Oil on canvas, 250 x 180 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Ludwig Donation Photo © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Cologne. © Georg BaselitzThe Big Night Down the Drain was unveiled in 1963 at Baselitz’s first solo exhibition, the inaugural show of a gallery in Berlin that had been founded by two young dealers, Michael Werner and Benjamin Katz, the latter a young Jewish artist and photographer who had miraculously survived the Holocaust in Belgium as a boy and returned to Germany after the war.
The show, which contained more than fifty provocative paintings, watercolours and drawings, provoked outrage among its visitors, many of whom considered the works obscene. The Big Night Down the Drain was confiscated and Baselitz, Werner and Katz were fined.
The artist recently stated in public that perhaps he never has and never will make a finer painting than this. Exposure of the body and its more embarrassing functions has never been a problem for Baselitz, who sees no need to hide such private realities. Certainly this highly charged self-portrait about masturbation has a sense of tragic inevitability about it.
The artist was not making a scandal for its own sake, but, rather, confronting postwar Germany – which he had found too ready to hide behind bland abstraction, too keen to avoid societal and psychological issues – with his own reality. Certainly, The Big Night Down the Drain and other paintings from this period – heroic works, although perhaps they portray anti-heroes – introduce themes which Baselitz has continued to explore to this day, almost half a century later.
This text is abridged from the exhibition catalogue Georg Baselitz, available from the RA Shop.