Georg Baselitz interview: The German painter on the art world's jokers, being a pessimist, and 'dirty work-trouser' days

Baselitz's first exhibition of paintings was seized by the public prosecutor on grounds of indecency. This notoriety was later reinforced with his trademark upsidedown paintings

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The Independent Culture

Some people consider your artwork to be shocking. Are today's audiences less easily shocked?

Some people are shocked when you steal from them, others when you give them gifts. Where art is concerned someone is always shocked.

Do some artists go too far in trying to shock audiences?

All artists crave attention for what they do, so they may try to shock – but some "shocks" are just so boring, they're not even worth repeating. Our culture doesn't want to stand still; everyone is pushing for maximum impact in their work. All of us love the wonderful things in galleries, of course, but what are artists meant to do about that? Those works can't be bettered, so we obsess about innovation. You can observe this craziness especially at the very beginning of someone's career. Hopefully both excitement and shock succeed, but the point is to move art further forward, not to entertain the public. In the meantime, there is this group of jokers who – motivated politically, socially or whatever – rush from one abomination to the other.

When were you last offended?

Recently. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a critic first claimed I was like Harry Haller from Hesse's Steppenwolf. A few days later the same critic compared me to [19th-century German painter] Anton von Werner!

You were expelled from the university of fine arts in East Berlin for "socio-political immaturity". Would you say you have "grown up"?

No, I'm still immature, I still need a few summers. I think I'll never be socio-politically mature. What nonsense!

What books do you have on your coffee table?

WG Sebald's The Emigrants, with the story about Frank Auerbach, and Erik Orsenna's Sur la route du papier.

 

What picture hangs in pride of place on your wall?

A painting by Roy Lichtenstein.

What's your most treasured possession?

Apart from my physical health, a print of Beccafumi's 1540 work, Three Nude Old Men.

What's your favourite gallery in the world?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Do you ever find the art world tiresome?

Everything is boring apart from art. Everyone is working on being unforgotten. In an encyclopaedia, artists are beacons among all the terrible other people.

What does an average weekend involve for you?

I have trouble distinguishing the days. Whether it's Saturday or Sunday, I put on my dirty work trousers. Long ago, in my childhood, Saturday was bath day.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Pessimist. Every "Yes" always contains a "But".

Over the past decade, you've produced a series of "remixed" versions of your early paintings. Were you impressed with the quality of the work you revisited?

Yes, I think in the olden days my walk was more upright. Courage was stronger, even though there was hardly any hope. I had no respect – I was very contemptuous.

If you could time-travel, where would you choose to go?

To my childhood, because it has gone out of focus. I know that there's no chance of starting again, but I know now how the route ahead was marked out, the twists and turns. After all, I've amassed a lot of documents.

What do you listen to while you paint?

No music. I used to sing while I painted, but no more.

Biography

Georg Baselitz, 77, was born near the town of Kamenz in what would become East Germany. He attended art school in East and then West Berlin, his first exhibition of paintings being seized by the public prosecutor on grounds of indecency. This notoriety was later reinforced with his trademark upsidedown paintings. He lives and works between Munich and Imperia, Italy. Baselitz’s work is showing at White Cube at Glyndebourne until 30 August, and at the Venice Biennale until 22 November

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