Georg Baselitz first earned recognition in the late the 1960s for his signature paintings with upside-down motifs. He reoriented the subject, not the canvas, to reexamine it in a way that subverted traditional compositional rules and to move beyond the narrative connotations of his earlier paintings. In the 1970s he began applying paint with his hands, and later with his mouth and feet, a technique that underscores the painted image as a product of a body’s action and not only a conceptual or spiritual creation.
Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale (2008), a suite of sixteen paintings, is based on a repetition of the same compositional structure: two upside-down male figures sitting next to each other, their penises exposed and their hands resting solemnly on their thighs. The basic motif originates from Otto Dix’s renowned portrait The Artist’s Parents II (1924). As in many of his works, Baselitz referred to a specific art-historical precedent, reinterpreting it in his own way: in this case, replacing Dix’s figures with two dictators, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Each painting bears an individual title comprising a pun or an enigmatic phrase. None of the titles refer directly to the dictators portrayed; they were inspired for the most part by reflections upon, or encounters with, the work of modern and contemporary artists.