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Zwei Rehe (Two Deer)

Zwei Rehe (Two Deer)
signed with the artist's initials and dated '18. III '85 G.B.' (lower centre); signed, titled and dated 'G. Baselitz "Zwei Rehe" 18. XII 84 + 18. III. 85' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 64in. (200 x 162.5cm.)
Painted in 1984-1985
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne.
Galleria Christian Stein, Milan.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1995.
H-W. Holzwarth (ed.), Georg Baselitz, Cologne 2022 (illustrated in colour, p. 268).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Georg Baselitz, 1986, no. 45.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Towering two metres in height, Zwei Rehe (Two Deer) (1984-1985) is a vibrant monumental work from Georg Baselitz’s series of deer paintings. Painted at a time when he was working with renewed freedom in his subject matter and exploring a sumptuous, saturated palette inspired by the early Renaissance frescoes of Piero della Francesca, it sees Baselitz at the height of his painterly powers. In his signature style he has rendered the image upside-down, estranging it from pictorial convention and foregrounding the dynamic splendour of the brushwork. Two deer face one another amid a melee of pink, ochre, sky-blue and grass-green impasto. The large animal to the left is black with a green eye, while its smaller companion—perhaps a faun—is blue-eyed and scarlet in colour, aglow with an aura worthy of Franz Marc’s visionary nature paintings. The work has been held in the same private collection since the 1990s.

Baselitz had started making upside-down paintings in 1969. Through these convulsive works, which pictured a decoupling of medium and subject matter, he was able to reconcile his own status as a painter in Germany’s turbulent and uncertain post-war society. In many of them, as in his early series of ‘fracture’ paintings, he depicted Germanic pastoral motifs such as forests, woodsmen, dogs, eagles and cattle. Their inversion put these images under pressure, as if trying to empty them of their burdens of meaning. While the present work’s deer might be seen as a similarly loaded subject, they in fact have a more personal origin in a watercolour that Baselitz had painted as a child. Their paired forms, moreover, reflect the heightened emphasis on chromatic structure that characterised his work during this period. The painting echoes Piero’s famous Madonna del Parto (circa 1450-1470), with its maternal iconography and opposing colour-fields. Indeed, while Baselitz would always claim that the colours he used were ‘arbitrary’ and non-expressive, his deer paintings have an almost spiritual radiance, building on the brilliant hues of his 1983-1984 series that depicted scenes from Christ’s Passion.

In 1975 Baselitz had moved to Schloss Derneburg, a castle in Lower Saxony whose vast spaces inspired him to work at an increasingly impressive scale. His formal ambitions were further sharpened during the 1980s, when he began to divide his time between Germany and Italy. From 1981 to 1987 he rented a studio in Castiglion Florentino, near Arezzo, where he was able to study Piero’s luminous frescoes in person. While he retained an interest in Teutonic imagery, he began to range more widely and playfully among art-historical tropes and other subject matter in his upside-down paintings. He inverted biblical scenes, still-lifes and reclining nudes and—as in Zwei Rehe—revisited his own juvenilia. Many works from this expansive period took Baselitz closer to abstraction, realising his early ambition to match the grand, ‘all-over’ surfaces of American Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. Others, such as the vivid masterpieces Der Brückechor (1983) and Nachtessen in Dresden (1983, Kunsthaus Zürich), directly tackled the legacy of his German Expressionist forebears and his artistic hero Edvard Munch.

The art historian Dieter Koepplin visited Baselitz at Derneburg in March 1985. He saw multiple versions of Zwei Rehe in one of the studios: alongside them, ‘a watercolour of deer that Baselitz had painted in his childhood was tacked on the wall (it had sparked off the work on his deer pictures) along with a reproduction of a picture of pine trees by Caspar David Friedrich.’ The two discussed the influence of Piero upon the artist’s recent work. ‘Piero della Francesca once painted an angel’s wings red and green, as dictated by the terms of the picture regardless of naturalistic explanations—a purely pictorial invention’, Baselitz said, referring to the Madonna del Parto. ‘I have made analogous discoveries ... The only explanation for every brushstroke you make comes from the picture itself and is made possible by it’ (G. Baselitz, quoted in D. Koepplin, ‘Georg Baselitz on Die Nacht’Parkett, no. 11, 1986, pp. 51, 48). For all Baselitz’s art-historical grounding, it is ultimately this intense, single-minded focus on the painting in front of him—its tactile surface, interactive colours and sheer physical presence—that gives the present work its power. Breaking free of narrative and symbolism, Baselitz’s deer emerge into unfamiliar new life, as if seen for the very first time.

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