Georg Baselitz “Academy” at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Georg Baselitz in Conversation with Kosme de Barañano


[Excerpt from the interview published in Baselitz – Academy (New York: Gagosian, 2019)]


Georg Baselitz’s studio was built with a view of the Bavarian lakeside landscape by the architects Herzog and De Meuron. He lives in this seclusion with his wife, Elke, as he has since his early years in Berlin, but seclusion here means neither isolation from the world nor lack of interest in its affairs. Hypercritical of everything that surrounds him, he is conscious of his strength as a painter, and with an iron will, he continues to paint on his knees on the floor, recognizing that the best medicine for keeping him agile in body and mind is the act of painting. His memory is astonishing. Almost all of my questions related to his first years as an artist, between Berlin in 1957 and his stay at the Villa Romana, Florence, in 1965. Baselitz’s memory was there, present, as though only days had passed.


KOSME DE BARAÑANO: Your first trip to Italy was in 1965, when you were awarded the Villa Romana Prize. What feelings do you connect with Florence today?

GEORG BASELITZ: The stipend was for ten months.1 I worked well, and made paintings that I later found problematic because they were too frivolous, but I also started preparing for the Heroes. That was great. But after six months the money was used up. Also, I felt insanely miserable in Florence. This wonderful Renaissance, this wonderful city, but I couldn’t handle the Italians. Later, that changed, and I became an Italy fan.

KdB: How much time passed before you returned to Florence, and what did you do there?

GB: Elke and I rented a studio. But I didn’t work much. It was much more about the exchange. You could say that in Florence I began to study art history as an autodidact. The famous German Kunsthistorisches Institut there had catalogued essentially only Italian art. Its people were very kind, and simply let me do what I wanted. I was allowed to look at everything. And I have to say, that was a great period of education for me. If you find your own way and don’t have it mapped out for you, it’s better. Also there I began to develop my interest in Mannerism. A book by Gustav René Hocke that had just come out, The World as a Labyrinth, was about Mannerism, but also the literature, music, and fine art of the time.2

KdB: Are you describing your first stay in Florence or your second visit? Was your interest in Mannerism initially sparked at the Kunsthistorisches Institut or by Hocke’s book?

GB: It began during the first six months in 1965, and continued on my second visit. Afterward I had exhausted the entire Institut, so to speak, and began collecting prints.
Naturally I also thought about this reciprocal influence. As a German, one doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable abroad. But everyone knows, especially painters, that since Romanticism and even earlier there was a tradition of German artists working in Italy. Albrecht Dürer even had a studio in Venice. And there was an exchange of works among artists: northern landscape for Italian landscape, and so on. That also left its mark on graphic art.

KdB: During your first year in Florence, did you also visit the museums—the Uffizi, the Accademia, and others? What were those visits like, and how did you react as a visitor? Or did you go there to sketch in the style of the ancient academy, as Paul Cézanne did in the Louvre?

GB: Which I by no means did, although Per Kirkeby, for example, has emphasized that I took my sketchbook into the museum. For my drawings in my studio or at the Villa Romana I used reproductions that I had gotten hold of from somewhere, by Giovanni di Paolo and so on. They weren’t copied, but I tried to get behind the system—depth and coloring, for example—then turn it around, like a spiral. That was tiresome, but still interesting. I didn’t have a gift like A. R. Penck, for example. I was already twenty when I began drawing in something like the manner of portraits. It was very difficult for me.
Now it is by no means hard for me any longer; there is this continuing enhancement of abilities that is truly mainly a matter of practice. You have to realize that the feeling, the character, I had back then was somewhat unpleasant. I was simply a very aggressive type. I had had my experiences with the lawsuit in Berlin, and that was not easy to forget for a naive, oafish young man. The others—Benjamin Katz and Michael Werner—were also oafish and young. And then this public outcry at my first solo exhibition. You always had the feeling that you were going to end up in prison or have to pay a fine. For which you had no money.
Thus, I felt a fairly strong social pressure. That induced me to seek a substitute. And that substitute was art history in museums. The art history of Italy, art history of Germany—that was what interested me. Not so much the art history of France, but Holland came later. But when an artist does art history, he doesn’t do it objectively. He asks himself: What can I take from this? What interests me? What do I need?

KdB: You were in Florence for six months, then back to Berlin, then again in Florence. Where did you live and what did you work on for that second visit?

GB: I rented the former home and studio of Adolf von Hildebrand and Hans von Marées in the Oltrarno quarter of Florence in 1976. A magnificent park, and a gorgeous villa. All of that was so wonderful, the sculptures by Hildebrand, copies of Old Masters, plaster casts, and so on. But as I said, I didn’t work there. There, I was only influenced by impressions. From there I went on to Castiglion Fiorentino.3 I have had a studio there since 1981. And whenever I stayed there, I also worked.

KdB: So, in Castiglion you had your first proper studio in Italy. Where did you begin with the Heroes? During your stay in Florence in 1965, or upon your return to Berlin?

GB: The Heroeswere created in Berlin. There is this key picture that preceded them, The Fool of San Bonifacio – or Ludwig Richter on His Way to Work. I made that in Florence, for I was interested in the Germans who had been there earlier. I even looked them up in the cemetery. One of them was Karl Stauffer-Bern, an artist comparable to Max Klinger. He made highly realistic, austere prints and paintings. He was an artist who still lived a true artist’s life, a bohemian. At that time he had taken a wealthy Swiss heiress from Bern with him to Italy. It was a scandal, whereupon the family had both of them locked up in Florence’s San Bonifacio mental hospital. It may be that Stauffer-Bern was actually mad, a schizophrenic. In any case, this first picture was based on him. Then later in Berlin I began the Heroes.
Now, you have to imagine, in contrast to what I make today, a picture was a picture, and there was no repeat of it. The second picture was structured differently from the first one. Today I work on large series, and I work much faster. A picture back then took a very long time. Even when I tried to paint very thin, it took forever. So you have to imagine it: I would paint one of these P.D.-Feet and then go for a walk. And so it went on from there. It was onerous. Perhaps it was also onerous because I didn’t have any role models. The prevailing art in Berlin at the time was completely different from what I was doing. There was the French influence of Informel—a puny variant. And of course in Berlin there was this realism—not Socialist Realism but a more capitalist, critical realism. Wolfgang Petrick and Hans-Jürgen Diehl.4 I found that altogether dreadful, for I had come from East Germany, after all, and had had too much of that.
What I was doing came about in a completely different way. Then there was the beginning of the Neue Wilde, namely Karl Horst Hödicke, Bernd Koberling, and some others.5 They were actually CoBrA members, if you can say that. They painted à la Ernst LudwigKirchner or Erich Heckel, so, German Expressionism. That didn’t interest me at all. I looked at it in the beginning with curiosity, and thought, maybe this is interesting, but it wasn’t. Their closeness to nature was too near to illustration. I had nothing to do with illustration and nature. All the things that I was making were freely invented, with traditional backgrounds, old graphics, old paintings, and so on.

KdB: Was there a prints collection in the Villa Romana? Or had you seen the prints in the Uffizi?

GB: I had already seen chiaroscuro prints in Berlin, but not in the museum. I would never have dared to enter the Kupferstichkabinett. So it was really at the Uffizi that I first saw the prints. At that time it had only a normal number of visitors, and you didn’t have to stand in line. At the Accademia in Florence you even had to ring to be let in. There was not yet today’s mass tourism. At that time I began already to look for such things at the booksellers’ stalls and collect them.

KdB: What was your understanding of chiaroscuro?

GB: I wasn’t at all interested in the technique. All that interested me was how you can show yourself to be a malicious artist. What can one do to make our existing art world contacts pay attention? We were all in touch with one another. What mattered to me was making a statement, finding a different position, an outsider position. You could talk about that, and you could also act accordingly. But you had to have documents, you had to have something to show. There were the graphic works at the time, and the beginning of screenprinting and offset printing—basically prints substituting for paintings. I looked at all that, Robert Rauschenberg and so on. I found it amazing, for sure, but also abominable, for it was mainstream. For that reason I thought that Hans Baldung Grien and such was precisely what I needed. The little bit of technique I taught myself. It wasn’t hard.
Dutch prints from the time were mostly reproductions. They engraved drawings and above all paintings in large editions. I began buying my first prints and collecting them. It was essential to me. It was a different path than what others were taking.

KdB: But the woodcuts we’re bringing to Venice are also in the chiaroscuro technique.

GB: Yes, two or three plates, the same technique. And you can imagine that they looked a bit more obscure at that time. They’re not classical, after all. They aren’t like Salvador Dalí. They are so stupidly different. And yet they aren’t, for they are grounded in a traditional method. That’s what I mean by malicious. If you sneak something in, a different color, for example, then people look, and become either curious or offended.

KdB: During your first visit to Paris you saw Pontormo’s Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and Other Saints in the Louvre. Do you recall other Italian works you saw in the Louvre at that time?

GB: My visit to the Louvre was still before the Villa Romana.6 There were only a very few works by Pontormo, Parmigianino, and Rosso Fiorentino outside of Italy. I saw most of them in Florence and its surroundings. But there were of course all these books about Mannerism that I bought and they were richly illustrated: Pontormo, Rosso, Parmigianino.

KdB: For the present show in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, you had an explicit idea that we realized together. What was your intention?

GB: First of all, you have to consider that the venue is an academy, in Venice, during the Biennale. Those are important factors in themselves, and to a certain extent that’s also very impressive. You have an obligation; you can’t show up with anything slipshod. The Gallerie dell’Accademia is not the German Pavilion, where contemporary work is shown; here it’s about history as a rule. People always say I’m a painter between the Dresden School and Willem de Kooning, with friendly colors and a warm picture structure. That is true, but only in part, for I have always wanted to be very raw, and I have been. For me the Gallerie dell’Accademia is a chance to show things that have been important in my life, but have not been so clearly appreciated as yet—the portraits, the early nudes, the negative pictures.

KdB: In your view, what is special about the pictures you’re showing here?

GB: What I had painted up to that point—everything we were talking about before, the feet, the Heroes, and so on—all that was pulled out of my fingers, invented. There weren’t any models. There was possibly a dream, but never a model. Then beginning with the portraits there was a model, and I had photos. I thought to myself: You can forget drawing in this realism sense. That’s no use, others have done it better. So I took Polaroid photos and used them like Pop art, like Warhol. And then I painted these photos. I didn’t print them, or screen them like Warhol’s cans and banknotes. I simply painted them.
These upside-down portraits were naturally demonstrations of absurdity, of a statement that couldn’t be proved scientifically. I made them with great aggressiveness and a profound cynicism, always with a view to what my colleagues were doing at the time. Quite apart from whether I accepted what they were doing or not, they were simply doing it. And they were having success. They didn’t need my approval, nor did I need theirs. But naturally I hoped that the effect of my works would be similar to the effect of their works, and that they would be accepted. But they weren’t at all. I had already suspected as much, and asked myself, What are you using for material? Banalities! Paint your wife, paint your friend, paint your gallerist, et cetera. That was it. That’s how the portraits came about.

KdB: What is the relationship between your early portraits and the subsequent nudes?

GB: The portraits led into the nudes. For example there is Elke in a bikini, and two years later Elke as a nude. They are all similarly conceived, similarly realized, and the same is true of the negative pictures. They all have something preconceived about them, something contrived. If you paint a figure not from nature, not after a person before you, but from a photo, and you more or less invent it, then there’s something wooden about it, something stiff. In addition, I painted with my hands, my fingers, scoured the canvas, so that it would become as cold as possible. For the background I took a large amount of white and then worked with cold colors.

KdB: Is that true only of the early portraits?

GB: Also, but especially true of the early nudes rarely shown. And later, decades later, there’s a similar picture idea that I find somewhat unusual: the negative already mentioned. The same models—Elke or myself—but negative. There was a recent photograph of Elke in the same posture as in the portrait that I made of her in 1969. I asked my grandson to make a computer printout of this photo, but as a negative, with reversed colors, so that black becomes white, blue becomes brown, and so on. And that’s what I painted. These two groups of works with a very similar, cockeyed, even dopey statement, if you will, are really important in my work. To be sure, there wasn’t any general interest in these things at the time. Rudi Fuchs, when he was still the director at the Stedelijk Museum, was the first to appreciate one of these pictures, and bought one. But this was years after they were produced. Now people realize that he was right back then, and that they are especially important works.

KdB: After more than fifty years of studying and acquiring Mannerist drawings and prints, after drawing Pontormo, Parmigianino, Rosso, the chiaroscuri, what do you think of Mannerism now, in 2018? How would you judge Hocke’s book?

GB: We have a long history in art. There are times when predecessors were rejected, but also periods in which what came before was carried forward. Hocke’s expansion of Mannerism in relation to contemporary art, I find unfortunate. To me Mannerism means first of all living outside the norm, doing something nonacademic. And that’s how it has been for me as well.


September 2018, Buch am Ammersee, Germany



[1] The Villa Romana Prize is the oldest residency for German artists outside of Germany. It was founded in early 1905 on the initiative of the sculptor Max Klinger, then vice president of the Deutscher Künstlerbund (German Artists’ League), an association established by progressive artists in opposition to imperial academicism. The Villa Romana has never been a state institution; for years its main sponsor has been the Deutsche Bank Foundation. The prize, awarded annually since 1905, encourages four young visual artists living in Germany to further develop their art during an extended stay (February 1 to November 30) in Florence. Its recipients have included Georg Kolbe (1905), Max Beckmann (1906), Käthe Kollwitz (1906), Ernst Barlach (1908), Gerhard Marcks (1928), Horst Antes (1962), Markus Lüpertz (1970), and Katharina Grosse (1992).

[2] Gustav René Hocke was a journalist, novelist, and historian of German art. He was the author of a key study of Mannerism, Die Welt als Labyrinth (1957), which Baselitz read at the time. Hocke not only covered the Mannerist century, but considered Mannerism a basic attitude toward life, evident in most historical epochs as a reaction against what has been thought of as “classic.”

[3] Castiglion Fiorentino is a small walled town in the province of Arezzo, close to Cortona and Lake Trasimeno, not far from Siena, Perugia, and Florence. The town’s fortress was completed in 1367, and in 1513 Vasari erected a nine-arch loggia in the Piazza del Comune that overlooks the valley.

[4] Wolfgang Petrick first studied biology at the Freie Universität Berlin, then art at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste under Werner Volkert. As a “critical realist” he belonged to the group Aspect. Hans-Jürgen Diehl studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich under Hermann Kaspar, then at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, and finally at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Berlin, under Hann Trier and others.

[5] Karl Horst Hödicke studied art and architecture from 1959 to 1964 at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Berlin, where he was a pupil of Fred Thieler. In 1961 he founded with Bernd Koberling the group Vision. In 1974 he was appointed professor of painting at the Hochschule. In 1978 he was one of the main protagonists of the Neue Wilde movement. Koberling studied under Max Kaus at Berlin’s Hochschule für bildende Künste from 1958 to 1960. In 1988 he became a professor at the Hochschule der Künste (HdK) in Berlin.

[6] This was during a visit with his friend Peter Klasen, then working in Paris on a scholarship. Klasen is a painter, photographer, and sculptor who studied at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Berlin, first under Will Grohmann, then under Hann Trier. In 1958 he shared a studio with Baselitz. In Paris in 1962 he was a founder, along with Valerio Adami, Hervé Télémaque, Erró, and others, of Nouvelle Figuration.


at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
until 8 September 2019

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