Portrait Elke I
in "Hidden Treasure from Tervuren"
at the Kimbell Art Museum
Figure of a drummer
Face mask (cihongo)
Allegories for Modern Times...
The bride with a moon door over her head
Baselitz, a love story
"How do I love thee?" If you're famed German Neo-Expressionist painter Georg Baselitz, the answer is -- greatly, even upside down. A romantic retrospective of 51 portraits of the artist's wife Elke -- all showing her upside-down, in the artist's trademark style -- recently began a year-long tour at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Baselitz and his wife of 31 years now live in a converted castle in Derneberg, Germany. Born in 1938 as Hans-Georg Kern, he lived in the schoolhouse where his father taught in Deutschbaselitz, a village outside Dresden. At 18 he went to East Berlin to study painting and was expelled after two terms for "socio-political immaturity." Before leaving East for West, Kern took the name of his birthplace as a "reminder of his Saxon roots."
I was sure I knew the difference between upside-down and right-side up until I spent an afternoon with Baselitz's paintings, prints, and drawings. A docent remarked that she had to suppress the impulse to reach out and catch the paintings, because she had the sensation that the woman in them was always falling: Elke falling past flowers, Elke falling from a chair where she sits upside-down and nude next to her upside-down, nude husband, or faceless and falling from a beach towel, about to plop into scratchy sand.
Baselitz's "upside-down" compositions are stable and strong and in no way detract from the power of his "abstract-figurist" painting, which is as powerful as a winter storm. The issue at stake in Baselitz's work is orientation -- breaking it and remaking it. "I was born into a destroyed order," notes the artist, "and I did not want to reestablish an order." Whatever his goals, the artist provides an exciting and unique confluence of disorder and symmetry.
A curious technique
Working largely from photographs of a posed Elke, Baselitz paints an upside-down image while looking at the source right-side up. He sometimes paints by hand (Fingerpainting -- Black Elke, 1973) and sometimes with his feet. His favorite draftsman is the French poet Antonin Artaud.
MMA curator Michael Auping ventured that Baselitz's work would not be as effective right-side up. Curious, I turned the show's color catalogue upside down and reviewed the images that way. They are somewhat less powerful, but they certainly are still interesting, provocative and, in some instances, beautiful.
Baselitz's work is frequently labeled "wild, incompetent and brutal" -- despite his protests to the contrary. There is indeed a wild and brutal, primordial energy here, a kind of energy that can also be found in two areas that have influenced Baselitz -- the art of the mentally ill and African art, of which Baselitz is an avid collector. Auping explains that African art offers Baselitz a "pathway around Western conventions of description."
Paintings without description
Baselitz's paintings offer bold visual encounters and engaging details -- layered and dripping color, printed French prose beneath red or blue upside-down crucifix shapes of female bodies, a lavender countenance, and lots of lines, energetic lines behind, on top, and surrounding the central subject matter. These lines reveal their importance best in Centerpoint, a 1996 drypoint, showing a crouching nude female with lines radiating from her pelvis throughout the image, lines that suggest rays of force, or a web.
Nor does Baselitz create portraits that pretend to "describe" Elke, a woman of substantial beauty and an accomplished designer. Says Baselitz, "I don't illustrate Elke. I try to remove her, but I usually can't .... You can lose the model, but you don't lose the subject .... It's complicated. I begin with an idea, but as I work, the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea I preconceived ... and the picture that fights for its own life."
The last work in the exhibition is House #6 (1995-96), a 114 x 80 in. painting that is riveting. A thick black rectangle frames a woman on her back, legs opened to form a diamond. Both body and ground are a mix of East Indian red-orange and a fiery magenta. Dark Roualt-like lines outline the body, a splash of white floats above her pubic bone. Here is woman as shelter, as both open and closed space, earth and fire.
After its debut at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the show appears at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Feb. 13-May 24, 1998; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, June 27-Sept. 13, 1998; and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, Mexico, Oct. 9, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999.
African Art at the Kimbell
Just across the street from the Baselitz show was an African artifact that could be a prototype for the German artist's House #6 -- a Kibango ceremonial staff crowned by a dark female figure ending in a diamond shape. The staff is one of 125 African pieces in "Hidden Treasures from Tervuren" at the Kimbell Art Museum. Tervuren is not the name of an African region, but the name of a city east of Brussels and home to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. This tour is the first time any of these objects have come to the U.S. and the first time many of them have left Belgium since the museum was founded in 1898 by King Leopold II.
The Africans who made the things in this show, which are dated from between 1890 and 1940, may never have know the concepts either of "Africa" or "art," as the scholar Anthony Appiah would have it. Instead, they were elaborating their own "sciences" of defense, communication and social order. The Nkisi Nduda sculpture defended homes with special "night guns" that killed invisible witches. Carved staffs served as conduits of communication between living and dead, chief and subjects. The Mpungu figure, covered with padlocks, nuts, beads and shells, kept problems at a distance and misled anyone who wanted to do harm to its owner. The three-horned, bug-eyed Nkishi was a powerful specific for counteracting sorcerers who might shoot invisible arrows at one's back.
African art seeks to close the gap between danger and safety, life and death, youth and adulthood, this world and the next. Many of these objects were created to cause or prevent violence, either physical or spiritual, in an environment shaped by frequent violence, both manmade or natural. The result: works of remarkably coherent proportions, arresting rhythms, and stark or graceful beauty.
After its premiere at the Kimbell, the exhibition travels to the de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Feb. 21-Apr. 19, 1998; the Museum for African Art, New York, May 14-Aug 11, 1998; the Saint Louis Art Museum, Sept. 11-Nov. 29, 1998; the Art Institute of Chicago, Dec. 16, 1998-Mar. 14, 1999; the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Apr. 16-June 27, 1999; and the Fundació Caixa de Catalunya, Barcelona, opening in late July 1999.
The Contemporary Art Center of Fort Worth
On view at Fort Worth's one-year-old Contemporary Art Center downtown was a group show of five local photographers, "Introductions: Contemporary Texas Photographers," curated by Luther Smith, photography professor at Texas Christian University. Once a parking garage, the gallery has hosted some 10,000 visitors in 12 months and has also become an important venue for performing arts events.
Dormith Doherty's large, color works blend mysterious animal and human images in a way reminiscent of Mexican surrealism. Cranium is all but abstract, while in another work the face of man and jaguar merge and yet remain distinct. A Fulbright fellow (who spent time in Mexico) with an Yale MFA in photography, Doherty is affiliated with James Gallery in Houston.
Aaron Kamelhaar's black-and-white work has a silvery Weston touch and some of the emotional documentary power of a Eugene Smith. His portrait of a Mexican child whose hands have been made twice their normal size by hard labor engenders compassion without dipping into sentimentalism or pity. Kamelhaar's images of construction workers on Dallas's Central Expressway, however, are totally haunting. The steely yet watery silvers and grays in his photographs communicate both the cold metal and the dark dangers of this highway.
Dick Lane's work takes me back to the mosaic ashtray I made in the 1960s. In fact, all of Lane's work in this show would make great mosaic ashtrays. Lane takes black-and-white and color photos, which he cuts into small squares and rearranges -- with no small skill -- into complex and entertaining images. He says his aim is to communicate the magic world that combines Texas myths and B movies, the land of horned toads, rattle snakes and men in boots. Brilliant good fun.
Debra Fox began studying photography at age 32 with SMU professor Charles DeBus, and her work is full of promise, originality and experimentation. Currently concentrating on "alternative photograms," her images are a fresh departure from all things techno-mechanical. Her Gladiola and Iris are especially mysterious.
April B'lan Kao's work is the show's "wind song" -- the one that stays on your mind. A native of Taiwan, B'lan Kao moved to Texas at age 22. Her work shows an interest in visual purity. Each image feels like it lives somewhere between a Haiku poem and a detective story. Most arresting image: Bride with a Moon Door Over her Head.
For further information, contact Cindi Holt at (817) 877-5550.
YSABEL DE LA ROSA is a writer and artist living in Madrid.