Martin Gayford

Happy ending

'I am trying to understand why otherwise good artists porduced poor late works... and how can I go against that?' Martin Gayford meets Baselitz at White Cube Bermondsey

‘In many ways,’ Georg Baselitz muses, ‘I behaved against the grain of the times I grew up in.’ The era was 1960s Germany; in that context, Baselitz feels he was subversively respectable. ‘For example, I never took any drugs. I have been a very faithful husband, I just wanted to hold on to my wife, I wasn’t interested in straying. I never went on any political demonstrations.’ His major offence, however, was not what he didn’t do but what he actually did: paint figurative pictures.

Eventually, fashions reversed, and this perverse behaviour made Baselitz a celebrated figure in the world of art. At 78, he remains vigorously productive. We were talking in White Cube, Bermondsey, the spacious galleries of which are filled by an exhibition of recent oils, watercolours and sculptures by Baselitz. Many of these feature the naked bodies of the artist himself and his wife Elke, dangling like wrinkled chrysalises or — since in company with so many images in Baselitz’s oeuvre they are upside down — like pallid bats. They seem to float, with visibly ageing anatomy, in a spectral void flecked with stray skeins and splodges of paint resembling distant stars. Perhaps — as the title, ‘Wir fahren aus’, or ‘We’re off’ suggests — Baselitz, as he approaches 80, is contemplating the end.

At the beginning, however, as he explained to me, Baselitz was attacked whenever he showed his work. Moreover, in addition to being outrageously reactionary, because his works were not abstract, he was also suspected of being upper class. ‘Some people assumed I was an aristocrat and called me “Von Baselitz”, which was terribly funny.’

In fact, Baselitz is not his real name — he was christened Hans-Georg Kern — but a pseudonym he adopted from his native village, Deutschbaselitz, a little place a few kilometres from Dresden.

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