Why I was wrong about Georg Baselitz and his upside-down paintings

    In 1969 Georg Baselitz began painting upside down. It was a strange thing to do. And definitely gimmicky. What it achieved, however, was to give him an unmissable pictorial identity. In the busily stacked shelves of art, he stood out. He was the guy who painted upside down.

    At the time, and whenever his rationale was questioned in the ensuing decades, he would explain that by inverting his images he made people pay more attention to the “mechanics” of his pictures — the brushstrokes, the colours, the rhythms. Instead of puzzling over what he painted, the viewer was forced to concentrate on how he painted: the abstract level of art.

    Personally, I have never bought this. Baselitz’s upside-down imagery made me more curious about what was being depicted, not less. The impulse to turn his pictures round, and look at them the right way up, was irresistible. Especially as his other main form of expression, his sculpture, was so damned direct. Hewn out of wood with an axe, the sculptures were strikingly crude essays in angry, disillusioned, typically German expressionism. Wagner, Beckmann, Hitler — it was all in there.

    Having stored up those kinds of doubts over many years of encountering his work, I tiptoed into his huge new London show expecting, once again, to be puzzled by the upside-down gimmick and irritated by the expressionistic German flim-flamming. It didn’t happen. Instead, so fascinating did the art turn out to be, so complex the moods, so glorious the paintwork, that I didn’t want to leave. Indeed, having gone a few hundred yards up the road, I turned round and returned for another look. What a gripping event.

    Baselitz is 86. Born in what became East Germany, he had no choice but to have his life dipped and pickled in the harsh vinegar of Germany’s 20th-century history. He lived through the Nazi era. He lived through the communist era. “I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society,” he once explained. On one of its levels, the awkwardness of his upside-down art can surely be understood as a deliberate nihilism: an angry slapping of history’s face.

    But what’s immediately obvious and immediately wonderful about the new collection of paintings — Baselitz’s late style — is its sensuality. At 86 he has started to make art that is really sexy. It’s especially true of a room filled with seated figures, all upside down, all presented against a sky-blue background so creamy and glistening that an urge to lick it kicks in. This is paint working on your taste buds like ice cream.

    Most of the seated figures are women, probably nudes, although the liquidity of the paint and their upside-downness leaves plenty of room for ambiguity. Are those pendulous breasts hanging the wrong way round? Are they different women, or the same one repeated like rococo wallpaper?

    The paperwork for the show clears up some of the ambiguity by revealing that Baselitz has recently become fascinated by Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother. The seated format and the strong sense of profile are taken from the spectacularly sombre Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler. No wonder Whistler himself — with typical pretension — entitled his maternal portrayal: Arrangement in Grey and Black. There are Shaker tables out there with a happier presence than Whistler’s mum.

    But if Arrangement in Grey and Black is the inspiration for Baselitz’s women, then where does the rococo sexiness fit in? The usual woman in Baselitz’s art is his long-term partner and mother of his children, Johanna Elke Kretzschmar. But all these lipsticked femmes fatales can’t be Elke, can they?

    Appended to the topsy-turvy women are pairs of diaphanous nylon stockings that dance slinkily about the painted legs and add notes of Second World War nostalgia to the sexy moods. The exhibition is actually called A Confession of My Sins. Is Baselitz confessing to inviting an assortment of Marlene Dietrichs to his marriage?

    Who knows. What’s certain is that for the first time in a Baselitz show — and I’ve seen a fair few — the argument about the upside-downness allowing you to focus on the paintwork feels fully convincing. Lean in and enjoy his fencing. Confident stabs of purple. Bold slashes of pink. Sugary expanses of yellow. All held together and shaped by a naughty black line that darts hither and thither like an inquisitive bee.

    All this is marvellous. But the show is as good as it is because of the complexity of its moods. The awkwardness that upside-downness brings to Baselitz’s art appears, here and there, to be used deliberately to darken the interaction.

    A huge black painting of two seated figures facing each other is supposed to represent Elke and Georg. Because they are upside down, the black space between them feels extra tangible, as if the artist has given it a symbolic role. Two alienated, lonely figures have found themselves in a Beckett play, and are waiting endlessly for Godot.

    For much of his career, Baselitz appeared to be making art with ambitions to capture the mood of his country. Here, it all feels painfully personal. At the far end of the show he paints a series of upside-down animals: a deer, a horse, some eagles. They’re the kinds of beasts you might find in a piece of Teutonic heraldry. Here, though, the upside-downness destroys the heroism and replaces it with warmth and nostalgia. Baselitz, in his old age, is having a Disney moment.

    Georg Baselitz: A Confession of My Sins is at White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1, until June 16 (whitecube.com)