One day in June 2012, Georg Baselitz took a pad of A4 paper bearing the letterhead of a German estate agency and sketched on the back, in a mauvish black felt-pen, two figures seated together. Or, if not quite two distinct figures, then one shadowed and entwined with some sort of ectoplasmic double or ethereal shade. He repeatedly drew this image up to a total of 18 times (Untitled (1–18), 2012) and with each iteration these one or two figures became more or less distinct from each other, more or less distorted, until finally they were reduced to a rough-hewn oblong with an expressionless head, three rings binding one limb. This last was chopped, hacked and sawed out of an unyielding hunk of wood before being cast, earlier this year, in bronze. As such it stands, mute, coarse and slightly terrifying, some eight-foot high on its plinth in Thaddaeus Ropac’s Pantin gallery in the Paris suburbs. Its title Marokkaner (2013) is mysterious, coming from an artist who around the time of those felt-tip sketches expressed his contempt for multiculturalism in an interview with the German magazine, Art.
At the far end of the gallery, we find four more of these rings, now slumped around the midriff of an even more forbidding figure in a clumsily balletic pose. Combined with the slick black of the patination (common to all the sculptures in this exhibition), they could be the cuffs and restraints of bondage wear; binding these ball-gagged leather gimp suits for fairytale trolls. Towering fully three-and-a-half metres up and scarred with the same violent hacks that punctuated its twin, this second blackened behemoth is named after the American dancer Loie Fuller (albeit using her given, rather than stage name – Louise Fuller, 2013) whose serpentine dance at the Folies-Bergère in 1892 enchanted the Belle Époque. Filmed by the Lumières, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Fuller encapsulated, in the poet Mallarmé’s description, something at once ‘elementary’ and ‘industrial’. Spiritualists saw in her swirling veils a reflection of the astral bodies produced at séances. But if Baselitz’s rings are to suggest Fuller’s veils, a glimpse of some mediumistic emanation, then we are being offered a spirit world that is harsh and brutish.
There is an obvious contradiction between an artist who claims to hate the reproducible (as Baselitz does) creating multiple bronze editions that painstakingly mould every artfully ham-fisted cleft, in a work that so spectacularises the artist’s romantic struggle with his material being cast in another material altogether. If in these statues we find references to the fetish in all its forms – from the ‘primitive’ totem to the private fantasies of the BDSM club – it is ultimately the touch of the artist, Baselitz’s own striking physicality in every ad hoc chop, that is fetishised above all else. We are left with works at once imposing and somewhat oppressive. Glorious in their own ugliness, they raise strange monuments to the quasi-divine hand of their maker.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.