At the Venice Biennale of 1980, the artists representing Germany were Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. The latter, having made his reputation as a painter, decided to exhibit some sculpture. At the private view, the first visitor to come through the door was Joseph Beuys, the most celebrated living German artist, accompanied by an admiring student.
What, the student asked, did Beuys think of this rough-hewn figure? "Terrible," replied the great man, "not even first-term student's work."
Baselitz, who is telling me this story, roars with laughter at Beuys's verdict. But - and here's his point - he didn't want to make pleasing sculpture. "So I made unpleasant sculptures - and now they aren't unpleasant any more. That's the way it goes."
The little incident is a metaphor for Baselitz's career as a whole. He began by being wild, provocative, even deliberately uncouth, and ended up as one of the grand old men of art: accepted, and established (though he dislikes that second word with its implication of "tame").
At the beginning of next year he turns 70. This autumn the British public will get a chance to make up their own minds about him when the Royal Academy holds a major exhibition of his paintings and sculpture.
By reputation, Baselitz might seem formidable, even fearsome. Those wooden sculptures, a hostile critic might sneer, look as if they were carved with a chain-saw (the chain-saw is, in fact, Baselitz's preferred sculpting tool). For 30 years, he lived in a medieval castle at Derneburg in northern Germany - an apt location for an artist whose painted imagery is almost heraldic: hunters, dogs, birds of prey. His trademark device of painting images upside down - which he first hit on in 1969 - is both disorientating and a little aggressive.
In person, Baselitz turns out to be convivial and excellent company. He has recently given up his ancient fortress, having become fed up with it, and is waiting to move into new headquarters which are being built by Herzog & De Meuron - the Tate Modern architects - on a lake in the foothills of the Alps.
In the meantime, he is working from a temporary studio on a sort of suburban industrial estate in Munich, which is where I encounter him, this enormous man with a shaven head and smart, very yellow corduroy trousers. He's all on his own in a vast room, paintings stacked around the walls, with three modernist chairs and, he apologetically points out, no tea, no coffee, no water, no luxuries at all.
Baselitz, though now a wealthy man, is no stranger to austerity. He was born in 1938 in Deutschbaselitz, a village in Saxony from which he adopted his name (originally Georg Kern). Until the age of eight he lived under the Third Reich, and after that in the communist German Democratic Republic. While he was growing up, he saw almost no modern art.
"The first clue I had was a book about Futurism which I found in the public library in the nearest town," he says. "I didn't know about Klee, Expressionism, Dada - I'd heard about Picasso but everyone in the world would have heard of him."
It was only when, at 18, he went to art school in East Berlin that he started to find out more. He was expelled from the first school for "social and political immaturity" - in retrospect a sign of burgeoning individuality - and migrated to another in West Berlin (this was before the Wall was built) to carry on learning.
"I was full of curiosity, I just sucked in all the information I could find. I went to bookshops and read everything. There was no art scene, no galleries in Berlin at that point."
He describes the Germany of that time as intellectually "empty". There wasn't a teacher who wasn't compromised by the past. On the other hand, paradoxically, Germany has been an extremely fertile place in the visual arts in the 60-odd years since the war.
"I think the separation of East and West resulted in a great hunger and curiosity in the East. Almost all of the artists come from there - Polke, Lupertz, Penck, Richter, myself - everyone except Kiefer and Beuys. That's still true. Everything that's happening at the moment comes from the East, the Leipzig school, the Dresden school."
Baselitz started making an impression in the early '60s, in the days when new art could still cause genuine shock. Two paintings from his first solo exhibition of 1963 were seized by the public prosecutor. Baselitz didn't get them back until after the trial two years later. One of these, The Big Night Out Down the Drain, depicts a dwarfish male figure holding his enormous erect penis.
Around this time Baselitz's mother remarked that maybe he got into all this trouble because he painted such terrible pictures. "She said, 'Why don't you paint pretty flowers instead?' But in fact, painting bad pictures was much better than painting good pictures."
He says his career as an artist "began with a visceral feeling - a certain defensive attitude, eruptive, vulgar", and he still believes, on the whole, that this is how art happens.
"I am completely convinced that art doesn't depend on a group will, moral factors, or ideals," he says. "It depends on individuals." So art doesn't progress in an orderly way; instead, it is a series of instinctive reactions against what came before. Its historical logic can only be seen, if at all, in retrospect.
"At the time that picture of mine created a scandal because it wasn't painted the way that Manet would have done it. So I was seen as a bad student, a bad man, an idiot. Now the audience have got used to it, and are happy with it. So young people come along and say, 'That's all crap' and do things that are controversial all over again."
In a way, Baselitz is rather traditional, an artist who likes to work intuitively with paint and wood. Sculpture for him is like archaeology: "You dig in and you find something." With hindsight, it is clear that he belongs to a current in northern art from the age of Matthias Grünewald onwards - raw, tough, and convulsive.
"You cannot deny your origins," he says, before admitting to an affinity with the German Expressionists of the early 20th century: "I love Kirchner more than Matisse, although Matisse was a greater artist. That isn't to do with nationality. It's a stronger feeling."
Baselitz says he's rather tired of being seen as a "German artist", and perhaps the description doesn't quite do him justice. He's more a northern artist, one whose literary loves include Samuel Beckett and August Strindberg. And like many northern people, he loves the south. His other pied à terre is in Italy and after the interview we go off to an Italian restaurant to drink wine and talk some more.