This exhibition marks the first time these ten provocative prints have been exhibited together since they were made and shown over 20 years ago. The colossal hand-printed linocuts are collectively titled Belle Haleine, a name taken from a work of art by Marcel Duchamp, an artist who is frequently referenced by Baselitz.
Belle Haleine, the largest prints ever made by Baselitz, each measuring over two metres in height, depict partially clothed copulating couples, in scenes taken from nineteenth-century erotic lithographs. Baselitz trains our gaze across each image by depicting the figures upside down, a technique he has used since 1969. To resist descriptive interpretation of his subject matter the artist inverts his figures and motifs so that the subject of each work becomes the act of mark-making itself.
The title Belle Haleine is a direct reference to Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath, Veil Water), an artwork made by Marcel Duchamp with the assistance of Man Ray. The readymade was conceived in 1920 and consisted of a perfume bottle with a modified label featuring a picture of Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. This name is a pun on “Eros, c’est la vie” which translates to “Love [or sex], that’s life”, an interpretation Baselitz carries into the ten prints.
Baselitz covers the exposed genitals of each couple in Belle Haleine with a white hole. Although it is now difficult to conceive of an artwork that could provoke genuine shock in a viewer, in 1963 during Baselitz’s first solo exhibition in West Berlin, two of his paintings of naked figures were seized from display by public prosecutors, on suspicion of obscenity and immorality. The appearance of white holes can be interpreted as an act of self-censorship, but they also relate to erotic works made by Duchamp including his final artwork Étant donnés.
Taking two decades for Duchamp to assemble and only discovered after his death, Étant donnés consists of a large wooden door behind which lies a naked woman lying on a bed of leaves and twigs. The scene is only visible by looking through two peepholes. Baselitz states, “A hole in the picture allows the imagination to circle, as with the hole in a record, around which the music plays.”
The appearance of Duchamp in Baselitz’s work relates to his resentment of Duchamp’s assertion in the early twentieth century that painting was dead. Baselitz continues to undermine the assertion through painted pastiches of Duchamp’s words and works, which Baselitz describes as “processing through an opponent.”
Each of the prints in the series also bears an individual title comprising a further art historical reference or an enigmatic phrase. Moustache le soeur, 2002, is a reference to another readymade by Duchamp, featuring a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa onto which Duchamp drew a moustache. Das Modell von Balthus and La nuit mit Marie, 2002, reference a muse and model who sat several times for mid-twentieth century artist Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola).
Baselitz chose to make these images using linoleum, a malleable material which would allow him to work on a monumental scale with ease. Closely related to the execution of his paintings, Baselitz laid the large sheets of lino on his studio floor, directly engraving into the surface with rapid gestures and without any preliminary drawings. The intensity with which he makes the linocuts is as aggressive as the carving of his sculptures.
To achieve the carefully positioned white circle, Baselitz placed a disc onto the inked-up plate before the application of paper. In terms of composition and style, it has been suggested that the artist’s use of negative space, the lightness of the cut line and elegance of repeated, short, dynamic strokes, came from observing the work of the seventeenth-century Chinese painter Bada Shenren.
Belle Haleine is accompanied by a display of recent and new etchings by the artist, which include portraits of artists Frank Auerbach, Tracey Emin and Lucio Fontana. In direct contrast to Baselitz’s assertions and criticisms of Duchamp, these portraits, collectively titled Devotion, are of artists that Baselitz admires.
They are exhibited together with a series of portraits of his wife Elke, who has been his muse for over sixty years. For a group of new etchings, Baselitz has turned his attention to the subject of the deer, a recurring motif in his work, highly symbolic in the history of art.
These are shown together with recent prints featuring hands and feet. Estranged from the body, writhing, twisting hands and disembodied feet are rendered in white and gold and emerge from dark backgrounds. These works form part of Baselitz’s ongoing survey of the human form.
Georg Baselitz: Belle Haleine coincides with the artist’s solo exhibition at The Serpentine, London, and the occasion of his 85th birthday which has been celebrated with exhibitions across Europe and the US.
Header image: Georg Baselitz: La nuit mit Marie (detail), 2002