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Flamboyant master of artistic nuance: Markus Lüpertz turns 75

Love him or hate him, with his tattoos and heavy jewelry, artist Markus Lüpertz always leaves a lasting impression. His paintings and sculptures, however, spite abstract art as color-rich masterpieces of subtly.

Opinions are divided on German artist Markus Lüpertz. The tabloid papers regularly celebrate him as a genius, but art critics tend to take him with a grain of salt.

"Come to terms with me," Lüpertz said in a DW interview two decades ago. "There's no way around me and no antidote against me!"

After 30 years as an artist, Lüpertz has - despite his polarizing nature - solidified his status as one of Germany's most prominent contemporary artists. His oversized paintings in expressive neo-Romantic style rake in six-figure sums.

A pompous showman, Lüpertz says he celebrates the "charm of the 20th century" - whatever that's supposed to mean. Nevertheless, the artist worked his way up to become president of the Dusseldorf Art Academy, and a professor in the city of Karlsruhe, and has been an extensive influence on the world of art.

"The charm of the 20th century is made visible through the dithyramb I invented," Lüpertz wrote at the age of 21, calling the paper his manifesto and laying the foundation for his future success. After that, his works were referred to as being "dithyrambic."

The dithyramb, originally a religious hymn in ancient Greece, was an ecstatic, poetic, dance-like adoration of the goddess of fertility, Dionysos.

Critics were grateful for encountering so many unsolved riddles in Lüpertz's work and assigned him to the upper-class of the art world. Despite his mixed reputation, he's been painting and sculpting in the upper echelons ever since, alongside respected peers like Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.

Breakthrough with black, red and gold

"Black-Red-Gold" - the colors of the German flag - was the title of Lüpertz' famous painting from 1974. It is a still life featuring relicts of war, like steel helmets, hats, rifles and a Roman breastplate.

Markus Lüpertz, Schwarz Rot Gold (1974), Copyright:

'Black-Red-Gold' (1974)

A lead-blue sky and an ocher-colored desert scene are seen in the background. The edge of the threatening motif is marked with bright red. The work is immaculately painted, competently constructed, with three-dimensional effects and spatial depth, the colors carefully set in layers.

It was with paintings like "Black-Red-Gold" that Lüpertz achieved his breakthrough in the early 1970s. His motifs of choice were enigmatic icons of German history.

Some criticized Lüpertz as being too German and reactionary. Lüpertz divides public opinion - both as an artist and as a person. Men like him can only be loved or hated. Even the artist's well-toned, athletic figure is imposing, as well as his closely shorn head, tattoos, and heavy gold jewelry. Many choose to keep their distance from him.

His dandified public appearances with pin-striped suit, hat, spats and cane gave him an air of ridiculousness for a long time. With a cigar dangling from his lips, he became known for being quick witted as well. Lüpertz also breeds fight dogs and drives conspicuously expensive cars.

He offers an alternative image of masculinity that flaunts his vanity. "I think it's completely natural to do yourself up when you go out," Lüpertz told DW. "That's part of culture and part of my self-concept."

Painting against abstract art

Lüpertz' divisiveness as an artist goes way back. At the beginning of his career, the painter rejected the then-current trend of abstract art. He developed a poetic style of painting that strived for clearly defined, meaningful lines.

'Mercurius' can be seen in front of the Post Tower in Bonn, Copyright: picture alliance/JOKER

'Mercurius' can be seen in front of the Post Tower in Bonn

Eduard Beaukamp, editor at Germany's daily newspaoer "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and one of the leading art critics in the country, spoke of a "generational conflict between an over-powerful post-war abstraction and a longing for a new kind of figurative and monumental iconography."

Lüpertz never skimps on color. His oversized oil paintings are expressively creative with quick, light brush strokes. It's not the powerful, screaming red, blue or yellow that dominates, but the subtle olive green or ocher yellow that is often applied with the impasto technique, in which paint is applied thickly and brush marks are left behind as it is smeared.

While his public appearances are provocative and loud, Lüpertz's artworks are masterpieces of nuance. He has said before that painting is a sensual experience for him.

The making of a genius

In his motifs and forms, Lüpertz borrows quotes from the 1980s and 1990s. Among his best known works are his male portraits from 1993 to 1997, called "Parsifal." Often, Lüpertz's figures are crying. His landscape paintings came later; then he turned to religious motifs in works like "Vanitas" and "Vesper." Today, many of his works are kept both in public museums and private collections.

Since the 1980s, Lüpertz has also been active as a sculptor. His sculptures have an archaic aesthetic with roughly formed shapes. But his sculptures seem to have foudna following in high places: His bronze work "The Philosopher" is on display in the Chancellery in Berlin, and his whimsical "Mercurius" adorns the entrance to the Post Tower in Bonn.

Lüpertz's homage to Michelangelo

Since he his childhood, Lüpertz says he has dreamed of becoming a genius. As a young artist in Berlin, he paid his bills by doing construction work, but felt that he was born to be an artist. At the age of 15, he bought a feather cap and imitated Rembrandt. At 21, he composed his artistic manifesto.

Lüpertz turns 75 on April 25. At this age, he's abandoned the pomposity of past decades, he told the German news agency dpa, and no longer wants to be known as the "prince of painting."

In another interview, though, Lüpertz made it clear that he still had a beef to settle: "When an artist is a drug addict, gay, hops around on one leg, smells like shit and pees on the walls, then no one gets upset," he told Germany's "Stern" magazine. "But people resent everything about me."

He added, "I would love myself if I met me."

Hommage an Michelangelo, Markus Lüpertz, Copyright: DW/S. Dege

Lüpertz admired Rembrandt; here is his homage

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