodily and painterly gestures.