The grotesque world of Georg Baselitz
When the Allied bombers destroyed Dresden in 1945, a small boy witnessed horrors. What he saw still finds expression in the distortions of his art, soon to be seen at the Royal Academy.
There has always been something rather self-aggrandising and publicity-seeking about the German painter Georg Baselitz, the man who turned the human figure upside down at the end of the 1960s and has not set it back the right way up ever since. In 1963, two of the pictures from his first solo exhibition, in Berlin, were seized by public prosecutors on the grounds of obscenity. In 1969, he began inverting his figures, which was an enormously eye-catching gesture. In 1980, he shared the Nazi-era German pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Anselm Kiefer, and the sculpture he put on display there - blockish, crudely fashioned, inclined towards the primitive - seemed to be making a Fascist salute. It caused an uproar.
He has obsessively painted the human figure, but he has never used a life model. Given the violent freedom with which he has twisted, distorted, fractured and pulverised the human form in his paintings from the 1960s onwards, every model in the Western hemisphere must be heaving a sigh of relief to have been spared the attentions of his ferociously unflattering eye.
His biography is troublingly memorable. He was born in 1938, the son of a primary-school teacher, in the small village of Grossbaselitz in Saxony, in what would later become East Germany. When he was aged seven, the brilliant town of Dresden, which was just 30km away, and the surrounding areas were carpet-bombed by the Allies.
"Were you in the schoolhouse itself when it happened?" I ask him over lunch of veal and chardonnay at a small restaurant just around the corner from his temporary studio in Munich. It is our first meeting, and Baselitz, in spite of all that repeated witnessing of the horrors of the past, seems to have sailed into calmer waters these days. He is a loomingly tall man, dressed in striking yellow cords. He will be 70 next January. A slightly foppish red handkerchief lolls from the top pocket of his blue jacket. He pushes one of his very large hands up against his chin and gives me a slow and slightly reptilian stare.
"It was our Iraq, our Vietnam. There was the red flag of the Red Cross hanging over the schoolhouse, which was a sign that the building was protected by the Geneva Conventions. They bombed it anyway. We were down in the cave..." "And is it an ever-present memory with you?" " My wife Elke and I - she is from Dresden - we talk about it every day."
To say that the war and its Communist aftermath in East Germany haunts Baselitz is to understate the truth. His work, from first to last, seems the embodiment of some terrible fracturing, of the complete collapse of any kind of civil society. He pays witness to these facts in the way he pushes paint around a canvas, the way he deforms and tortures the human image. And yet there is another factor to take into account too: the psychological make-up of the man himself. To put it as Baselitz put it to me: the history of your country is the history of yourself. The scale of the tragedy was enormous - and Baselitz has testified to it violently, noisily, and often on an enormous scale. And by so doing, he has drawn attention to himself as a heroic survivor of all that human suffering. It has been of great service to his art.
And yet today, in this small restaurant in Munich, he seems a little quiet, a little reduced in scale. He feels as if he may have reined back his ambitions somewhat - or perhaps merely breathing the freer air of a man who has already achieved a considerable amount of recognition and notoriety, and knows that he does not have to push so hard. Perhaps he doesn't have the energy to push quite so hard, either.
He seems a touch humbler, and even more relaxed, than I could have imagined. He says, with genuine humility, that he is "ecstatic" to be having a retrospective at the Royal Academy - thanks to his old friend Norman Rosenthal, also German-born. He no longer lives in the castle he occupied for more than 30 years. He is building a house, with a studio, a print shop and much else, on the shores of Ammersee lake. "In fact, I am building four houses," he says, with pride and pleasure. He V C also has a home and a studio on the Italian Riviera, where he spends three-quarters of the year. And does he miss that great, ancient schloss? "Well, no; a castle has a high attitude, and you are always exposed. I want to be more modest."
He tells me, with a child-like delight, that the new dwelling-house will be on two storeys, and be made entirely of glass. Where will you hang the paintings, I ask. On the floor? (He paints on the floor.) On the ceiling? (He does not paint on the ceiling.) The issue remains unresolved.
His temporary studio, though large enough, is just one among many small-scale industrial units behind the offices of Sixt Car Rental beside Munich's Ostbahnhof station. There is no fanfare about the display of works inside. Huge canvases - each one is 3m by 2.5m - rear up against the wall, all leaning against each other. Won't it damage them, I ask. No, he says airily, not at all, and he lifts one away with seeming ease. There are pots of paint, and brushes, in the centre of the room, but little evidence at all of sculptural activity, no evidence whatsoever that he is still blazing away with axes and chain saws.
In fact, there is just one sculpture here, and it is a bronze cast, huge and lumpish in scale, of a primitive, folkloric portrait of his wife, originally fabricated in wood. She wears a miner's cap, with some defiance, and she has the alarming feet of a giant. This will be in the show in London, together with a sculptural portrait of Baselitz himself. Man and wife as crude, domineering giants of folklore.
"Why does your wife have these giant, blue feet?" "I sketched my first feet in 1959, and since then it has always been feet, feet, feet with me. Why? Because I tend to paint ugly things, and I feel I belong to them. You see, I have a problem with heaven and transcendence. I am afraid of the church. It is a frightening place. I am related to the spirit of the soil. There is soil, rock, water. You need feet for the earth."
"But did you not read Jakob Boehm, the great German mystic, when you were very young?" I ask. "He was a shoemaker, you know. The only portrait of him hung in my village. It looked just as if he had been torn out of the water. Now you may say: how do you go from being a shoemaker to that crazy interpretation of the world? I think it was due to some inner nervousness, as with me." Baselitz traces a circle on the ground with his foot as he speaks. His feet are shod in comfortable, black slip-ons. They are certainly not the feet of a troll.
As we stare together at yet another inverted image, we return to the meaning of the topsy-turvy world of Baselitz. Why did he turn all those human figures upside down anyway? What impelled him to start doing so at the end of the 1960s? Was it pure gimmickry - or some impulse that was a touch more cerebral?
His explanation partially convinces me that it was a very serious matter indeed, and partially leaves me convinced that he has blown some hot air in the world's direction. "If you are an artist," he begins, " you make comparisons, you engage with the object or the person. Then some critic can say: you hit it quite well. Or you didn't, as the case may be. It's a way of proving you have talent. For this type of thing, Raphael would be the ideal painter, the one who did the best sketches. But there are others - Caspar David Friedrich or Gustave Courbet or Turner, for example - who really have nothing to do with models... [Here, I'm thinking: perhaps this is because Turner was a lousy painter of the human form. But I don't interrupt the flow] ... and this was my wish, too. I wanted to get a certain distance from the model. Models in general don't work for me. My head is full enough of images.
"As soon as I see a model, I find myself back in East Germany, in the era of Socialist Realism. Then, I had to paint women with bad teeth and wrinkles, worker women... So I wanted distance, and I wanted freer structures. I wanted to interiorise the motif, to separate it, if you like, from what you are seeing. It would become my identifying mark, my history. That was why I decided to do it upside down. Now no one can say to me, 'But your portrait of Aunt Elba does not really look like her!'"
It was also a matter of timing. "By, say, 1966 or 1967, I had done a substantial body of work. I had created an oeuvre, if you like. I could have been satisfied with that, but I wanted to go on, to make something new. You see, I am an unquiet person."
In addition to the canvases stacked against the wall, I notice four on the floor, which is covered with black, chequerboard tiles. Three of these are partially painted. One of them is covered with an all-over wash of cadmium yellow; a second bears the painted image of some feathery, orange swastika-cum-four-winged-eagle.
"Yes, I am doing four at the moment, but usually I work on one at a time these days. I paint very fast, with brushes. Very fast and very fluid. To be fast is important. I don't have patience, not any more. Before I had learnt how to paint, I did everything in very slow motion. It was like building a wall, brick by brick. Then I got faster and faster - at least one a day. I went every day and painted. Not now. Even physically, it has become more difficult. I dated them, too. I wanted to keep a visual diary. I wanted to know when things happened so that I could make comparisons."
Baselitz is spending much of his time looking backwards these days, revisiting "motifs" - a favourite word of his - of old, or combining old elements in different ways. He is making an entire series called Remixes. For his critics, this helps to turn his work into a very satisfying game of hide-and-seek. Did you spot the reference to that painting of 1966? You didn't?!
"Yes, my work is very hermetic," he tells me with a sigh, back at the restaurant as he carefully refills his glass with chardonnay. I ask: " And do you still believe that paintings are closer to things than words - which could mean, I suppose, that art has more profound things to say, and says these things more readily, than literature?"
"Yes, I do," he replies. "Literature depends on language. That is a narrowing factor. When you are writing you need a content, you cannot just say blah, blah blah... You have to say something. This brings literature into difficulties. There is no such narrative in painting. No one talks of things being good or bad, or things not understanding each other. As soon as I see a great painting, I am deeply moved. It's like music. Painting and music have much in common. I could not live without Ligeti, for example. He is my favourite composer."
I'd spotted a couple of other CDs Baselitz hadn't been able to live without in the door pocket of his black Mercedes: The Best of Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. "I cannot imagine being without Ligeti. I would wish there might be people who couldn't be without my pictures."
There's something else that moves Baselitz deeply - his own early paintings. "Yes, it is true," he tells me, laughing with a hint of tears of joy. "I am very sentimental and larmoyant about my own early work. It is like... crying for no reason. That is the situation in which I find myself."
Does this mean that painting is a raw experience of pure feeling? " Perhaps. What I mean is that my painting - and painting in general - is not an imitation of something. The painter and the object come together to produce a picture. It is not the thing in itself becoming a picture. The invention is the whole of it."
Just then I remember another invention in the life of Georg Baselitz: his named identity. The name was an invention of Georg Baselitz himself, who was born Hans-Georg Kern. In 1961, he decided to adopt the name of the village of his birth. His father, the village primary-school teacher, was called Johannes Kern. In fact, both parents were Kerns. It was a small, isolated place in those days.
Why did he make that change? "I fled. I was refractory. When I had painted the picture that was later seized by the authorities on the grounds of obscenity, I knew that it was not harmless. It had been based on a photograph of the Irish writer Brendan Behan showing his phallus at a reading of his own poetry. He went to jail. It was then that I decided to separate myself from my family by adopting the name of my native village."
He might have added that the decision itself was a time-honoured one. Many painters of the Renaissance and after did the same: Parmigianino, for example, that odd, reclusive man from Parma, a painter Baselitz happens to greatly admire.
"I knew that this painting - it is called The Big Night Down the Drain, and you will see it in the exhibition - would not provoke a conventional encounter. I knew it would be singled out. I painted it because I was furious about the state of culture in the West. By this time, I was living in West Berlin. In the East, everything had belonged to the people. In the West, property belonged to private individuals. I hated it, and I was very aggressive. My bomb was this painting."
And German painters, in the opinion of Baselitz, have gone on to hurl larger and ever more effective paint-bombs at the world ever since. "Let me tell you this. All migrants to Germany are iconoclasts. We have very interesting artists here - the most interesting in the world, in my opinion. My generation, and those who came later, were under tremendous pressure to justify themselves because, thanks to our legacy, we were under suspicion, we were burdened with a bad reputation. We couldn't just say: we have to be very reflective. That wouldn't do."
And you attribute that to the malign heritage of the recent past? "Yes. My wife is from Dresden, and I am from the region. Only recently has literature, in German, about the bombardments begun to appear. Before, the whole thing was suspect. I have never met an Englishman who has been hated because of the destruction of Dresden. And we are still playing the role of the humiliated. And so that problem of self-justification, it does activate artists."
And what of Joseph Beuys? The name seemed to light an arsonist's match. " Beuys never said a word about guilt or innocence because he was a participant. He just mystified it - all that felt stuff. He tried to turn it into hero-stuff - about himself."
But has not Baselitz, too, managed to emerge as the not entirely guiltless hero of his own struggles to define his position as an artist in the aftermath of the terrible things he saw and lived through? Go to the Royal Academy and judge for yourself.
The Georg Baselitz retrospective is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (0870 848 8484; www.royalacademy.org.uk) from 22 September to 9 December