Gagosian Quarterly

May 14, 2020

artist to artist:georg baselitz and zeng fanzhi

On the occasion of Georg Baselitz: Years later at Gagosian, Hong Kong, Zeng Fanzhi composed a written foreword for the exhibition’s catalogue and a video message to the German painter. Baselitz wrote a letter of thanks to the Chinese artist for his insightful thoughts.

Left: Georg Baselitz. Photo: Martin Müller. Right: Zeng Fanzhi

Left: Georg Baselitz. Photo: Martin Müller. Right: Zeng Fanzhi

Georg Baselitz

A painter, printmaker, and sculptor, the German artist Georg Baselitz is a pioneering postwar artist who rejected abstraction in favor of recognizable subject matter, deliberately employing a raw style of rendering and a heightened palette in order to convey direct emotion. Photo: Martin Müller

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Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi lives and works in Beijing. His visually and historically complex paintings reflect his bold experimentation with, and fusion of, Eastern and Western artistic traditions. His first solo exhibition with Gagosian was presented in Hong Kong in 2011. Photo: Li Zhenhua © 2019 Zeng Fanzhi

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Zeng Fanzhi on Georg Baselitz

I first came across Baselitz when I was painting in China during the second half of the 1980s.

During a painting class at university, I saw a student who inverted the figure in his work. The method of expression used—floating the figure at the top of the image—was bursting with visual tension and left me feeling shocked. Later, both from my professors’ resource room and from the publication World Art, to which I subscribed, I learned that this was one of the characteristics of Baselitz’s work. Inversion causes familiar objects to appear unfamiliar and preserves form while also abstracting it. As a student, I found this to be highly stimulating. It demonstrated that art was able to escape from the bonds of reality and obtain the freedom of creative language. It also hinted that traditional portraiture could also be reformed in this way. It’s important to note that at the time, the formalist style promoted by the art academies was that of either Soviet Russian socialist realism or European academic realism. However, I, along with similarly rebellious young artists, wanted to depart from this conservative, singular, mainstream academic aesthetic. We were searching for innovation in, and transformation of, all aspects of painting—from content to form—and from this looking to create an artistic style that would enable us to adequately express our individuality. It was in this ideological desert that Baselitz presented an oasis of opportunity, providing reference for the issues that we were grappling with at that time. As time went on, I paid close attention to avant-garde German art, and became familiar with other German postwar artists. I sensitively came to realize that the motifs of their innovation were underpinned with rebellious spirit and profound thought, and it was precisely these key factors that stimulated the development of art history. Recently, art critics had categorized Baselitz and other artists of his generation as Neo-Expressionists, regarding them as having written a new chapter in postwar art.

Looking back, I recognize that the stimulation we felt was not owing to the visual motifs of the works but was in fact caused by the way in which the German artists of Baselitz’s generation broke new ground, challenging norms and reveling in unbridled self-expression. Not only did their spirit and practice prove inspirational for young artists in faraway China, it also bestowed bravery and strength upon them, encouraging them to broaden their horizons and search for their own artistic trajectories.

Video: courtesy Zeng Fanzhi

More than thirty years later, Baselitz remains active, unrelentingly exhibiting across the globe. For this solo exhibition in Asia, he is showing new works, which, like all his works, are bursting with creativity. Occupying the space between abstract and figurative, his line work is exceptional and his use of color both confident and rich. Baselitz’s portraiture either contains characters themselves or hints at historical memories of the German people, and although he does not drown his works in narrative, there is a strong sense of “existence” in his use of form. From start to finish, he focuses on the existence of the individual, on the reality of humanity and the indescribable pacing of the mind—the same topics that his peers also grappled with. In this way, Baselitz profoundly inspires us, not with the form of his motifs, or his technical skill, but with the way in which he unceasingly focuses on the plight of human existence, revealing a concern for culture that is unique to postwar art, and a social conscience. I sincerely wish Baselitz’s Hong Kong exhibition every success and hope that more Asian viewers are able to gain inspiration and motivation from seeing his works in person. In addition, I hope that the audience will reflect on an artistic career that has both spanned the postwar and contemporary eras and profoundly engaged with history and culture.

Artist to Artist: Georg Baselitz and Zeng Fanzhi

Georg Baselitz, Madame Demoiselle weit weg von der Küste (Madame Demoiselle a long way from the coast), 2019, oil on canvas, 118 ⅞ × 168 ⅛ inches (302 × 427 cm) © Georg Baselitz. Photo: Jochen Littkemann

Georg Baselitz to Zeng Fanzhi

Dear Zeng Fanzhi,

Oppression comes from outside. Conformism comes from within.

I laughed a lot about contemporary Chinese painting in my youth. But there was also this great history in Chinese art, with Bada Shanren as example.

I had a student friend, his name was Joseph Yu-Kun Yang, who came from Shanghai via Hong Kong to Berlin to study Western painting (Tachism).

His sister studied traditional painting in Hong Kong. There was no such thing in Europe, the old and the new as an artistic interpretation, or as a way of painting. I didn’t think that was an option for me either.

I think we all crossed shaky bridges to reach the present. First, the autocratic systems and dictators troubled us. Then later, and still today, it was and is this submissive conformism that offends me. I know that no one is free, but I’d still like to be.

Your text surprised me. It mentions very open memories of China in your time that I knew nothing about. I know your work, and it always makes me happy to see your paintings. We shall carry on!

The very best of luck and kind regards,

Yours, G.B.

Georg Baselitz: Years later, Gagosian, Hong Kong, May 21–August 8, 2020

Foreword © Zeng Fanzhi, transcribed by Gladys Chung, and translated from Chinese to English by Luna Zhang

Installation view, Georg Baselitz: Archinto, Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice, May 19, 2021–November 27, 2022. Photo: Matteo De Fina

Georg Baselitz: Archinto

On the occasion of Georg Baselitz: Archinto at Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice, Artcore Films produced a short documentary featuring the artist. In the video, Baselitz details the origins of the project, how he approached the unique space, and his experiments in process and technique.

Baselitz: La rétrospective

Baselitz: La rétrospective

Richard Calvocoressi visits Georg Baselitz’s retrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and reflects on both the historical specificity and timeless themes of the artist’s sixty-year career.

Georg Baselitz working on Madame Demoisielle weit weg von der Küste (Madame Demoiselle a long way from the coast)

Georg Baselitz: Pulling Up the Image

In celebration of five recent projects related to Georg Baselitz, Richard Calvocoressi, Max Hollein, and Katy Siegel speak with the artist and look at his prolific career.

Damien Hirst's Reclining Woman on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2021

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2021

The Fall 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Damien Hirst’s Reclining Woman (2011) on its cover.

Georg Baselitz working on a painting in his studio.

Georg Baselitz: What if...

Richard Calvocoressi narrates a tour of an exhibition of new paintings by Georg Baselitz in San Francisco, describing the visual effect of these luminous compositions and explaining their relationship to earlier works by the artist.

Georg Baselitz, Da sind zwei Figuren im alten Stil (That’s two figures in the old style), 2019, oil and painter’s gold varnish on canvas

Georg Baselitz: Life, Love, Death

Richard Calvocoressi writes on the painter’s latest bodies of work, detailing the techniques employed and their historical precedents.

Featuring Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece 1 (1969) on its cover.

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2020

The Summer 2020 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece 1 (1969) on its cover.

Georg Baselitz, Ohne Titel (nach Pontormo) (Untitled [after Pontormo]), 1961.

Baselitz Bildung

On the occasion of a career-spanning exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Richard Calvocoressi tracks the evolution of Georg Baselitz’s development from his early education in East Germany to his revelatory trip to Florence, in 1965, and beyond.

Still from video Visions of the Self: Jenny Saville on Rembrandt

Visions of the Self: Jenny Saville on Rembrandt

Jenny Saville reveals the process behind her new self-portrait, painted in response to Rembrandt’s masterpiece Self-Portrait with Two Circles.

Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.

Zeng Fanzhi on Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu

Zeng Fanzhi on Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu

Zeng Fanzhi speaks about curating the exhibition Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu at Gagosian, Hong Kong, and the connections between the three artists’ works. Interview by Jin Jing.

Baselitz: Devotion

Baselitz: Devotion

Georg Baselitz speaks with Sir Norman Rosenthal on the subject of his latest work. The two discuss these paintings, all depictions of self-portraits by artists from the past and present, and what it means to pay homage.