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When Georg Baselitz was a child, even the very young in his Saxony village were expected to play their part in Hitler’s project. Born as war loomed in 1938, he spent his Sunday mornings along with other children raptly watching the Gruppe BDM (League of German Girls) parade up and down the village square, their belt buckles gleaming, their arms linked. One of those girls was Baselitz’s older sister; his schoolteacher father, meanwhile, was a member of the Nazi party.
Last year Baselitz drew on this memory to create a monumental wooden sculpture, “Gruppe BDM”, of three burnished black figures with their arms linked. The sculpture, the centrepiece of an exhibition of new Baselitz work at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Pantin, northeast of Paris, was previously on display in a garden at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
On that occasion the work bore a different name. “I was told by [the V&A] museum that the sculpture’s title was unacceptable,” says Baselitz over a hearty lunch at the Pantin gallery. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s call it “Forbidden Title”.’ They said that was too cynical so, instead, we settled on ‘Untitled’. Clearly this shows that people still don’t want to acknowledge that the Gruppe BDM existed but, like the Hitler Youth Movement, it is a historical fact.”
During a career spanning more than 50 years, Baselitz – who in 1956 was expelled from the School of Fine Art in East Berlin for “sociopolitical immaturity” – has never shied away from creating works that challenge sensibilities. “If I want to look back at a part of history in a non-critical way, then who is to tell me I can’t?” he says. “Should I simply say that my sister did not belong to the BDM? If the system is evil and suspicious, does that mean everyone who was a part of it is evil and suspicious? It might seem that way from the outside but from the inside it is not the case.”
Le Côté Sombre (The Dark Side) is the appropriate title of the Pantin show: it refers not only to works such as “Gruppe BDM” but also to Baselitz’s new-found enthusiasm for black. The cavernous, white-walled exhibition space is taken up by five of Baselitz’s all-black sculptures (€750,000-€2.5m), which the artist hewed from immense blocks of wood using a chainsaw; on the walls are preparatory sketches, as well as more than a dozen large, abstract oil paintings, all heavy layers of black, dark blue and brown, which are being displayed for the first time (€400,000-€650,000).
This new series, “Black Paintings”, is a surprising development for Baselitz, who shunned the trend for abstraction in the 1960s to focus on a figurative style whose grotesque motifs expressed his anger with the world. As usual with Baselitz, his choice of style was a political decision as much as anything else. Two years after being expelled from university, he was studying at West Berlin University’s Fine Arts Academy when a travelling exhibition of American abstract expressionism, including work by Pollock, Gottlieb, Rothko and Sam Francis, came to town. It was a shock: Baselitz’s heroes had tended to be little-known German portraitists such as Ferdinand von Rayski, and he duly reacted against it.
“When as a young man you want to become a painter, imagine discovering at your own university painters from a nation that, up until then, you thought was superficial and only interested in the quest for money,” he says. “A few of my co-students tried to paint in the style of de Kooning but it wasn’t possible …I said to myself, ‘Be done with studies, be done with painting’ and asked myself what would happen if I started back from the beginning.”
For Baselitz, who changed his name from Kern to honour his home town of Deutschbaselitz, going back to the beginning meant going back to the source of his anger, which lay for him in the ultraconservative nature of Germany’s postwar society. “The poets lay in the gutter, their bodies in the morass. The whole nation’s spittle floating on their soup,” he wrote in his 1961 Pandemonic Manifesto, the first of many rants against the German art world.
His paintings were similarly confrontational. “The Big Night Down the Drain” (1962-63), which was confiscated by police, used the image of a masturbating midget to comment on the way society was forcing him to turn his artistic impulse back on itself. In 1969 he began inverting the motifs in his paintings as a way of challenging conventional modes of perceiving the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, commercial success remained elusive.
“In Germany we were raised not to have too much ambition,” he says. “Nobody who studied art was given a chance to live from it. Until 1980 I was in this extremely unfortunate position with very little hope.”
That year saw Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer selected to participate in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Again Baselitz caused uproar with his first sculpture, “Model for a Sculpture”, a seated mannequin with its arm raised in what appeared to be a Nazi salute. But this time there were the first of many collateral rewards as two American galleries stepped forward to represent him.
Since the 1980s, Baselitz’s star has steadily risen. In 2011, “Spekulatius”, a 1965 painting of a male figure, fetched £3.2m, a record for Baselitz. After selling his secluded castle in Derneburg, Lower Saxony, in 2006, Baselitz now divides his time between homes in Munich and the Italian Riviera; he is also a frequent visitor to New York, where he scours the art market for European engravings from the 16th century.
Despite this comfortable existence his combativeness shows no sign of diminishing. In February he caused a stir when he told Der Spiegel that “women artists don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.” Asked by the FT to comment, he explains that it is to do with the sexes’ willingness to idealise what they see. “Men have always worked at idealising womanhood,” he says. “Women artists have never idealised beauty, neither in their portraits of women nor the opposite sex.”
Baselitz himself hardly has a rose-tinted view of the world. “I have always depicted negative elements in my work,” he says. “I have depicted ends not beginnings, destruction not as a means but as an end. I painted ‘Heroes’ [a mid-1960s series], which weren’t heroes. I painted ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’ which is non-erotic, where there is no pleasure but the pleasure of killing. I have always drawn on bad experiences and these have become my pictorial staples.”
Continuity comes not just from Baselitz’s constantly revisited stock of memories and motifs but also from his wife, Elke Kretschmar, to whom Baselitz has been married for more than 50 years. “She comes from the same region as me,” Baselitz says. “Every day our discussions are always about the past. It hasn’t always been fun because it’s been a difficult past. Nonetheless it’s become the cloth of our conversation and I have no desire to leave this theatre.”
‘Georg Baselitz: Le Côté Sombre’, Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, Paris Pantin, to November 2, ropac.net