Issue Number: 96
A self-confessed painter of ‘bad pictures’, Georg Baselitz creates shocking and powerful paintings that refuse to fit into the mainstream. Jill Lloyd visits the artist as he prepares for his Royal Academy retrospective and asks him why he continues to confront the ugly legacy of Germany’s wartime past.
Georg Baselitz in his studio, July 2007. Photograph by Kai von Rabenau
Georg Baselitz has been universally recognised as a powerful, inventive and controversial painter since he burst upon the art scene in the 1960s. In the early days his name was associated with open rebellion – a riot erupted at one of his first exhibitions in West Berlin when the public prosecutor seized two of his works. One of these paintings, The Big Night Down the Drain, 1962–63, depicting an ugly dwarf flashing an enormous penis, is now an icon of post-war art.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, German artists struggled to come to grips with the horrors of the past. The greatest talents of this post-war generation – Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer – have confronted the terrible legacy of twentieth-century German history in profoundly original and uncompromising works. Of these two major artists, Baselitz possesses the purer painterly talent. He has an uncanny ability to portray startling, shocking, even ugly imagery in paintings of great tenderness and beauty.
Baselitz is a born risk-taker, and at present the greatest challenge facing him, in his own estimation, is the forthcoming retrospective of his paintings at the Royal Academy because the stakes are so high in such a major solo show.
Twenty-five years ago Baselitz’s work was shown alongside his contemporaries at the Royal Academy’s ground-breaking exhibition, ‘A New Spirit in Painting’, which celebrated the rebirth of painting on an international scale.
This show played a decisive role in his life, and Baselitz is acutely aware of the honour now accorded him of being the first living German artist to have a retrospective in the Academy’s Main Galleries. On the eve of his 70th birthday, the artist comes across as a powerful man, virtually crackling with physical and intellectual energy. Recently he moved from his imposing castle in Derneburg in northern Germany, to the more comfortable southern ambience of Munich.
When I visit him in the summer, he is lodged in a temporary studio, working apace while he waits for his new home, designed by the Tate Modern architects Herzog and de Meuron, to be built in a lakeside location outside the city.
Along the walls of Baselitz’s studio lean the vibrant, large-scale canvases – a series called ‘Remix’, in which he reworks motifs from his earlier paintings in a bold, colourful style. As far as Baselitz is concerned, his retrospective at the RA is also an opportunity to show his works in progress, such as Untitled 19.VIII.06 (Ralf (Remix)), 2006. In Germany and the United States he has had phenomenal success, whereas in England this is his first retrospective for more than twenty years.
Reflecting on his rise to fame, and ahead to the paintings he still wants to make, Baselitz talks with frankness and humour about the issues surrounding his art. Some of these, such as the question of his German identity, are bound to provoke controversy in Britain.
Baselitz was born in 1938 in the Saxon village of Deutschbaselitz, located in the former GDR. His father was a village schoolmaster, and like most other relatives and acquaintances in the family circle, he supported Hitler and fought as a soldier in the Second World War.
One of the consequences of Nazi rule was that his father’s school library was stripped of all references to the modern artists considered ‘degenerate’ at the time. Baselitz describes the blanket of ignorance that enveloped him as a young man. In Communist East Germany foreign publications were banned, and Baselitz says he had no idea that German Expressionism existed nor, for example, did he know anything about Paul Klee.
As a boy he was particularly close to his uncle, a Protestant minister who helped Baselitz develop his interests and talents. However, the young artist always hated going into his uncle’s church. Looking back, he remarks: ‘What does a middle European have to do with Christ, a Mediterranean Jew? He was a middle-eastern man, but in our paintings we make him look European. In fact, for me it’s completely foreign and I don’t understand it at all.’
Baselitz felt a stronger affinity with the myths and legends of the North that he discovered in writers like Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg. But he also had ‘another orientation’, rooted to the ground rather than aspiring upwards to the sky. He connects his obsession with feet (beginning in the series of ‘P.D. Fuss’ paintings in 1963 and recurring in his recent ‘Remix’ works) with his instinct to stay grounded, attached to the earth.
Baselitz was seven years old when the War ended, but he admits that he still has daily conversations with his wife about this period and the difficult times that followed. He finds it hard to grasp that there are young people born in the 1960s and later who feel completely free of the burden of the War. In a sense, this terrible, unavoidable heritage determined the ugly side of Baselitz’s art, its uncompromising awkwardness, despite his innate sense of beauty, colour and line.
The heroes, or rather anti-heroes, who stumble through the German forests in his early work, such as Two Meissen Woodsmen, 1967, the flagrant sexual organs, are redolent of trauma. The artist recalls his mother upbraided him for his horrible subjects. ‘The paintings would be so beautiful and everybody would like them if only you would stop depicting such disgusting things!’ she insisted. ‘But this is it,’ Baselitz explains wryly.
‘That’s why I paint pictures. They must be ugly.’
Baselitz moved to West Berlin to study art in 1957, hungry for the visual experiences he was denied in the East. A year later he saw the large exhibition of Abstract Expressionism organised by MoMA to promote new American culture abroad. The artist still recalls his overwhelming excitement: ‘It was wonderful… I was completely convinced. Naturally though I had my problem or “burden” and this stopped me from saying Jackson Pollock is my master and I’ll continue what he began.’
Temperamentally and psychologically,Baselitz felt closer to existentialist literature – the plays of Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett, the poetry of Gottfried Benn – than he did to the brave new world of American abstract art. However, in Philip Guston’s paintings he sensed an unhealthy melancholy that he could respond to more directly, and he loved the mixture of the European tradition and American experience that he found in Willem de Kooning’s work.
By the late 1960s, Baselitz was attempting to break away from the nastiness of his early subject matter without ‘losing the point’ of his work. He experimented with fragmenting his images, and finally came upon the simple but radical solution of turning the motif upside down, such as Adler (Eagle), 1972.
'It was so irritating and shocking that it did the trick,’ he says. ‘But no one wanted this either, they thought it was just a trick. In fact it was a fantastic idea. It challenges the convention that what you see and what you paint are comparable, which is fatal for art. Who would suggest the background to the Mona Lisa and the landscape around Arezzo are one and the same thing? Leonardo made a picture and pictures should never be compared to the natural world.
'It’s vital to distinguish these realms. It isn’t enough to make your image very small (like Lucian Freud’s portrait of the Queen), although this is a start. It’s better to chop off the head so there isn’t a neck, but better still if you turn the image upside down. It would be best of all to make the painting invisible, to turn its face to the wall – then the contact is broken. I have explored how far you can go.’
These days Baselitz distances his work from reality through self-commentary, choosing to remake or ‘remix’ images from his earlier paintings in his current sketchier, more expansive and colourful style. He considers he has come to a stage in his life when it is natural to reflect on the past; he is also inspired by Edvard Munch, one of his earliest loves, who often remade works from the past. There is a new element of playfulness, which Baselitz terms ‘manipulation’ (placing a Hitler moustache, for example, on one of his earlier heroes). The artist explains this in terms of his newly found self-confidence, but also his response to the contemporary art world, associated with the Young British Artists (YBAs).
‘They have opened everything up. They make a lot of nonsense, so I feel free to paint more scandalously than before, thanks to these YBAs!’
Baselitz’s work brings to mind associations with Expressionism – several of his recent ‘Remix’ paintings, such as Heckel (Remix), 16.XI.2006, pay tribute to Munch and Die Brücke artists he admires. However, Baselitz explains this affinity not in terms of Expressionist ‘style’, but as a result of their shared Nordic identity. In his mind this has nothing to do with intention, as he certainly doesn’t set out to make ‘German’ art. Rather he believes there is some kind of genetic imprint that distinguishes the national styles.
‘Whether you like it or not,’ he comments, ‘You can’t avoid your roots. Nobody is born with a clean slate. In Germany we were in a very bad situation, and this affected people with a public voice much more than those who sat silently at home. We Germans cannot defend ourselves.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to say that the German tradition in literature, music and painting is so wonderful that we can be proud of it. We can use it as a source.’
With his formidable energy, Baselitz confronts these two conflicting models of personal and national identity head on. It is his form of protest. ‘I want to paint pictures,’ he asserts, ‘fantastic pictures. But they should be very bad!’
A special catalogue, with an original signed print by the artist, is available during the show in a limited edition of 100, priced at £400.