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It's not a picture. What is it then?

Uta Baier talks with painter Georg Baselitz about home, folk art and provocation.

Georg Baselitz was born in 1938, in what later became East Germany. In 1956, he moved to East Berlin and studied painting. In searching for alternatives to Socialist Realism, he became interested in anamorphosis and in the art of the mentally ill. In 1963, his first solo exhibition caused a public scandal; several paintings were confiscated for public indecency. After this he moved to West Germany, then Italy. In 1980, his reputation established, Baselitz was chosen to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale.

The provocative days that launched Georg Baselitz's career are over. The painter looks back on his life and approves an initiative of the city of Kamenz to found a Baselitz museum.

Uta Baier: Mr Baselitz, I would like to talk to you about your return to Kamenz, your home.

Georg Baselitz: You should talk to Gerhard Richter about that. He seems very happy in Dresden.

Baier: But you support Kamenz's plans for a Baselitz museum?

Baselitz: Yes of course, but the problem is that so many people have left Kamenz since the wall came down that it won't be easy to make it a popular destination for art tourism. Until now it was known only for Jägermeister herbal liqueur, Müllermilch milk products and Radeberger beer. Art certainly has considerable potential, especially if you think about Hombroich island in Rheinland. Josef Paul Kleihue's plans for rebuilding the old hospital in Kamenz are fascinating, but how many people are interested in this sort of thing? We are talking about contemporary art after all, and there's often a lack of understanding where that's concerned. This goes for Kamenz as well as for Germany as a whole. Are there tourists who are curious about art?

Baier: Well, quite a few...

Baselitz: But only if other factors are involved. The exhibition of the Flick collection in Berlin gained an unpleasant aftertaste with the discussion about blood money. There's no doubt that far fewer people would have visited the show just to see the works exhibited! . And th e MoMA in Berlin exhibition at the Nationalgalerie was only interesting because the collection came from outside. The Nationalgalerie collection is very poor, especially in comparison with Dusseldorf. The status of contemporary art has certainly changed a bit, with art stars almost on a par with film and sports celebrities.

Baier: The concept of home has been a recurring theme in your work in recent years.

Baselitz: That's true. These are the sort of things one thinks about as one gets older, the absorbing, moving but also stimulating sort of things which act as a positive stimulus during a mid-life crisis.

Baier: Mid-life crisis?

Baselitz: Being preoccupied with your past gives you something to hold onto. I spend my entire time absorbed in the past, where I used to live, where my family lived. I absorb myself in the music, the culture, Easter egg painting, and folk dancing. I've painted pictures and made sculptures about it. Sometimes it's a kind of a self-justification, because I was separated from my family in East Germany. I always felt it was destiny, not luck, that I was on the other side. But I grew less concerned about it as the years went by. And then when the Wall came down, everything I had forgotten about was back again.

Baier: And are you still preoccupied with the fall of the Wall?

Baselitz: I'm so caught up with it that I no longer feel part of the rest of the world. I'm hardly aware of what other people are up to. When I read the newspapers, I have no idea what all the writing is about. So I'm really not informed about what's going on. This obsession has made me so eccentric that I've become rather impassive towards what others are up to.

Baier: You take pleasure in saying that you make Saxon folk art.

Baselitz: It might sound strange, but in coming to terms with my past, at some stage I realised – and now I don't know if it is overcoming ! me or if I am overcoming it – well, I suddenly realised, that there's not only such a thing as Swabian folk art, there's also a very specialised form of folk art from Oberlausitz. Folk art is a very clean form of art in my opinion. I spend a lot of time immersed in it, especially in the form of music. And I have to say, I find it fascinating.

Baier: Your name has cropped up a lot recently in biographical notes of young artists who studied under you.

Baselitz: I always think of myself as the young artist.

Baier: What do you think about this new painting of your students, some of whom are extremely successful?

Baselitz: There was certainly an element of self-interest to my becoming a professor at the university. I wanted to know what I had to say to people, what I could share with them. I enjoyed it very much. When I started painting everyone was saying that painting was dead. But we kept on doing it. Now the younger generation is painting again, so painting isn't dead, it will never stop changing. Everyone is creating new images, no one paints like Rembrandt or Picasso, especially in Germany. It’s like Paris in the days of emigration – not quite as great. Paris flourished from the influx of émigrés from Eastern and Southern Europe. This is happening in Berlin today.

Baier: Is painting the most innovative art form?

Baselitz: Painting is dependent on the art market. Not on funding. That's the difference between it and music or theatre, that what drives it, motivates it, keeps it fresh and interesting. America dominated the world after the war, and American art dominated the market. Initially it was just an educational programme against Nazi art, and it eventually became a role model. We painters did not miss out on this.

Baier: Painting evolves because of the market?

Baselitz: It's o! ne of th e factors. That was also the case with Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart did not survive as an interpreter of Bach, but as Mozart. The same goes for Beethoven.

Baier: What are you working on at the moment?

Baselitz: I've been painting portraits of Stalin, as Picasso drew him, as a friendly young man with a moustache.

Baier: You based them on a Picasso drawing?

Baselitz: Yes. Of my Stalin paintings, only two or three are any good. I have painted over the others. In keeping with my theory: paint one thing over the next. In 1963 I painted my first feet, and these feet keep surfacing again and again. Then I started painting them with shoes, with black shoes. With so-called loafers, black men's loafers. These loafers now hang all over my studio. It's a bit idiotic, these loafers hanging all over the place, some of them with trouser legs, but I keep at it. Yesterday it occurred to me after I'd painted 30 pairs of loafers: why not paint just the shoes - what an idea! - without the trousers. Just the loafers. And look – it works. It is so ambiguous that I stand in front of it and say: that's not a picture. What is it then?" (Image)

Baier: And will you continuing with this?

Baselitz: Now I'm sitting around again, turning things over in my mind, and trying to take images that I use all the time anyway, such as the portrait of my wife or my self-portrait, and put them in the situation of the black loafers. Recently I painted Munch's legs, because I saw this photo of Munch as an old man, where his legs were cut out of the picture. I have always been preoccupied with Munch.

Baier: You made Munch complete?

Baselitz: It's those black loafers again.

Baier: You always said you wanted to paint the “new image”. Isn't it time for new provocations?
Baselitz: I think about this incessantly. Lots of my pictures are provocative even if I didn't intend them to be.

Baier: Would you change the way you work to make your art provocative again?

Baselitz: I change it constantly. I have changed my style, my subject matter and my formats so often. No one notices anything remarkable, everyone thinks it's fine. For example, I painted a portrait of my wife using the negative colours of an earlier portrait. I painted it six times. I thought: now this is a great idea! Not just up-side down but negative too! I exhibited it New York and everyone thought it was wonderful. That's what happens with provocations.


The article originally appeared in Die Welt on 2 February, 2005.

Translation: lp.

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