Interview: Georg Baselitz

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Interview: Georg Baselitz


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


'In many ways,' Georg Baselitz muses, 'I behaved against the grain of the times I grew up in.' The era was 1960s Germany; in that context, Baselitz feels he was subversively respectable. 'For example, I never took any drugs. I have been a very faithful husband, I just wanted to hold on to my wife, I wasn't interested in straying. I never went on any political demonstrations.' His major offence, however, was not what he didn't do but what he actually did: paint figurative pictures.

Eventually, fashions reversed, and this perverse behaviour made Baselitz a celebrated figure in the world of art. At 78, he remains vigorously productive. We were talking in White Cube, Bermondsey, the spacious galleries of which are filled by an exhibition of recent oils, watercolours and sculptures by Baselitz. Many of these feature the naked bodies of the artist himself and his wife Elke, dangling like wrinkled chrysalises or -- since in company with so many images in Baselitz's oeuvre they are upside down -- like pallid bats. They seem to float, with visibly ageing anatomy, in a spectral void flecked with stray skeins and splodges of paint resembling distant stars. Perhaps -- as the title, 'Wir fahren aus', or 'We're off' suggests -- Baselitz, as he approaches 80, is contemplating the end.

At the beginning, however, as he explained to me, Baselitz was attacked whenever he showed his work. Moreover, in addition to being outrageously reactionary, because his works were not abstract, he was also suspected of being upper class. 'Some people assumed I was an aristocrat and called me "Von Baselitz", which was terribly funny.'

In fact, Baselitz is not his real name -- he was christened Hans-Georg Kern -- but a pseudonym he adopted from his native village, Deutschbaselitz, a little place a few kilometres from Dresden. In 1945, at the age of seven, he saw the firestorm on the horizon and then the next day walked with his family through the smoking ashes of the city centre as they fled the approaching Red Army.

In reality, his background was middle class, his father was a teacher. 'If I had really been aristocratic I would have had no chance whatsoever of being accepted. If you wanted to become a famous artist, the circumstances of your background had to be really bad.' So, I suggest, Baselitz was an outsider, and maybe that was good for his art. And Baselitz -- a big, jovial man -- laughs and agrees. Mind you, there were other reasons why he ran into trouble in his early days.

Hanging on the wall behind Baselitz in the conference room at White Cube is an extremely graphic painting of the central section of a naked, overweight male body. It's not one of his own works, but 'Parts of Leigh Bowery' (1992) -- namely the thighs, paunch and genitalia -- by Lucian Freud.

Like Freud, Baselitz has created images that caused a frisson of shock -- in fact, more than a frisson on occasions. When two of his best-known early works were exhibited in Berlin in 1963, they were seized by the public prosecutor, and the artist was tried and fined. One of these, 'Big Night Down the Drain', depicted a dwarfish figure masturbating. When he began, Baselitz once told me, his work came from a feeling in his belly. 'A certain defensive attitude; eruptive, vulgar.'

At first, he painted from his imagination, 'more the way in which children would paint'. Then, in 1969, Baselitz began painting real images -- figures, landscapes -- but topsy-turvy. …

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