As a new exhibition of his works opens at Glyndebourne, the artist argues that German culture is entwined with powerby Sameer Rahim / May 29, 2015 / Leave a comment
Over the last half century, the German artist Georg Baselitz has been a radical presence in the art world, his work grappling with the difficult history of post-war Europe. His arresting painting, The Big Night Down The Drain (1963), featuring a dwarf with an erect penis and Hitler hairdo, was put on display in West Berlin in 1963 at the Galerie Werner & Katz. That work, a savage portrait of the pathetically assertive masculinity of the Führer, was considered so obscene that the police confiscated it and all the other works in the exhibition. Since then, Baselitz’s fortunes have changed considerably and he is now recognised as one of Europe’s most important contemporary artists. When he was Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder hung one of his paintings in his office—an image of a falling eagle, the symbol of Germany—and last year, Baselitz was the subject of two exhibitions in London: at the National Gallery and the Gagosian. In the same year his painting The Brücke Chorus sold at Christie’s for £5m.
His latest project might seem—at first glance, at least—a somewhat lighter affair. It’s a series of paintings of freewheeling ladies’ legs exhibited at a pop-up White Cube gallery in the grounds of Glyndebourne in East Sussex. The feminine theme is intriguing, especially as he has gone on record as dismissing the talents of women artists. He told The Guardian recently that women’s relative lack of success in the arts is “nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners. It’s to do with something else and it’s not my job to answer why it’s so. It doesn’t just apply to painting, either, but also music.” Yet as Baselitz told me through a translator when I spoke with him in the bucolic grounds of the opera house, he does like the British artist Tracey Emin. “I admire Tracey Emin for her daring and for her presentation as a female artist. I admire her as an intellectual and as an artist.”
Look closer and the ladies’s legs paintings seem more sinister: black paint bleeds from the shoes, and the arrangement of their legs echoes the outline of a Nazi swastika. For Baselitz, as for many Germans, the symbols of the past are inescapable. He recalled an incident from 2012, when the Russian baritone singer Yevgeny Nikitin was forced to withdraw from the Bayreuth Wagner festival for having Nazi-themed tattoos. “Even in the days of Bismarck,” he said, “Germany had the problem that there was no division between society, politics and culture…But there is a clear differentiation between those three things.” He mentioned the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who has close relations with Vladimir Putin. “In Germany, the response was: how can that be? How can you think Putin is a good man?” But what such people fail to understand, Baselitz said, is that outside Germany society, politics and culture are not so closely intertwined.
His view of Germany’s uniqueness in this regard (an arguable point) was shaped by his upbringing under two totalitarianisms. Born Hans-Georg Kern in 1938 in Deutschbaselitz, a Saxon village in what would become East Germany and from which he would later take his name, Baselitz grew up first in the shadow of the Third Reich, and then of communism. In 1957, four years before the Wall went up, he moved to West Berlin and embraced the radicalism of such figures as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Jackson Pollock before getting into trouble with his dwarf painting.
Our conversation turned to Günter Grass, the German Nobel Laureate who died earlier this year. The two men went to art school together but went on to become opponents. Grass once called Baselitz a “charlatan”—something, the artist told me, he “took very personally.” In turn he described Grass’s artworks, his sculptures and drawings, as “artistically bad.” His dislike of Grass also stems from the writer’s political entanglements with the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party. “Günter Grass was a very public figure in Germany who wrote lots of official speeches for Chancellors,” Baselitz told me, repeating the word official. “Artists have to stay out of that realm,” he insisted. “They must be free from that.” What about the Baselitz painting Schröder hung in his office? “I wasn’t friends with Gerhard Schröder,” he assures me, “though I thought he was a very brave and heartfelt man.” And Germany’s current Chancellor? “I don’t really sense that with Angela Merkel.” The fallen eagle painting has been returned to its gallery.
As an artist Baselitz is firmly rooted in the contemporary, and his love of all things modern is also reflected in his classical music taste; “Two years ago I did stage designs for an opera by György Ligeti [the Hungarian composer who died in 2006] and also Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle. I have followed those two oeuvres and know them very well.” He compares the healthy commercial interest in modern art with the relative lack of interest in modern classical music. “People interested in the arts value the contemporary and there is a whole market around it. But for contemporary music there is definitely less interest,” he says ruefully. The works on display at Glyndebourne have playful musical titles that reference not only Bach and Wagner but also Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the Hurdy-gurdy.
I asked him whether he deliberately sets out to be provocative. “The work I presented to a general audience in 1963 [the Galerie Werner & Katz exhibition which was closed down] was provocative to them but not to a smaller and more specialised, art-interested audience…The wrong people were always present at the wrong moment.” So, I asked, is the opera-loving audience at Glyndebourne a specialist audience or a general one? He laughed. “It’s a small audience, an art-interested audience. [In these paintings] I tried to find the line between being very naughty and light at the same time—and I think I was definitely able to achieve that.”
Georg Baselitz is at White Cube at Glyndebourne until 30th August. The exhibition is open to ticket holders during the festival
Prospect and Glyndebourne are putting on three discussions at the festival before the operas: Die Entführung aus dem Serail; The Rape of Lucretia; Saul