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C.F. Hill.

Robert Rosenblum

In 1988, an enterprising Danish publisher, Torsten Blondal, launched an innovative series of books, "Art in the Nordic Countries." Each of these modest but elegant little paperbacks is devoted to a Scandinavian artist of the last two centuries. Some may be obscure to us (Svavar Gudnason, Lars Hertevig), but others may be as famous to foreigners as Edvard Munch or the recently much exhibited and talked about Christian Kobke, the silver poet of Denmark's "Golden Age of Painting." As for the authors, they range from professional art historians, critics, and poets to such contemporary artists as Per Kirkeby (with monographs by Lawrence Weiner, Donald Judd, and John Ashbery coming up soon).

The latest in this series links the oddest of couples. The clinically insane Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911) has now been resurrected by none other than Georg Baselitz, long known to be, like many other Northern neo-Expressionists, a devotee of Hill's heartbreakingly demented drawings. The product of a frenetic graphomania, these largely undatable pages extend from 1877, the year of the artist's first institutionalization in Paris, where he learned to be a belated if already haunted disciple of the Barbizon School, to his final, isolated decades in Lund, under the protective roof of his mother and sister. Baselitz's anthology offers a hallucinatory smorgasbord of what look like the unleashed demons of a Nordic id--a bleak landscape rained upon not by water but by windswept streaks of letters that spell out the artist's name, HILL; crude images of a wild horse, a reindeer, or a giant serpent appearing in a nature primitive enough to provide the sets for a lunatic dramatization of the Edda; eruptions of rocks and trees that metamorphose before our eyes into breasts and phalluses.

The power of these volcanic eruptions of authentic fictions dearly sparked Baselitz's own imagination, not only in visually demonstrable ways (a series of paintings from 1992-93, with their at first illegible filaments of paint that are suddenly transformed into free-floating nudes, look like sophisticated branches off Hill's desperate tree) but also in terms of his virtuoso introductory text. This, amazingly, is a whole-cloth invention by Baselitz of a correspondence that might have taken place, but never did, between Hill and August Strindberg, his compatriot and exact contemporary. Himself an unforgettably audacious amateur artist who would also wallow in organic chaos and explore the alchemic potentials hidden in the vast Scandinavian waters and forests, Strindberg had known Hill's work early on, in Paris. But knowing all too well about the brink of madness, he avoided contact with the schizophrenic Hill; and it was left to Baselitz to dream up a series of letters they might have written to each other. This poignant literary deception pits the stammeringly truthful and disjointed verbal outbursts of "C.F.H." against the no less delirious but suavely written fantasies of "August," which in fact echo the feverish language and bizarre imagery of an actual essay that Strindberg published in French on the importance of accident for artistic creation (La Revue des revues, November 15, 1894). In this little book, Baselitz's total immersion in Hill's obsessive art, tormented spirit, and imaginary companion produces a marriage made in heaven, or is it hell?

Robert Rosenblum is an art historian and professor of fine arts at New York University. He is most recently the author of Andy Warhol Portraits (Thames and Hudson, 1993) and Paintings in the Musee d'Orsay (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989).
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Author:Rosenblum, Robert
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Previous Article:Visions of the Modern.
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