A conversation with Georg Baselitz

Published on ocula.com, 13 November 2015

‘I begin with an idea, but as I work the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea I preconceived … and the picture that fights for its own life.’ – Georg Baselitz.

Georg Baselitz. Portrait by George Darrell. Courtesy of White Cube.
Georg Baselitz. Portrait by George Darrell. Courtesy of White Cube.

Struggle, along with the human condition and a smattering of controversy: this is what sits at the heart of work by painter, sculptor and printmaker, Georg Baselitz.

One of Germany’s most distinguished painters, Baselitz has enjoyed a career spanning almost 60 years, battling with his canvases and occasionally audiences along the way. From being thrown out of his East Berlin art school for ‘political immaturity,’ and having his first exhibition shut down due to an obscene painting referencing Adolf Hitler (The Big Night Down The Drain / Die große Nacht im Eimer, 1962/3), to his upside-down paintings and his comments on female artists (they can’t paint, apparently), he’s always taken the role of the contentious, and at times, crotchety outsider. It’s a position he relishes, and one that has come to define his work almost as much as the expressionistic, tortured and feverish lines of his figurative forms.

Baselitz is part of a generation of artists, including Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo, who hailed from the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the wrong side of a divided Germany. Born Hans-Georg Kern in Deutschbaselitz, Saxony, he later changed his name to reference his city of birth in order to protect his family from the wrath of the Communist Apparatchik after he was thrown out of school for not falling into line. Until he arrived in West Berlin in 1957, as a 20 year-old student, his life had been lived under the regime of the Nazis, and then the communist rule of the GDR. Weighed down by such history, it’s no surprise Baselitz has spent a lifetime exploring Germany through his artwork. ‘I wonder if bad experiences are necessary for good paintings. It was certainly true in my case,’ he mused in an interview earlier this year with a British newspaper.

In West Berlin, a drip feed of artistic influences from Willem de Kooning, German Expressionism, and Cubism trickled down, shaping his work into the distinctive neo-expressionist style he developed, informed by a language of personal and national history. In the ‘60s, at a time when post-war baby boom America was in thrall to pop art, Baselitz filled his canvases with frenzied brushwork and murky colours, depicting distorted, and sometimes fractured, grotesque figures. These paintings were less a celebration of humanity than a confrontation with the ugliness of it: with trauma, war and the darkness of the human psyche. While the West championed consumerism, Baselitz doggedly attempted to express the incomprehensible, dredging up unresolved issues of his country’s past through symbolism and the figure.

Breaking with painting conventions in 1969, Baselitz created his upside-down paintings, which were to become a hallmark of his work. Landscapes, figures and symbols are inverted, the viewer’s experience of the work is disrupted, shifting attention away from the figurative towards the materiality of the paint instead, emphasising the surface rather than what is represented. Not that Baselitz luxuriates in the materiality and sensuality of paint, rather he uses it to suggest anxiety and tension: splattering, smudging, layering and scratching into the paint. Likewise his sculptural works are physical and expressive, giving the appearance of being brutally hacked with chainsaw and axe, the wood carved and forced into little more than a crude ‘outline.’

Currently exhibiting for the first time at White Cube Hong Kong, Baselitz presents us with two series of previously unseen paintings, as well as a selection of prints and a large sculpture, which revisit and rework familiar themes and motifs. Across a series of black canvases paying homage to Otto Dix’s 1921 woodcut Street Noise (Lärm der Strasse), the reduced form of disembodied black legs swirl with momentum in a shape somewhat resembling a swastika. The works are a continuation of a series he painted for Glyndebourne opera festival earlier this year. In a large bronze sculpture cast from wood, a bundle of roughly hewn legs appear held together by several rings on a bench. In another new series, large works seem bisected as the top or bottom half of the gestural and figurative paintings are left blank. They recall Baselitz’s fractured and fragmented bodies of his earlier paintings, but the colours are brighter and the brushstrokes freer and lighter, and the body, outlined sketchily in loose black lines, is punctuated with splatters. These works appear less burdened by the heavy weight of history than the paintings that heralded his arrival as one of Germany’s leading post-war artists.

Installation view of Georg Baselitz' solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).
Installation view of Georg Baselitz’ solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).

Did you choose art, or did art choose you?

I never had the feeling of pursuing a normal profession but rather there was always the question of ‘where to’ from here.

As a student in the fifties you were thrown out of art school for ‘political immaturity,’ and some years later controversy started shadowing your exhibitions; from your first exhibition in 1963 with Galerie Werner und Katz, to the 1980 Venice Biennale presentation of a certain wooden sculpture. Do you see yourself as an art world outsider, or provocateur? Do you believe your work to be misunderstood?

Yes, I think the situation of my work to the audience has remained unchanged from all those years ago. There is always a very critical—and at times malicious—view of my work. I’m not to blame for this attitude of the audience, because ultimately my job is very controversial.

Following your move from East Berlin to West Berlin in 1957, you were exposed to and influenced by the works of different international artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Did they impact the direction of your work?

I was impressed by these paintings, looking at them for the first time in 1958 when I was 20 years old. I immediately had the feeling that something had passed us by in Germany, but I was also convinced it was no longer in demand in this modern era. So I chose a different path, and you can see that when you see my pictures from 1960s. These are ultimately very different paintings to those of the Americans.

Installation view of Georg Baselitz' solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).
Installation view of Georg Baselitz’ solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).

Although you have been an artist for almost six decades you have described paintings as battles, saying the picture fights for its own life.

It was never easy for me to realise this but I had to, after all I had refused to study well or to participate in going along with the mainstream. Essentially, my stuff was very different from that of other artists.

Do you have any rituals to prepare for a painting?

No rituals but just a normal, everyday, pretty strenuous relationship to work.

After such a long career, do you ever get faced with anxiety over a painting, a fear of failure, or inability to address the painting in the way you want?

To fail is still a problem. There is still the feeling of being in infancy. There is little solidity that supports my work, quite the contrary, I feel I am still in a very fragile state.

Installation view of Georg Baselitz’ solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).

Your paintings deal with Germany’s past and trauma. You were born under the rule of the Third Reich, and are well positioned to understand East and West Germany having lived on both sides of the wall. Understandably, there is a compulsion to address this as it is part of your own personal history. But would you say there is also an expectation of German artists to revisit and wrestle with their nation’s past?

Unfortunately we have this bad history, but I don’t think that a bad history is necessary for good paintings. We have said at the start that Pollock and the others made wonderful paintings without this bad history. In the German case, one always tries to find the justification for the arts in bad history and I think that’s wrong.

You’re hailed for redefining German art, and are known as one of the most influential and expensive living artists to come out of Germany. Yet you enjoy this success overseas more than in your own birth country. Why do you think this is?

There is a saying in Germany—‘No man is a prophet in his own land.’

Installation view of Georg Baselitz' solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).
Installation view of Georg Baselitz’ solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Photo: White Cube (Vincent Tsang).

Your exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong features eight new black paintings, eight new colourful half-figure paintings, and a large bronze sculpture. What are the ideas behind the exhibition?

I still try, and I believe more than ever in moving forward. I think incessantly about other opportunities for better paintings. In the last paintings colour, and also the contrast between light and dark, disturbed me very much so I came up with the idea of these almost monochrome paintings, which are rooted in dreams, and have no precedent in art history.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m continuing to work on these almost black paintings for an exhibition at White Cube in London in April 2016. I hope it all works out.

'La Voce Canta' (2015). Photo: White Cube
‘La Voce Canta’ (2015).
Photo: White Cube

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