The artist who made upside down right

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The artist who made upside down right


“Die Madchen von Olmo II” (“Girls of Olmo”) (1981) by Georg Baselitz [JoongAng Ilbo]

MUNICH - In the world of Georg Baselitz, up is down and sideways is just another direction. But none of these directions limits his freedom of expression as an artist, which is perhaps not surprising for an artist known for painting his subjects upside down.

As an artist, Baselitz is recognized as a member of an elite group of Neo-Expressionist painters from Germany. At first glance, his upside down works may look rather clumsy and even disconcerting.

But he paints this way to draw the viewer in, inviting them to think.

Last September, I had a chance to visit the artist in his studio near Munich. We spent an afternoon together talking about history, politics and his upcoming exhibition.

Baselitz was born in 1938 in Deutschbaselitz, which would later become East Germany, just before the start of World War II, when European intellectuals were migrating to New York City to seek refuge from the Nazis and the Fascists.

Later, as Europeans rebuilt their war-torn motherland and endured the spread of communism, New York City was crowned the “Athens of the twentieth century.”

Tradition versus innovation, communism versus democracy, horrendous vestiges of war versus the rise of capitalism. That is how Europe and the United States differed after the war.


The contributing writer, Representative Cho Yoon-sun, left, poses with the artist in his studio near Munich. Provided by Cho Yoon-sun

The postwar era in which Baselitz grew up gave rise to Pop Art, which was associated with a reverence for capitalism and developed its own modes of contemporaneity through performances and art events known as happenings.

It was a unique, unprecedented milestone in the history of the arts that was far removed from the pure form of painting in which Baselitz had immersed himself since he began studying the fine arts in 1956.

But Europe was unable to escape the influence of Pop Art, and Germany was no exception.

In the midst of the Pop Art tsunami, it was Baselitz who helped European artists to reacquire painting, the quintessence of fine arts. It was also Baselitz who shifted the barycenter of fine arts back to Europe.

Through his upside-down art, which he introduced in 1970, he has endeavored to defend painting from the Pop Art overflow. Drawing objects upside down gave him the freedom to focus on painting.

History regards Germany as the mecca of Neo-Expressionism from the late 1970s. And for 20 years, Baselitz fiercely defended painting against the typhoon that was Pop Art. The tree that survived the typhoon, Baselitz’s form of pure painting has blossomed and has become his legacy. This is the reason why Baselitz’s name cannot be left out of any art history book.

When I stepped into Baselitz’s front yard, the first words that came to mind were “humbleness” and “naturalness.”


“Zwei Meißener Wa lda rbe i t e r ” (“Two Meissen Wo o d s m e n ” ) (1967) by Georg Baselitz [JoongAng Ilbo]

His studio, which was built by Herzog & de Meuron, the firm that designed the Beijing Olympic Stadium and the Tate Modern, looked at first more like a warehouse or cattle shed with a flimsy roof. I later learned, however, that it was designed to maintain a constant level of light intensity throughout the day.

On the inside, the studio was full of enormous canvases, some 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) by 2 meters in size, that were stacked on each wall. The works were waiting for their unveiling at an upcoming exhibition that will take place this May at the White Cube Gallery in London and had not yet been shown to the public.

I explored the studio as if I were on a treasure hunt. Brushes and paint tins were arranged as if they were newly installed artworks. The floor, which was stained with paint, looked like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Initially, I wandered around his studio as if I were seeking evidence of God. After a while, however, I strolled through the many masterpieces with a camera like a curious girl in her grandfather’s study. But it was a series of eagle paintings, which filled up one wall, that intrigued me the most.

As I examined them, I told Baselitz that his eagle paintings were some of my favorites. But these looked new, so I asked why he started painting them again.

“I have been painting for a little more than 50 years, but it doesn’t feel like a long time to me,” Baselitz said. “By painting subjects that I have painted in the past, I wanted to express that time is meaningless and that the time I’m spending now is no different from the time I spent decades ago.”

As he compared his previous works and the pieces that he was working on at the moment, he tried to demonstrate that his series of paintings of men and another he did on dogs were subjects that he enjoyed painting in the past. We could not, however, see the previous works, because they had been sold to museums or individual collectors and Baselitz had to refer to the catalogs to talk about his works.

Many of the new eagle paintings had black lines of paint dripping down the canvas, creating lengthy traces on the surface. This was different from the works he had done in the past, and I asked him what it meant.

“As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more convinced that mankind must be free,” Baselitz said. “A man’s desire should be neither hidden nor suppressed. I dripped the black paint line to symbolize that everything must flow naturally.”

He led me to a paint tin with two holes on each side of the lid and pretended to thrust the tin onto the canvas to show me how he had done it.

At some point during our tour, Baselitz asked about politics out of the blue.

“So, you are a member of the National Assembly. Are you right or left?” he asked.

“Slightly right, center leaning,” I said, and asked him the same question.

Baselitz, who was born in East Germany and moved to West Germany before he turned 20, replied emphatically with a laugh, “Extremely right! I couldn’t bear communism at all.”

I was also curious to know how he had changed as an artist over the course of his 50-year career.

“When I was young, it took quite a while for me to finish one work,” he said. “I prudently selected which colors to use, and I painted cautiously. I re-examined and redrew my works. But not anymore. Now it is more like an instant expression at the very moment. I do not hesitate anymore.”

Sure enough, his paintings from the past were opaque, filled with gravity and full of color. His works had gradually become much lighter, more transparent, more uninvolved and light-hearted.

“Before I start to paint, I create a vivid image in my mind,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to transfer what I have in my mind onto the canvas.”

Later, Baselitz asked his son, who was nearby, to take a picture of us. He took his glasses off before the photograph was taken and constantly inspected each picture after it was taken.

His wife Elke did same when the three of us took pictures at his home before Baselitz offered to give me a tour of the house.

While the studio was Baselitz’s domain, Elke seemed to be in complete control of their house. She was an elegant and unpretentious beauty.

We went through a glass door to the dining hall and into a kitchen filled with dazzling sunshine. It was immaculate, as if it had never been used.

Next, Baselitz showed me to his study, which he said he was very fond of. A hexagonal bookshelf went all the way up the wall to the ceiling on the second floor. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling looked like a dandelion seed, with an array of light bulbs attached to it.

The study was filled with catalogs and books on art. I even found a Faiyum mummy portrait, which was used to cover mummies’ faces and were the first portable paintings in world history.

When I came across a daffodil painting covering one wall, I gave a shout of joy. My nom de plume, which I acquired when I published my book, was Nan Jeong (Daffodil Pond). I couldn’t express enough how delighted I was when I encountered the daffodil painting in Baselitz’s home.

Before I left, Baselitz gave me a catalog that he signed himself.

I asked if he would return to Seoul for another exhibition and expressed my hope that he would.

“I am not sure . . . I was not allowed to take the plane last time,” he mumbled, referring to problems with his health that have prevented him from traveling in the past.

As my car backed out of the drive, he stood and gazed at me, even after his wife and son had gone back into the house. Every time our eyes met, he waved at me. He stood there like that until the car was out of sight.

*Cho Yoon-sun is a lawmaker with the Grand National Party and the author of a book about art and opera called “Opera Goes to the Museum” (2007).

By Cho Yoon-sun Contributing writer []

Related Korean Article[중앙선데이]

“가슴에 품은 것을 억제하지 말라,인간의 정신은 물 흐르듯 자유로워야”

조윤선이 만난 독일 신표현주의 미술 대가 게오르크 바젤리츠

왜 처음 만난 그와 헤어지는데 이렇게 눈물이 날까….
차 문을 열고 다시 내리고 싶은 마음이 굴뚝같았다. 차마 용기가 나지 않았다. 그를 만나고 돌아오는 차 안에서 나는 내내 눈물이 났다. 택시기사에게 들킬까 봐 소리도 내지 못했다. 그날 하루 종일 눈물이 났다가 잦았다가 했다. 게오르크 바젤리츠(Georg Baselitz·73). 사물을 거꾸로 그리는 화가. 그의 그림은 일견 쉬워 보인다. 독일에, 유럽에, 신 표현주의를 이끄는 중심에 서 있으면서도 그의 그림은 엉성해 보이기까지 한다. 그런 그가 미술사에 이름을 남기는 이유는 무엇일까. 제2차 세계대전을 전후해 유럽의 지성인들은 나치와 파시스트를 피해 대거 뉴욕으로 자리를 옮겼다. 2차 대전으로 피폐해진 유럽이 재건에 애쓰고 줄 잇는 공산화로 몸살을 앓는 동안 뉴욕은 ‘20세기의 새로운 아테네’가 되었다. 전통과 혁신, 확산되는 공산주의와 안착한 민주주의, 참혹한 전쟁의 잔재와 자본주의의 풍요로움. 전후 유럽과 미국은 이렇게 대비되었다. 자본주의를 추앙하는 팝아트는 기상천외한 해프닝과 퍼포먼스를 동반하며 전후 유럽과 차별되는 신대륙의 ‘동시대(contempary)성’을 그려나갔다. 팝아트는 미술의 전통적인 ‘회화성’과 거리를 두며 미술사에서 전무후무한 독특한 좌표를 찍었다.

유럽도 이런 팝 아트의 영향에서 자유로울 수 없었다. 독일 역시 마찬가지였다. 게르하르트 리히터(Gerhard Richter), 시그마르 폴케(Sigmar Polke) 등 바젤리츠와 함께 활동했던 독일 작가들이 신표현주의로 분류되기도 하지만, 그들의 작품에선 오히려 팝아트적인 시도가 더 눈에 띈다. 팝아트의 쓰나미가 휩쓸던 유럽 미술에 다시 미술의 정수인 ‘회화’를 되찾고 미술의 무게중심을 다시 유럽으로 옮겨 놓은 이가 바로 바젤리츠다.

1956년부터 본격적으로 미술 공부를 시작한 그는 줄곧 ‘회화’에 몰입했다. 70년부터 세상에 모습을 드러낸, 사물을 거꾸로 그린 그의 그림은 팝아트의 태풍에 맞서 회화성을 지켜내고자 몸부림치던 작가의 고육지책이었다. 거꾸로 그리자 오히려 그에게는 회화에 집중할 수 있는 자유가 주어졌다. 미술사는 70년대 말부터 독일이 신표현주의의 메카가 되었다고 기록한다. 20여 년 넘게 팝아트의 태풍을 온몸으로 막고 거친 황야에서 회화의 나무에 꽃을 피워낸 것, 그것이 그의 업적이다. 그래서 미술사를 다루는 그 어떤 책도 그의 이름을 빼놓을 수 없는 것이다.

지난해 9월 독일 뮌헨 근교에 있는 그의 스튜디오를 찾았다. 그의 집 마당에 들어서 느꼈던 첫 느낌은 ‘겸손’과 ‘절제’, 그리고 ‘자연스러움’이였다. 테이트 모던과 베이징 올림픽 스타디움을 만든 건축가 헤어초크와 드 뮤론(Herzog & de Meuron)이 지어줬다는 그의 스튜디오는 언뜻 보면 농장 축사나 창고같이 눈에 띄지 않았다. 슬레이트를 지붕에 얹은 것 같은 어설픈 모습을 하고 있었지만, 한쪽은 천장, 다른 쪽은 조명을 달아 24시간 낮과 같은 조도를 유지할 수 있는 최첨단 설비를 숨기고 있었다.

세상에 태어나지도 않은 그의 그림을 본다는 생각에 나는 가슴이 뛰었다. 일반 건물 3~4층은 되어 보일 듯 천장이 높은 그의 스튜디오에는 300호는 됨직한 큰 화폭들이 좌우 벽을 따라 줄지어 서 있었다. 2011년 5월로 예정된 런던의 화이트 큐브 갤러리에서 있을 전시를 위해 준비하는 작품들이었다. 보물찾기를 하듯 나는 그의 스튜디오를 샅샅이 탐험했다. 정리대는 격식 없이 잘 정돈돼 있었다. 붓이며 물감통들은 마치 방금 설치를 마친 작품처럼 무질서하게 정연했다. 물감 자국으로 얼룩진 스튜디오 바닥조차 마치 잭슨 플록의 화폭 같았다. 나는 처음엔 신의 창조의 흔적을 찾아 우주를 헤매듯 조심스럽게 둘러봤지만, 이내 할아버지 서재를 찾은 손녀처럼 편안하게 그의 스튜디오를 헤집고 다니며 연방 카메라 셔터를 눌렀다. 한쪽 벽면을 가득 메운 독수리 연작이 눈에 띄어 물었다.

조윤선: 마에스트로(성이든 이름이든 간에 나는 거장을 평범하게 부르기 싫었다. 그래서 나는 일방적으로 그를 ‘마에스트로’라고 부르겠다고 해버렸다)가 예전에 그렸던 그림 중 나는 독수리가 참 좋았어요. 왜 독수리를 다시 그리시는 거죠?

바젤리츠: 내가 그림을 그린 지 올해로 50년이 좀 넘지. 그런데 그 세월이 그렇게 길게 느껴지지가 않는 거야. 내가 몇 십 년 전에 그렸던 것들을 다시 그리면서 세월이 무상하다는 것, 수십 년이 그저 같은 순간이라는 것을 보이고 싶었어(그는 예전에 발간된 그의 화집과 지금 작업 중인 캔버스를 비교해주면서 지금 그리는 사람 연작, 개 연작도 모두 예전에 그렸던 것들임을 보여줬다. 그의 작품은 전시되기 무섭게 미술관이나 개인에게 팔려버렸기 때문에 작가 자신조차 자기 그림을 화집으로 볼 수밖에 없었다).

조윤선: 그런데 지금 독수리 작품에는 예전에는 없던 검은 물감 띠가 있네요. 이건 무슨 뜻이에요?(화폭의 윗부분에 있는 검은색 물감 띠는 화폭 전체를 따라 길게 흘러내렸고, 아래쪽에 있는 물감 띠는 짧게 흘러내렸다)

바젤리츠: 내가 일흔이 넘고 보니, 인간은 자유로워야 한다는 확신이 점점 더 강해져. 사람이 가슴에 품은 것은 숨겨서도, 억제해서도 안 돼. 모든 걸 물 흐르듯 자연스럽게 놔두어야 한다는 걸 상징하고 싶어 검은 물감을 흘려 보냈어.(그는 ‘어떻게 하는 거예요’라고 묻는 나를 물감 통 있는 곳으로 데려가 물감 깡통 양쪽에 작은 구멍을 두 개 낸 뒤 통째로 화폭에 붓는다며 ‘휘리립’ 하고 긋는 시늉을 했다. 그러면서 그는 돌연 물었다)

바젤리츠: 국회의원이라고 했지? 우파야 좌파야?(Are you right or left?)

조윤선: 중도를 지향하는 약간 우파죠. 마에스트로는요? (동독에서 태어난 그는 스무 살 되기 좀 전에 서독으로 건너왔다)

바젤리츠: 심하게 우파지!!!(Extremely Right!!!). 나는 공산주의는 견딜 수가 없더라고. 하하하.

조윤선: 마에스트로, 50년 넘게 그림을 그리셨는데 화가로서 예전과 지금이 어떻게 달라지셨어요?

바젤리츠: 젊었을 때는 그림 하나 완성하는 데 오래 걸렸어. 색깔도 신중하게 고르고, 칠도 신중하게 했지. 또 보고, 또 그리길 반복했지. 그런데 지금은 그렇지 않아. 지금은 순식간에 표현하고는 그쳐버리지. 예전같이 주저하지도 않고(아닌 게 아니라, 그의 초기 작품은 색깔로 화폭이 꽉 찼고, 무거웠고, 불투명했었지만, 차차 투명해지고, 여백이 늘고 경쾌해졌다).

조윤선: 어떻게 그렇게 빨라지셨어요?

바젤리츠: 그리기 전에 어떤 그림이 될지 선명하게 다 내 머릿속에 있기 때문이지. 그걸 옮기는데 시간은 별로 필요하지 않아.

조윤선: 마에스트로, 같이 사진 한 장 찍어요.

바젤리츠는 곁에 있던 아들을 불러 사진을 찍어 달라 했다. 사진 찍기 전에 그는 안경을 벗었고, 찍고 나서는 꼭 사진을 확인했다. 나중에 집에서 셋이 사진을 함께 찍은 그의 부인 엘케도 꼭 그렇게 매번 사진을 확인했다.

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