The postmodern painter Georg Baselitz, famous for his often provocative works, was born Hans-Georg Bruno Kern in 1938 in Deutschbaselitz in Saxony. He studied art in East Berlin in 1956-57, and in West Berlin until 1963.
In 1961, in order to protect his family in the then-East Germany, he took on the name Georg Baselitz.
The artist thrived on controversy. In 1963, his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Werner & Katz in West Berlin was closed because the work was considered to be pornographic. And in 1980, he presented his first sculpture at the Venice Biennial, instantly causing a scandal because many people interpreted the figure’s raised arm to be a Hitler salute.
We meet in Munich, where he has just successfully concluded a successful exhibition.
Mr. Baselitz, at the exhibition you displayed black pictures on which the motifs were difficult to recognize. Was that an expression of freedom?
Wrong, far from the mark. Freedom is the word that is most misused, in newspaper headlines, names of political parties, in speeches by chief ideologues or by dictators. Philosophically, much can be said about freedom, but concerning the use of the term, there are only negatives.
My entire biography is rough-edged. I have run into walls and collided with closed doors.
Living, that means being free.
It’s something personal; it has no validity for others. You put something in the world, and no one can follow. Subjectivity isolates.
Isolates? But pictures are an invitation to the world to think and to communicate. And you’re saying this doesn’t apply to you?
My position in society is outside, is antisocial. An artist basically has to renounce the company of the public, let go of his need for harmony. Everyone who engages in new performances has to cause a disturbance — because he wants to move forward. Freedom is a state of feeling. It can’t be defined in general.
You have never let yourself be influenced by fashions in your career. Were you concerned with extreme subjectivity?
My entire biography is rough-edged. I have run into walls and collided with closed doors. There is a reason for rules; they forbid almost everything. But for an artist, it is only breaking the rules that is interesting.
What mistakes did you make in your own lack of rules?
Believing in the East German system until I was 18. I was deeply influenced by socialist education; I didn’t have a choice. I was firmly convinced there was no alternative path to a better society.
In 1958 you moved to West Berlin. What led to the break with East Germany?
I was always getting knocked on the head or whacked on the fingers. They had noticed that I wasn’t quite right.
A few years ago, you reinvented your oeuvre. Were the remix pictures more a commercial or an artistic success?
I wanted people not to forget my pictures and biography. If you look through a box of photos, you derive much nourishment. Earlier I hoped to be able to look through a keyhole onto the future. What counted was futurism.
Today I know that you have to look back, that you must have a good memory. That applies to all of art history. Suddenly people say: “Baselitz — we haven’t seen him in a long time.”
How important to you are prints?
They are very important to me. A print is a manifestation in comparison to the uncertainty of pictures and drawings. It is unchanging, like a banknote (laughs). It is something valid. I myself collect prints. From Bartholomäus Spranger, for example — I have two of his three wonderful etchings from the 16th century.
The wider public had taught me that provocation only works in Germany if you paint mustaches or swastikas.
The nice side-effect is that Baselitz prints can be purchased by people who can’t afford the meters-high pictures.
In the beginning, in 1964, my prints cost 20 marks. I could have also offered them for 10 marks. But nobody wanted them. Today things are different. No, the people who buy pictures also buy prints. Rembrandt behaved as an entrepreneur and offered prints.
Do you pay attention to signals from the market?
When I was starting out, there was neither an open nor a closed market. Berlin had two galleries. In 1966, Rudolf Springer organized my first exhibition. Nothing was sold. Only in 1970 did things improve. I could gradually live from my art.
Today your works sometimes cost €7 million ($7.9 million).
I can remember how a van Gogh cost $1 million. I’m still a small fish in this market. It’s great that art has achieved such status.
So you don’t see any faults in the overheated art market?
I experienced the time when ideologies ran aground. Suddenly America was calling the tune, not France. In the meantime, Asia has arrived on the scene.
During his lifetime, Lucio Fontana was a powerful, important artist. Afterwards, his works had no commercial resonance. But today each individual slit canvas of his costs a million. The art business has its ups and downs.
There could be a crash in the art market — just like the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank in the financial sector.
Of course — there is this painting things black, seeing ghosts, spreading uncertainty. There are also political collapses. There is a lack of solidity and no healing. You can’t assume that the financial market is healthy. It is healthy and sick in equal measure.
Looking back, how important was provocation to your success?
If you want to achieve that deliberately, you fail. Provocation has to arise on its own terms. What is needed is an audience. When my Biennial sculpture was shown on German television in 1980, they accompanied it with the Horst Wessel song that was the Nazi national anthem — pretty hairy, but what can you do?
The recumbent wooden sculpture had its arm raised.
But not as a Hitler salute; the palm of the hand faced upward. The wider public had taught me that provocation only works in Germany if you paint mustaches or swastikas. Paul McCarthy enticed almost no one with his obscenities. Nor do Damien Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde.