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01/25/2013 06:36 PM

German Artist Georg Baselitz

'My Paintings are Battles'

By Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knöfel

German painter Georg Baselitz has made a name for himself -- and a fortune -- by being provocative. In a SPIEGEL interview, he stays true to form by bashing Germans and their museums and saying that the best artists have less talent and can't be women.

The house of Georg Baselitz, one of the world's most important painters, is hard to find. It's on the waterfront of Ammersee, a lake near Munich, and hidden behind other villas. Designed by Basel architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it's probably one of the most beautiful residences in Germany. Fearing architecture tourists, Baselitz doesn't allow journalists to photograph his house. The 75-year-old meets with SPIEGEL in his studio next door. Much of what he says seems cantankerous, but he clearly enjoys his tirades, which he delivers with a mischievous smile.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, you've just turned 75, and you've been famous for the last 50 years. At the beginning, you were the painter with the wild and dangerous works, and the police even confiscated some of your paintings. Now you are lionized, and your works are coveted around the world. What's harder for an artist to deal with, rejection or recognition?

Baselitz: First of all, I seriously doubt that what you say about recognition is true.

SPIEGEL: Gallery owners and collectors are both crazy about you, and museums are constantly singing your praises.

Baselitz: But not the media.

SPIEGEL: Come now, you're written about often.

Baselitz: Is that so? I've had some major exhibitions abroad lately, and yet there was hardly a word in the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), for example. And that was only because I had previously said that the relevant editors at the FAZ suffered from pandemic mental enfeeblement.

SPIEGEL: What makes you say that?

Baselitz: I received the graphics prize at Art Cologne three years ago. Before that, it had been awarded to people who undoubtedly deserved recognition, such as Sigmar Polke. But, in my case, the FAZ wrote that it was a petty cash prize.

SPIEGEL: The prize money is €10,000 ($13,400), which is a paltry amount when compared to the sums your paintings fetch.

Baselitz: The prize money is the same each year, but when I get it, it's called "petty cash." I think that's contemptuous and insulting to the people who award the prize and to the graphics medium.

SPIEGEL: You're one of the most famous and expensive painters in the world. But you seem to notice your critics more than your acclaim.

Baselitz: For me, it's about more than that; it's about Germans' relationship with art. For instance, in Germany, we often hear the absurd complaint that museums don't have the money to buy paintings. Of course, I'm not talking about me and my paintings. There are, after all, more popular painters in this country.

SPIEGEL: Only one of them is more expensive: Gerhard Richter.

Baselitz: Much more expensive. And he certainly pays more taxes than I do. Despite all the taxes people pay, there supposedly isn't any money in this country for art. Of course, this makes an artist ask himself: "Well, then, what are you doing with the 100 million I pay each year? What happened to that money?" And he doesn't get an answer.

SPIEGEL: Now you're no longer complaining about the media, but about museums.

Baselitz: Yes, I am grumbling a bit. The Rhineland was once the center of art in Germany. Then it was Berlin, but now things have become quiet there, as well. Still, Berlin has the National Gallery, a name that suggests that the museum ought to be there for national art. There are similar museums all over the world, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the MoMA in New York and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. They all fulfill their purpose and do what has to be done.

SPIEGEL: And what's that?

Baselitz: They collect what's important in their respective countries. In Berlin's National Gallery, however, this isn't the case. They're interested neither in me nor the other usual suspects. It's simply a German reality.

SPIEGEL: What do you attribute that to?

Baselitz: To the directors and the mood.

SPIEGEL: What mood?

Baselitz: Spending money on art has always been frowned upon in this country -- even earlier, when my and others' paintings cost almost nothing. Something is always more important. The people in charge are always peddling reasons that others seem to accept. Those who don't drink and aren't crazy, or who don't attract attention with how they behave in public, aren't noticed in art.

SPIEGEL: You sound furious. We were actually planning on discussing whether the situation in the art world isn't better than ever.

Baselitz: That's a justified question seeing that everyone apparently has the feeling that that's the case. There's a market for art, and things are indeed going swimmingly, especially for German artists. But everything takes place in America and in London, where there are quite a few wealthy, engaged people. What motivates them to buy art is a different question, but they do.

SPIEGEL: These collectors are also buying your art. What more could you ask for?

Baselitz: That things were also better here, and that we weren't just dealing with know-it-alls.

SPIEGEL: People in this country are very interested in art. The museums are reporting record visitor numbers.

Baselitz: I've painted, but I've also done graphics since as long as I can remember. So even people with little to spend could afford it. But even the graphic works are only bought by those who buy the big, expensive paintings. I think that's troublesome.

SPIEGEL: Why do you say that again?

Baselitz: Because everything is drifting apart, and because everything is moving away from the ordinary public.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain the many visitors to museums?

Baselitz: The museums! They say that people are going there. I had two big exhibitions in Dresden, but no one went. There are plenty of tourists on the street in Dresden, but they'd rather go to the Green Vault (museum) or to see the Old Masters. Other contemporary artists have had the same experience. And look at music. Alfred Schnittke was an important contemporary composer, and he lived in Germany, but no one here has heard of him. Everyone has heard of Mozart, and many believe that he can still be found in that little house in Salzburg, which is why people stand there in line. I think that our music and our art belong to our era. If the public doesn't show up, it must be stupid.

'Talent Seduces Us into Interpretation'

SPIEGEL: Perhaps artists and composers have also distanced themselves from the public.

Baselitz: Wrong. The public has distanced itself.

SPIEGEL: And yet artists themselves could be to blame. Writers participate in debates in entirely different ways. Durs Grünbein writes political essays, and Martin Walser has often gotten involved. Günter Grass wrote a poem about Israel. You don't have to approve of (the poem), but everyone was talking about it.

Baselitz: Painters just don't live to draw attention to themselves in that way. Walser sells his books because people go to his book-signings and readings, where they buy a copy for €20 and take it home with them. He has to sell thousands of books. We painters don't need that. I've never been on a talk show. I used to say to (now-deceased German painter) Jörg Immendorff: "Don't do it. It'll just hurt you, and it'll make you unhappy." But he couldn't leave well enough alone because he was an agitator by nature. Writers have to do it. TV is their medium for selling books.

SPIEGEL: Sometimes it's just a question of speaking up. In your works, you certainly do grapple with the country you live in.

Baselitz: Exactly. But no one on the other side of society is interested in that. We're called "painter princes," but it's meant derisively. All German painters have a neurosis with Germany's past: war, the postwar period most of all, East Germany. I addressed all of this in a deep depression and under great pressure. My paintings are battles, if you will.

SPIEGEL: Do you prefer not to address current affairs?

Baselitz: At least not the way Günter Grass does. And that would be terrible. Instead of sitting down and writing another "Tin Drum," he writes a poem about Greece.

SPIEGEL: You find this reference to the here and now embarrassing?

Baselitz: Extremely embarrassing. There are also painters who do this sort of thing, but we're not going to name them.

SPIEGEL: Why do you have trouble treating culture here with indulgence?

Baselitz: I think Günter Grass is truly awful. So is Walser, and so is (Hans Magnus) Enzensberger. Just read the diary of Hans Werner Richter, the head of Group 47, to which they all belonged. Read what he says about these people, and it'll make you feel very depressed. I also feel that way because, after all, they were our role models, our heroes. Your magazine was the voice of these people. And their contribution? Zero. Reading Walser is unbearable. I call him "the bubble of Lake Constance."

SPIEGEL: Oh, come on.

Baselitz: It makes me furious. I'm disappointed with philosophy. I just saw an opera, a premiere by … what's his name, our professor from Karlsruhe? The one with the hair?

SPIEGEL: Peter Sloterdijk.

Baselitz: He wrote the libretto for "Babylon." My God, is it awful.

SPIEGEL: Do you also pay attention to what your fellow painters are doing?

Baselitz: I live a secluded life. I live, in a sense, a lonely life. But I do pay very close attention.

SPIEGEL: The art-selling business has gone crazy. The gallerists who sell your works -- including Larry Gagosian, the world's most successful gallerist -- must be constantly asking you for more paintings. Is this a dilemma for someone like you, who demands quality and depth?

Baselitz: No. It's not a dilemma, and why should it be? It's really an ambition. I want to be part of it, to be young and belong. That has always been what I wanted.

SPIEGEL: But Richter tops the list of the most expensive living artists. Do you like him?

Baselitz: I'm always happy to listen to someone from (the eastern German state of) Saxony. Most Saxony natives are offended when you address them in the Saxon dialect. Gerhard never is.

SPIEGEL: Aha.

Baselitz: Don't forget that, as an artist, I have been a risk-taker. And I've done a lot of different things. I don't make it easy for people. Identification is difficult. One doesn't recognize my art right away.

SPIEGEL: Turning motifs upside down, as you do it, is a unique characteristic.

Baselitz: Actually, no one who looks at my paintings can see whether a painting is upside down or not anymore. I've made or developed so many image models that some people have given up trying to keep track of me. But others have only one or two ways of doing things and are successful with that.

SPIEGEL: It's been said that you have painted all-black paintings or even painted over existing paintings with black paint. What is the point of that?

Baselitz: I don't paint over my paintings with black paint. I paint black paintings. It isn't because I'm sad, just as I didn't paint red paintings yesterday because I was happy. Nor will I paint yellow paintings tomorrow because I'm jealous.

SPIEGEL: There are a lot of lone wolves in your generation. But there's apparently enough room and money for you, Richter and Anselm Kiefer.

Baselitz: There are surprisingly many lone wolves, and they all run across the finish line as winners. Of course, when we got started, they were saying that panel painting was dead. But then came people like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, as well as Richter, Kiefer and me. When I painted my first painting, still right-side-up, my teacher told me that it was an anachronism. I had to look up the word. Then I said: No, no, I'm an avant-gardist. What I do is quite aggressive and quite mean-spirited.

'Women Simply Don't Pass the Test'

SPIEGEL: You started painting in East Germany, but you left early and continued to study in the West. Nowadays, the art market largely ignores the artistic legacy of East Germany, including the painters who received all the attention and promotion, the ones you referred to as "assholes" after German reunification. Is it delayed justice?

Baselitz: As always, the market is right.

SPIEGEL: Always? The market only embraces a few women. There are hardly any women among the most expensive artists.

Baselitz: Oh God! Women simply don't pass the test.

SPIEGEL: What test?

Baselitz: The market test, the value test.

SPIEGEL: What's that supposed to mean?

Baselitz: Women don't paint very well. It's a fact. There are, of course, exceptions. Agnes Martin or, from the past, Paula Modersohn-Becker. I feel happy whenever I see one of her paintings. But she is no Picasso, no Modigliani and no Gauguin.

SPIEGEL: So women supposedly don't paint very well.

Baselitz: Not supposedly. And that despite the fact that they still constitute the majority of students in the art academies.

SPIEGEL: It probably isn't a genetic defect.

Baselitz: I think the defect actually lies with male artists. Male artists often border on idiocy, while it's important for a woman not to be that way, if possible. Women are outstanding in science, just as good as men.

SPIEGEL: Women certainly aren't as loud and obtrusive when it comes to how they present themselves. With its desire for the sensational, the market isn't very forgiving of that.

Baselitz: Don't you know who Marina Abramovic is?

SPIEGEL: She doesn't paint, but she's an important performance artist, someone who shows that a woman can come a long way.

Baselitz: She has talent, as do many women. But a painter doesn't need any of that. In fact, it's better not to have it.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying it's better to not be talented?

Baselitz: Yes, much better.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Baselitz: Talent seduces us into interpretation. My sister could draw wonderfully, but she would never have hit upon the idea of becoming a painter. I never had that extreme talent.

SPIEGEL: For centuries, art was a craft, an almost physical labor that was performed by men. Men were also the first art historians. Everything was male, and it's simply stayed that way.

Baselitz: That has little to do with history. As I said, there are certainly some female artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Cecily Brown and Rosemarie Trockel.

SPIEGEL: The latter is German, and she currently has a big show in New York. She is also well-regarded worldwide.

Baselitz: There's a lot of love in her art, a lot of sympathy.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound like praise. So what does she lack, and what does Modersohn-Becker lack, to make you not rank the two of them among the great artists?

Baselitz: Let me qualify that. There is, of course, quite a lot of brutality in art. Not brutality against others, but brutality against the thing itself, against what already exists. When Modersohn-Becker painted herself, she looked very unpleasant, and extremely ugly…

SPIEGEL: …and nude, at a time, around 1900, when it was completely taboo for women to portray themselves in that way.

Baselitz: Exactly. But she hesitated to destroy others, in other words, to really destroy Gauguin by going beyond his art. Men have no problem with that. They just do it. But you must know that I do love women.

SPIEGEL: Of course.

Baselitz: Yes, I'm constantly in love -- with my own wife.

SPIEGEL: Does Jeff Koons -- another expensive contemporary artist -- have the necessary brutality? He supplies the world with sculptures of tulips and hearts.

Baselitz: The most unpleasant works of Jeff Koons that I've seen are those fuck paintings with Cicciolina. Just the fact that he made those paintings while at the same time talking about love and fathering a child … I think it's dreadful.

SPIEGEL: So Koon's early art did have that brutality you demand.

Baselitz: I don't demand it. I just know that it has to be that way.

SPIEGEL: So, it has to be that way if you want to be a big artist?

Baselitz: Who wants to be a small artist?

SPIEGEL: You simply wanted to be different from others yourself.

Baselitz: I was always on the outside. It was the worst when I still wanted to be a professor, having to deal with colleagues and students, and having to listen to all that academic nonsense. It's really just a haze that keeps them busy. But all of that is fortunately over now, once and for all. Everything ended happily.

SPIEGEL: Wait! Georg Baselitz is happy?

Baselitz: Absolutely! Completely! It's fantastic! I can even be happy about my own paintings.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knoefel; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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