Provocation has always played a central role in the arts. As historical outsiders from the status quo, artists are looked to as seers and empaths—able to voice truths, challenge social ills, and instigate change by reminding us of our humanity, our failures, and our strengths. This position comes with the power and responsibility of influencing our Weltanschauung, or worldview. So what happens when it’s not the art that speaks, but the artist, and that voice is negative?
In 2013, a Spiegel Online interview with German Neo-Expressionist painter Georg Baselitz went viral. “Women don’t paint very well,” he famously stated in it. “It’s a fact.” He continued, with unfettered misogyny, to make unsubstantiated statements about the market value and quality of work produced by women, and has repeatedly and unapologetically reiterated these sentiments over the years. His words came in today’s era of political correctness and increased consciousness of the systemic gender inequality and bias in the art world. Baselitz should be held accountable for his statements, but should his work and its historical importance also be put on trial? Is the work forever marred by such offensive claims?
Baselitz is a lifelong provocateur. In 1957, he was kicked out of art school in East Germany for being “socio-politically immature,” which catalyzed his move to West Germany. He then launched his career with a solo exhibition in 1963, some of the contents of which was seized by the police for obscenity. He was an antagonistic outcast, unafraid to express the post-World War II pain of his generation and distrust of the establishment. Baselitz articulated fraught experiences and emotions in images that many Germans could not find words to express. For this, he has been applauded as one of the greatest German painters of his time.
Bearing these contexts in mind, I visited his current exhibition “Heroes” at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, and what I found completely countered the artist’s media persona. The exhibition brings together two series of works titled “Heroes” and “New Types,” produced between 1965 and 1966 when Baselitz was just 27 years old and in the midst of a six-month residency at Villa Romana in Florence. The rooms at Städel are filled with large, figurative paintings of lone soldiers, brought together here for the first time like a battalion coming home from war. Thickly painted in muted earth tones and saturated crimsons, their heads are shrunken and their bodies bloated and bleeding. Their skin and clothes are splayed and their eyes are crazed or despondent and vacant.
Broken, vulnerable, surrounded by barren trees or desolate, foreboding landscapes in hazy pastels or blacks, the figures clutch tattered red flags, mangled weaponry, and laden backpacks while their feet or hands are often ensnared in torture devices. In most cases, the soldiers’ trousers are undone, their genitals exposed, deformed, and flaccid or erect—their masculinity reduced to wretched, grotesque lumps. The paintings are sensitive and deeply sorrowful. These young men are heroes for barely surviving the ravages of war, and powerful in their expression of the failings of a society that forsook them.
With the resurgence of nationalist, right-wing politics, xenophobia, and isolationism across Europe, these works feel particularly timely. The grave tragedies of the last century must not be forgotten. Revisiting Baselitz’s “Heroes” is an urgent reminder of Europe’s recent calamitous past. There is a deep-seated humanism that can be found in the works if you are open to seeing it, and these are qualities that transcend the petty, sensationalist libel of Baselitz’s publicity stunts.
Should the strengths of Baselitz’s work be written off because of the incendiary statements he has made about women artists over the years? Some argue yes, he’s had enough attention and he has abused his position with words that are damaging and offensive to women. I have a hard time subscribing unequivocally to this viewpoint. Reductiveness is not the way forward, and we need to rethink the discursive language used when considering what’s important about an artist’s oeuvre or biography.
Baselitz’s paintings speak louder than his words, drowning out the machismo with a vulnerability that suggests a more nuanced take on men, and humanity at large.