Kern hails from a town called Deutschbaselitz in Saxony, in eastern Germany. Born in 1938, he spent the first seven years of his life under the Nazi regime, which claimed to create a “new order”. He saw it differently. “I was born into a destroyed order,” he says.
In 1945, the Red Army overwhelmed Saxony and Kern found himself trading a far-right dictatorship for a Stalinist dictatorship. At first he was a true socialist believer. But in 1957, he was expelled from the Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Arts in East Berlin for “socio-political immaturity”. The Berlin Wall was not built until 1961. To change his life, he just had to cross the small western enclave of the city and enroll in his art school.
When the wall was erected he rebranded himself as Georg Baselitz after his hometown and began to display wild and obscene art that scandalized a city you might have thought unshakeable. In Big Night Down the Drain, completed in 1963, a boy with a massive head stands naked, save for a pair of unzipped green-gray shorts, holding his erect purple penis – surely embodying “socio-political immaturity.” Of which he had been accused.
The work’s power to offend broke ideological barriers: it was seized by the West Berlin police on suspicion of “obscenity” and “immorality”. But Baselitz knew exactly what he was doing. He approached the modern history of Germany as no artist had done before. The boy holding his penis appears to be hiding in the woods while he’s supposed to be exercising in a totalitarian youth camp. His shorts seem to be part of a militarist uniform, the Hitler Youth or the Communist pioneers, perhaps. Whatever the uniform, he prefers to masturbate.
Baselitz makes his view of German history even more explicit in his 1965 work Painting for the Fathers, one of the highlights of a new study of his art at the Michael Werner Gallery in London and one of his first Heroes paintings. This is far from being the idea most people have of the heroic. A figure with a huge arm and a tiny head emerges like a phantom from a flowery mass of fleshy bulges and exposed intestines spread out among thorny undergrowth, with a vertical penis forming a sort of arrow. This is the world created by the fathers of the 1940s: chaos in the name of “order”, mass murder in the name of “purity”, sprawling shame in the name of “heroes”.
Other characters in the Heroes series at least manage to stand up. Two Meissen lumberjacks from 1967 show men in uniform posing with dogs, well, who? One of the dogs is hanging from a branch with the back part of its body missing even as it gasps for blood. On closer inspection, the soldiers also appear to be lacking in legs even as they stand in their eastern front coats.
In these paintings of supposed heroes, Baselitz paints the Nazi world he was born into. In 1965, Gerhard Richter, who had also escaped from east to west, painted a bizarre photorealistic portrait of his uncle Rudi in a Nazi uniform. Baselitz, however, was leading a much more visceral attack on the story, pulling his guts out and opening his pants. Indeed, open flies are a recurring trait of his heroes. In Three Farm Laborers, from 1967, a man in military shorts has his penis hanging between his legs.
Is he a Nazi? Baselitz’s Heroes series unequivocally draws parallels between the two totalitarian systems he knew firsthand. Communist propaganda is disguised in these grotesque satires. The man in shorts is embraced by an imposing figure in overalls. Is he a Soviet hero? Could this be an unholy meeting of dictatorships? At their feet, strange roots cling. In the background, a third worker is doing backbreaking work. The people suffer regardless of which party prevails.
The grandeur of Baselitz’s primitive art goes beyond obvious ironies. It sits in an account with the twentieth century perversions of art itself. Nazism and Stalinism had one thing in common: they insisted on clearly understandable figurative art. In 1937, the Third Reich ridiculed modernist art confiscated in its exhibition of degenerate art. Likewise, in 1932, socialist realism became the official art of the Soviet Union and, after 1945, of its satellites including East Germany.
Baselitz does not simply parody totalitarian realism. It infects it with its opposite. These paintings are the revenge of degenerate art. The sticky, luscious collapse of form into shapelessness in Painting for Our Fathers is perversely decadent. The heroic is really in seed.
So far, so Dadaist. However, Baselitz does not paint to destroy the history of art but to save it. He was inspired to paint heroes by an eye-opening visit to Italy. In 1965 he went to Florence on a scholarship and was blown away by his art. Specifically, he fell in love with Mannerism, a 16th century style that rejected the harmony and proportion of the Renaissance prior art in favor of distortion and disorder. All the long limbs, big hands and small heads of Baselitz’s heroes consciously remake Renaissance Mannerism as cutting-edge contemporary art.
This is why they are at the very heart of the artistic renaissance of post-war Germany. It might be difficult to understand why German art erupted so powerfully from the ashes of 1945 to become the largest in Europe today. It has to do with the courage and daring to recognize history – and to refuse to let the dead hands of Hitler and Erich Honecker, the 1971 East German leader, shut down resources. , the giants, from the German past. Like Joseph Beuys resurrecting ancient mythology and Anselm Kiefer taking up romanticism, Baselitz took a past tainted by the Nazis – and Stalinists – and renewed it. There is nothing, reveal his heroes, as subversively degenerate as painting the human body.
Since the 1960s, Baselitz has spent his life looking at the human form with passionate and questioning eyes, knocking people down, carving crude totemic figures in wood, and in his most recent works expressing the anguish of old age in brutally real images of physics. rotting. As the Michael Werner Gallery returns to its artistic roots in September, his latest paintings and sculptures are unveiled at the White Cube. They represent thin hands, worn by time, almost mummified. The hands of an artist who saved the human pulse from the forces that would erase it.