Norman Rosenthal On Georg Baselitz At White Cube, London

‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men.’ Lord Acton, from an 1887 letter to Mandall Creighton

The by-now clichéd, but none the less true, aperçu of the nineteenth-century Cambridge historian Lord Acton seems perfectly to anticipate the ‘great’ and monstrous European dictators of the first half of the twentieth century. Georg Baselitz — born Hans-Georg Kern in the village of Deutschbaselitz, some twenty kilometres from Dresden, in 1938 — is a son of that epoch that numbered Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in Europe, as well as Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, among the overwhelmingly hideous figures who made the history of their time unspeakably horrible for millions and millions of individuals and who, in many ways, for all the escape into luxury that we Western Europeans have achieved in subsequent decades, still manage to cast long shadows across the world today. By this definition Baselitz is just another man, not a ‘great’ one. He is, however, an exceptional artist, who has expressed himself throughout his career with an anger tempered by romanticism and ironic humour, using the old-fashioned medium of canvas, as well as drawing, print-making and sculpture, in a series of artistic endeavours going back some five decades, punctuated by moments of culmination that might be described unfashionably as more or less conscious masterpiece-making. These masterpieces include grand poetic conceptions such as ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’ (1962-63), ‘Oberon’ (1963-64), ‘The Great Friends’ (1965), ‘Street Picture’ (1979 – 80) and ’45 (Forty-Five)’ (1989).

Baselitz’s new series of sixteen individual paintings, best seen as one work and entitled ‘Mrs Lenin and the Nightingale’, is just such a culmination. Completed in 2008, it summarises many of the themes and strategies to which Baselitz has given his attention to over the best part of a decade — before even his acclaimed ‘Remix’ paintings first appeared in 2005. These aroused admiration from his many admirers throughout the world wondrous at his capacity for renewal. Perhaps the essential difference between the work of the last ten years and the earlier works that defined the first four decades of Baselitz’s career is that he seems to have achieved in them a lightness of being and of execution, and a sense of spontaneity that overcomes the agony of the earlier hard-won image however serious the motif or subject matter. And how serious is the subject matter that Baselitz uses here as the underlying motif recurring throughout this new cycle of paintings! Lenin and Stalin were those mythical men whose self-constructed image could do no wrong. Large swathes of the world forever regarded them as heroes beyond criticism, even after their deaths; in their ways, they were as potent and omnipotent as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Both Lenin, the victorious leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and Stalin, the victorious leader of the ‘The Great Patriotic War’ that ended in 1945, who both unleashed successive waves of equally appalling terror — including starvation, mass exile, millions of unspeakable tortures and campaigns of murder — all in the name of the survival of a party intent on everlasting power, which only came to an end in 1991. By this time, to come back to our artist-hero, Baselitz had already enjoyed a career of more than three decades, and had reinvented himself in a series that revisited old themes and motifs from the earliest to the most recent — including the ‘Pandemonium’ paintings (early 1960s), ‘Hero’ paintings (1965 – 66), ‘Fracture’ paintings (1966 – 69) and upside-down motifs (from 1969) — that have since all been ‘remixed’ by the artist in an unending flow of lyrical outpourings of loose and rapid painting and drawing, often on a very large scale.

Anticipating the ‘Remix’ series were Baselitz’s first paintings on a theme, which derived from a photograph that he had chanced upon of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch sitting in his studio in Ekely surrounded by his own late work. In the 1943 photograph, Munch looks worn out. There is also something absent from the image : the artist is shown from the ankles up. This ‘missing’ part of the photograph became the protagonist for a series of paintings that have as their motif Munch’s ‘boots’, which Baselitz has imagined walking alone in the forest, existing in a kind of limbo or, at times, having the configuration of a Catherine wheel — not without a burlesque reference to a Nazi swastika in the form of a swirling, sinister jackboot.

Georg Baselitz, ‘Sing your song Cecily, for your brother, the painters’, 2008
Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 98 7/16 in

Georg Baselitz, ‘Joseph chased away the Bandura player with his Stuka’, 2008
Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 98 7/16 in

Painting, surely for all artists, and not least for Baselitz, is a form of therapy for dealing with obsessions that are buried in the individual psyche. Baselitz has been obsessed by the art of both the past and the present — in particular by the European history of his own time as a German — long before he arrived in his present position as one of the grand old men of European painting. But, lately, his problem has become one of devising a means of escape from complacent repetition to find renewal, even to attempt a Faustian pact through art that would give him a renewed affinity with youth culture (hence the term ‘remix’) , without losing dignity or exposing himself to ridicule, perhaps by making fun of history as well as his own history.

Thus Baselitz found himself, between 1998 and 2002, surprisingly turning to a motif that revived the modern art of his early youth — the only art to which, at that time, he had access — in a series described as the ‘Russian’ paintings.

An equivalent in England in the immediate post-war era would have been the exposure of young aspiring artists to late-Victorian paintings such as The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) by John Everett Millais in encyclopaedias extolling the virtues of the British Empire. At that time in England, such paintings were far more powerful and, above all, reproductions of them were easier to come across than works by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, not to mention De Kooning or Pollock, whose careers were already in full swing in New York and who since, of course, have become the legends and maybe even pictorial clichés of our own time. Baselitz, as a boy, would have been particularly aware of paintings that indeed did exploit the heroic exploits of Lenin and Stalin by hard-line socialist realist artists such as Alexander Gerasimov, whose painting Lenin on the Tribune (1929 – 30) was one of the great icons of Soviet art. From 1958 to 1964, during Baselitz’s formative years, Gerasimov was chairman of the Union of Artists of the USSR, and already in 1941 had won the Stalin Prize for his grand double portrait of Stalin and General Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1938). Indeed, this artist, born in 1881, just three years after Malevich, was not without an impressionist talent, but he became a principal champion of traditional realism against the Soviet avant-garde. In one of his ‘Russian’ paintings, Baselitz took the central motif of Gerasimov’s Lenin on the Tribune, which was itself based on a legendary photographic image of 1920, and revitalised it on a mock-heroic scale, using deliberately crude pointillistic daubs of colour. Other works from this substantial corpus of so-called ‘Russian’ paintings — with titles such as One Thousand Nightingales (2001), Victory Day in Berlin (1998), Kazakh Woman (1998) or Russian Dance (1999) — draw on many other motifs. In a work from 1998, Baselitz imagines the head of the first Soviet Comintern, Comrade Lenin, sitting naked while working in the Smolny — originally a famous aristocratic school for girls in St Petersburg and later the first headquarters of the Soviet High Command, which included Leon Trotsky as well as Stalin. Together with Lenin, these men were the three great protagonists of the Russian Revolution. Their march to power was surreal, if not miraculous, and combined intense willpower with a series of almost comic accidents. However, once they had attained power, they clung to it with absolute ruthlessness.

It is the motif of corrupting power that Baselitz combines with an inherent sense of black humour in this new series of paintings. In a sense, it is a series like Monet’s ‘Poplar Trees’ (1891) or ‘Houses of Parliament’ (1901 – 4) in that it also carries a political subtext in the context of its time. In the case of ‘Mrs Lenin and the Nightingale’, the paintings have a legitimately angry and comic autobiographical agenda, which anyone who has read either Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s or Primo Levi’s descriptions of the Gulag and the Nazi concentration camps will recognise : one response does not preclude the other, and each is based on fact. A huge amount is known about the biographies of both Lenin and Stalin. There are countless reminiscences recounting their daily activities both with respect to big political issues and equally with regard to their private lives and modes of behaviour. Lenin spent much of his early life in exile indifferent cities throughout Europe — including London, Munich and Zurich — and constantly had to adopt disguises in order to avoid arrest, sometimes shaving off his own beard (in one case, Stalin himself acted as the barber) or wearing strange and unexpected outfits. Even the grotesque but historically world- changing comedy of Lenin’s 1917 journey by ‘sealed train’ from Zurich through Germany to the Finland Station in St Petersburg, permitted and encouraged by the Germans, involved wigs and other forms of dissimulation to avoid capture and assassination. There was no end to the near misses encountered during the journey, giving some credence to what today is called counter factual history. Lenin may not have arrived in St Petersburg in a dress, but he was certainly disguised as a Lutheran pastor. Stalin’s early career was even more comic. The son of a drunken Georgian cobbler, he proved himself in the Caucuses, the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as a ruthless criminal, stopping at nothing in order to obtain funds to sustain Lenin’s party. As well as dramatic hold-ups, this involved endless Chaplinesque escapades and disguises — even including cross-dressing in order to elude the Tsarist police — that were usually, if not always, successful. Prison and exile were not unknown to both men. Curiously, and perhaps contrary to their commonly perceived image, Stalin, whilst less educated in the traditional sensethan Lenin, also pursued throughout his life a great personal interest in culture — in poetry, music and even the visual arts. He was well-known for his singing voice and wrote quite respectable poetry :

High in the clouds the lark
Was singing a chirruping hymn
While the joyful nightingale
With a gentle voice was saying –
‘Be full of blossom, oh lovely land
Rejoice Iverians’ country
And you oh Georgian, by studying
Bring joy to your motherland.
Joseph Stalin, ‘Morning’, Iveria 1895

Education, and above all self-education, was everything to any authentic follower of the teachings of Karl Marx.

Georg Baselitz, ‘Brightening as a white thread, Kiki’s dream of Prague’, 2008
Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 98 7/16 in

Georg Baselitz, ‘Tracey looks behind the sofa where she finds his drawing, or rather, what Bob had left of it’, 2008
Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 98 7/16 in

Baselitz recalls that as a young man he read the German expressionist poet Johannes R. Becher. He remembers reading one of Becher’s poems in which he describes Stalin as a nightingale. Becher was a highly talented poet and a victim, in his own way, of the history of Wilhelmine Germany, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, Stalinist Russia and, finally, the world of the intellectual elite of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The First World War radicalised him, as it did so many others, in his case to the socialist cause. After Hitler and his band came to power, Becher fled abroad. Like many creative individuals, he went first to Paris, before ending up in Moscow, where he became a leading member of the German political and intellectual elite in exile. At any moment he might have been eliminated, as others were, by one of Stalin’s innumerable purges, but he survived. After 1945 he returned to Germany, where he became a prominent figure within the GDR, ending up as a reluctant minister of culture. Even if Becher was conscious of Stalin’s purges long before they were exposed to the world by his successor, Khrushchev — who had participated in the gruesome excesses as much as anyone — such knowledge was repressed in poems that extolled Stalin as the great saviour. ‘To you, Stalin, we give thanks’ is the refrain of more than one of his poems. Becher, as a sensitive poet of his generation, was caught in the profoundest sense between the devil and the deep blue sea, justifying, in the cause of defeating the Nazi scourge, aesthetic decisions that we might find problematic today.

Baselitz’s new paintings quintessentially hover between many of these ambiguities that give them their force and their sense of necessity. Like all good painting — indeed, like all good art — they become a mirror for reflections, often at very different levels, relating to historical and aesthetic perspectives. In Baselitz’s case, these relate very consciously to the complexities of being German, and particularly of being East German, in the second half of the twentieth century. Such works thus become not merely mirrors; they act as mnemonics that allow both the artist and the viewer to remember and reflect on history and art history. When witnessed in social realist painting, such memories are positivistic and naïve — as in the works of Gerasimov or, for that matter, Adolf Ziegler, the most famous German painter of the Nazi period, or Willi Sitte, one of the more representative painters of the GDR. But then, perhaps we can ask ourselves whether the art of the Western world — that erstwhile avant-garde — has not become a paradigm for another kind of ‘oppressed’ society, one subjugated increasingly by the inevitable hierarchies of capitalism that have developed intensively over a period of more than half a century. The critical fortunes of artists such as De Kooning or Pollock are exemplary in this way: fragile and insecure in their own perpetual futures that seem, on the surface, to guarantee the immortality of fame. Nazism, Fascism and Communism each promised their adherents and believers a certainty that would last a thousand years and more. For the capitalist world it has been the same ; even if now, towards the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, we may be a little less certain. When Baselitz, after a youth nurtured on socialist realism, and perhaps even memories of Hitlerian painting, saw De Kooning, Pollock, Guston and the rest for the first time in ‘The New American Painting Exhibition’ in Berlin in 1958 (the Wall was then still not built and it was possible to go between East and West Berlin with impunity) he was overwhelmed, but, at the same time, not willing just to imitate.

He found his way to Paris, where his discovery of Artaud, Michaux, Dubuffet and other existential and outsider artists had a huge impact on his work, as did his realisation of the importance of early twentieth-century German expressionistartists, such as Kirchner, Beckmann and Dix, who were personally labelled degenerate artists by Hitler and obliterated from public view in Germany. In his Pandemonium Manifestos of 1961 and 1962, and in paintings such as The Big Night Down the Drain, Baselitz found an angry response to the German problem that would culminate in his upside-down strategy — the standing of the world on its head — with a formal and conceptual way forward that was a move towards abstraction without the necessity of losing the motif. At that time, Baselitz was a leading representative of what might be described as a radical young German artists movement, which found expression in music, literature and film as well as in the visual arts. In spite of a spirit of revolt that was in the air, West Germany, where by now Baselitz was living and working, was ever more prosperous, whilst the GDR more or less languished in political repression and economic stagnation that, in spite of its own cultural veneer, was riddled with frustrations. Such frustration could sometimes find expression in a neo-1920s cabaretistic irony, as exemplified in the poetry of Wolf Biermann, who achieved notoriety on both sides of the Wall and beyond.

These are memories that come together in the series ‘Mrs Lenin and the Nightingale’. The twenty wooden panels of 45 (Forty-Five) formed an altarpiece to the destruction of Dresden, and especially to the women victims of the bombing, which Baselitz witnessed as a boy. That work is deeply sombre in its character. The sixteen paintings that make up this new body of work can be understood as a burlesque — a profound burlesque none the less — that operates on many levels, some of which have already been alluded to.

And how are we to account for the strange, surrealistic titles ‘attached’ to these works that are totally irrelevant to the visible content of the paintings themselves, both in terms of form and with respect to the recurring motif? Baselitz tells the story of how, when a grand painting (such as Lenin on the Tribune by Gerasimov) was considered very successful and important, replicas of it were sent to hang in the capital city of each of the fifteen socialist republics that made up the Soviet Union. In the case of these sixteen paintings, says the artist, one is left over, so let’s have it sent tothe GDR (which, of course, exists no more, having collapsed on the cusp of itsforty-first birthday, right in the midst of the celebrations). Each of the paintings are given art world in-joke titles that refer to artists with whom, for the most part, Baselitz subjectively feels an affinity. These titles, the artist agrees, are very like love messages carved onto trees — a kind of self-inflicted, alienating minor vandalism in the private garden that is the world of Mrs Lenin and Stalin the Nightingale. The composition of each painting consists of collaged or rather fractured elements of a favourite 1924 portrait by Otto Dix of his parents, which can be found in the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, and, of course, Munch’s boots. These acts of titular ‘vandalism’ are declarations of ironic love to each of the artists Baselitz names : from old Mondrian down to young Richard Prince and John Currin, young Cecily Brown and Tracey Emin. All the artists that Baselitz mentions have imposed themselves onto the consciousness of the art world at some point, even if he regards the method of Mondrian as no longer useful : Baselitz recently debased the Dutch artist’s model in a series of large paintings dating from 2007-8, in which ‘De Stijl’ metamorphoses into a swastika. Further,muses Baselitz, almost perplexed, why are so many artists like Brown and Emin still using the strategies of De Kooning, erased and not erased, in order to make their art ? And on whose side would have been Baselitz’s ‘radical’ friends of erstwhile — Ralf Winkler, alias A. R. Penck, and the late Jörg Immendorff, whose Lidl Akadamie of the 1960s aimed to represent Western European Maoist subversion as modern painting?

At the founding of the Third Communist International in Moscow in 1920, arcane arguments revolved around the theory and practice of world revolution. Party leadership and the necessity for obedience to it were vehemently propagated. Perhaps one of the most telling of all of Lenin’s many writings was his pamphlet of 1901 – 2, ‘What is to be Done ?’, concerning the necessity of strong leadership. The potent rhetorical phrase of the title derives from a little-known, nineteenth-century Russian radical author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose own eponymous novel describes the experience of the penal suffering in Siberia of socialist activists. ‘What is to be Done ?’ is as powerful a phrase as ‘To be or not to be’, perhaps in terms of action, for the politician and for the artist even more so. There is no need for explanation: the titles of Baselitz’s works in this series explain nothing, just as the fracturing or reversal of the motif explains nothing.

The paintings divide quite obviously into two groups, in fact painted in succession. As it were, night follows day. The first eight were painted on a white ground with broad, bright-coloured brushstrokes. The other eight were painted on a dry, black ground with mostly feathery, blue-black strokes, lightly applied, sometimes with light touches of colour and, in one case, with dabs of paint reminiscent of Baselitz’s pointillist mode. The effect evokes yellow and pink mimosa, which by all accounts was one of Stalin’s favourite flowers because of the strength of its aroma and also because it announces the coming of spring. The motif remains constant in every work, although sometimes the top of the image seems to fall off the quasi-white mount Baselitz has delineated at the bottom of each canvas. Over the broad brushstrokes, a black dripping-ink technique functions like a lyrical drawing to outline the faces of the two dictators and the petit-bourgeois sofa on which they are sitting (derived from Dix’s portrait of his parents). The colour also delineates the dress and the strong hands of the two figures, who expose their somewhat elongated penises, formed sometimes from daubs of paint, sometimes with drawing. That the courts of Stalin and even Lenin were riddled with sexual games has been well documented. The elites were increasingly forced to play terrible orgiastic games just to hang on to power. The dictum of Lord Acton holds true here, just as it might have done in the courts of the Roman Emperors Caligula or Nero. So, too, does one by an even greater British historian, Edward Gibbon, who wrote: ‘Philosophy alone can boast (and perhaps it is no more than the boast of philosophy) that her gentle hand is able to eradicate from the human mind the latent and deadly principle of fanaticism.’ Can the same be true of painting?

Norman Rosenthal

Georg Baselitz: Mrs Lenin and the Nightingale
Until 21 March
White Cube Mason’s Yard


  1. Craig J Hudson says:

    For me, the paintings displayed, if one ignores the subject matter which I think is secondary, are essentially tonal studies: in other words the relationship between lights and darks, and in this respect I think they work quite well. I expect viewed first hand the brushwork would add to their appeal.

  2. Exceptional post however , I was wondering if you could write a
    litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little
    bit further. Cheers!


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