Great Works: The Big Night Down the Drain 1962-3 (250 x 180cm), Georg Baselitz

Museum Ludwig, Cologne

This painting seems to be waging war upon refinement of any kind. It is not asserting its own beauty – in fact, quite the opposite. It is not harmonious. In fact, it is lumpen, squat, gross and lumpish. It is not tailored to appeal to any market. It would not sit e asily above the mantelpiece in the home. It is the very epitome of savagery, tastelessness, ugliness, offensiveness, crudeness and ferocious defiance. It seems to exist in order to be nothing but that, a fist shaken in the face of the respectable and self-possessed onlooker.

The masturbating dwarf stares blankly, not ahead, but to the side. He is ridiculously small in stature, slightly knock-kneed, dressed in what might be lederhosen. The eyes are small and mean, ridiculously wide-spaced, deep-sunken within their sockets, hollowed out, the pupils defined against the eyes' grey-black outlining. The look is leaden, mechanised, wallowing in its own emptiness, beyond the call of morality. The nose is a flattened, mashed agglomeration of smeary colours. Everywhere there are nasty little lumps, swellings, excrescences, evidence of abnormality. We feel that the figure believes himself to be as massive and as indomitable as any Titan – such is his steady, purposeful look of leaden menace. The visual truth is the exact opposite. He is laughably small and slight, ungainly, easily swept aside, utterly preposterous and anti-heroic.

He holds the disgustingly extended penis out in front of him, as if he is engaged in the act of swinging it from side to side, wielding it like a cosh. This is his only weapon. The hands look too small and malformed, the fingers awkwardly crossed over each over, the blooded left ear so grotesquely large that it must have been pummeled, repeatedly. The face is a messy blur of ill-defined features, created from small, splattery, smeary wedgings of paint.

The texture is messy and hectic looking, quite deliberately so. Did he paint parts of it with his thumb and fingers? Possibly. The individual dibs and dabs of paint go in so many different directions. There is no feeling of easy flow, no attempt to disguise the fact that this has been a laborious build up of paint, an extended act of raw application of crude colour. There is no context for this figure. He stands, weakly defiant, preparing himself for the next approach, in the middle of the canvas, against the darkest of dark grounds, a figure punily defined against nothing. There is no hint of a landscape of any kind. He is from nowhere. He stands in a nowhere place – no man's land, in fact. He is everyman – or perhaps he is the no-man of that world. The only figure against which he is defined is a second human form on the floor, on its side. Dead? Almost certainly. A slumped corpse, partially concealed, legs drawn back, by the standing figure. Once again, the figure is very crude and ill defined. One important detail links the standing figure with the recumbent corpse – a fierce redness. The same red that is used to define the hugely swollen ear of the standing figure, and that reappears, in spattery smears, on his chest, arms, penis and legs, is also smeared on the corpse, quite close to his neck.

This was one of a group of paintings made by Georg Baselitz for his first exhibition in West Berlin at the Galerie Werner & Katz in 1963. The entire show was confiscated by the police on the grounds of obscenity. Many of the works in that show consisted of close scrutinisings of human flesh, and especially of the foot and the lower leg. Every one of them has that same raw, pitiless quality. Baselitz is staring at something that might be repulsive to him. They were being made at a time when many artists were being seduced by the formal qualities of abstraction, the coolness of minimalism. Baselitz, by comparison, who as a boy had huddled in the village schoolhouse as the Allied planes bombed nearby Dresden, could not go down that road. He was seeking out his own response to a more urgent question: how and what could a German painter paint in the aftermath of the humiliations of war, in the aftermath of the atrocities of Hitler? Abstraction was to step back too far. Abstraction would be a dereliction of duty. So he chose to anatomise, ruthlessly, human flesh, to search into it, to mock it for its ridiculous fanfarings of its own heroic qualities. And in the painting on this page, he made his own portrait of that ludicrous immoralist Adolf Hitler, the Austrian dwarf-man with the receding hairline, the sometime meagrely talented artist of schmalzily traditional scenes, wielding his bloody, penile cosh in the ever darkening wasteland of his own tragic devising.


Georg Baselitz was born in Deutschbaselitz, Saxony, in 1938. He studied at the Hochschule fur Bildende Künste in East Berlin in 1956, but was soon ejected from there for what was then described as "socio-political immaturity". He is a painter of unmitigated savagery, a painter at whose works you are often inclined to wince at. When he does not paint, he fabricates crude, blockish, wooden sculptures of human forms with the aid of a chainsaw. He works very fast, and as he has aged he has worked faster still. He is a witness to terrible things. For many years he has painted the human figure upside down, as if the essential truth is the parallel to be drawn between man and shanks of dead meat on the butcher's hook.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'