Beware of the strategy of painters carrying gifts
Of course, the world has been turned upside down by COVID. But as we return more and more willingly to museums and galleries and “normal”, we still have to take the bad with the good.
Example: the six tables recently donated by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For commercial reasons – collectors love this institutional cachet – one can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, edgy canvases?
First, a few passages from the Met website about this clumsy work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b.1938) used the strategy of inversion, an approach which continues to interest him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to erase narrative content and expression – elements present in his earlier work – in order to focus on the painting itself.
Indeed, judging by the handling of the muddy paint, pale colors, limp limbs, and mushy faces on display here, Baselitz has managed to shake off the engaging “content and phrase” – his consistent “strategy”. to present figures upside down expresses little interest in his models. In 1969, painting for painting was far from revealing, and there is little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.
Except of course… he turned his numbers upside down.
Maybe Baselitz should have taken a page from Caravaggio Crucifixion of Saint Peter and depicts his characters from an angle. A spectator would find it hard not to commune with Peter as he gazes at the tip sunk into his left hand, the weight of his mighty torso beginning to bear on the pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own uplifted limbs – of Dark lackeys of murderous empire – all their separate agonies beautifully frozen in the heart-wrenching balance of the composition.
But I forget that Baselitz didn’t paint models that were actually upside down, he painted portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not float the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of erasing “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers… what, exactly?
And to be fair, comparing it to virtually any of Caravaggio’s paintings – just as dramatic as his contemporary Baroque colleague Shakespeare – is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can do yourself at the Met – something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s brutal innovations first hung: take a cell phone photo of one of the these clunkers, then rotate the image on your screen. At least, is this a convincing figure? A captivating portrait?
Only if you like parched paint surfaces, deflated patterns and figures of lazy proportions. It doesn’t matter whether Baselitz is a right-hander or a left-hander, because he couldn’t be more clumsy.
But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely wrong. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465-1470) by Giovanni di Paulo.
Go ahead: Click on. Turn over.
Wow. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems – like Baselitz – with hands and faces. But he had composition chops to spare. Start with that curvy white trim encircling her dress, cut in half by the surreal knuckle-shaped knots of her flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the whole revealing an underlying consciousness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.
But that might still be an unfair comparison – too many accessories and too much gold leaf. Well, one or two more galleries and we come to El Greco in its most banal splendor: Portrait of an old man (around 1595-1600). Do that 21st century phone whirlwind and here’s what you get:
Just the racing frills of this ruffle collar covering burnished corners – a plunging die reminiscent of Ed Clark’s’s abstract propellers – worth the price of admission.
But if a skeptic thinks it’s comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, head to the Alice Neel show, which runs until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who, not so long ago proclaimed that women cannot paint, so go ahead and choose one of Neel’s paintings, pull out your phone, take your photo and tap the rotate icon. You have nothing to lose. ❖
Georg Baselitz: decisive turning point
The Met Fifth Avenue
Until July 18