In 1977, at the Hansa studio in West Berlin, David Bowie was recording some new songs when he happened to look out of the window. The pop legend saw his musical collaborator Tony Visconti kissing his girlfriend in front of the heavily guarded concrete barrier built by communist East Germany to keep its citizens in. He wrote “Heroes”, one of his best loved songs, that contains the lines: “I, I can remember / Standing by the wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed as though nothing could fall.”
But Bowie wasn’t the first person to juxtapose totalitarian brutality and the frailty of the individual in a modern masterpiece called Heroes. A decade earlier, as the cold war began to intensify, a young German artist named Hans-Georg Kern painted a series of ironic paintings also collectively titled Heroes. They turn the happy smiling people who featured on propaganda posters of the time into bleeding, dismembered figures of pathos and tragicomedy. This September, both the early rage and the latest work of this great artist can be seen in two London exhibitions.
Kern came from a town called Deutschbaselitz in Saxony, eastern Germany. Born in 1938, he spent the first seven years of his life under the Nazi regime, which claimed it was creating a “New Order”. He saw it differently. “I was born into a destroyed order,” he said.
In 1945, the Red Army overwhelmed Saxony, and Kern found himself exchanging a far-right dictatorship for a Stalinist one. At first, he was a true socialist believer. But in 1957, he was expelled from the Academy of Fine and Applied Arts in East Berlin for “sociopolitical immaturity”. The Berlin Wall would not be built until 1961. To change his life, all he had to do was cross over to the city’s small western enclave and enrol in its art college.
When the wall went up, he renamed himself Georg Baselitz after his birthplace and started showing savage, obscene art that scandalised a city you might have thought was unshockable. In Big Night Down the Drain, finished in 1963, a boy with a massive head stands naked except for a pair of unzipped green-grey shorts, holding his erect purple penis – epitomising, surely, the “sociopolitical immaturity” of which he had been accused.
The work’s power to offend crossed ideological barriers: it was seized by West Berlin police on suspicion of “obscenity” and “immorality”. But Baselitz knew exactly what he was doing. He was taking on Germany’s modern history as no artist had done before. The boy holding his penis looks like he might be off hiding in the woods when he’s supposed to be doing drill at a totalitarian youth camp. His shorts seem part of a militaristic uniform, the Hitler Youth or the Communist Pioneers, perhaps. Whatever the uniform, he’d rather be masturbating.
Baselitz makes his view of German history still more explicit in his 1965 work Painting for the Fathers, one of the highlights in a new survey of his art at the Michael Werner Gallery in London and one of his first Heroes paintings. It is far from most people’s idea of the heroic, though. A figure with a huge arm and tiny head emerges ghostlike from a florid mass of fleshy bulges and exposed intestines spread out amid thorny undergrowth, with a vertical penis forming a kind of spire. This is the world the 1940s fathers made: chaos in the name of “order”, mass murder in the name of “purity”, sprawling shame in the name of “Heroes”.
Other figures in the Heroes series at least manage to stand up. Two Meissen Woodsmen, from 1967, shows uniformed men setting dogs on, well, who? One of the hounds hangs from a branch with the rear part of its body missing even as it pants for blood. On closer inspection, the soldiers also appear to lack legs even as they stand in their eastern front greatcoats.
In these paintings of supposed heroes, Baselitz is painting the Nazi world into which he was born. In 1965, Gerhard Richter, who had also escaped from east to west, painted an eerie photorealist portrait of his Uncle Rudi in Nazi uniform. Baselitz, however, was making a far more visceral attack on history, pulling out its innards and unzipping its trousers. Indeed, open flies are a recurring trait of his Heroes. In Three Farm Labourers, from 1967, one man in military shorts has his penis dangling between his legs.
Is he a Nazi? Baselitz’s Heroes series unequivocally draws parallels between the two totalitarian systems he knew at first-hand. Communist propaganda is travestied in these grotesque satires. The man in shorts is embraced by a hefty figure in overalls. Is this a Soviet hero worker? Could this be an unholy meeting of dictatorships? At their feet, weird roots clutch. In the background, a third worker bends in backbreaking work. The people suffer whichever party prevails.
The greatness of Baselitz’s early art goes beyond obvious ironies. It lies in a reckoning with 20th-century perversions of art itself. Nazism and Stalinism had one thing in common: they insisted on clearly understandable figurative art. In 1937, the Third Reich held up confiscated modernist art to ridicule, in its Degenerate Art exhibition. Similarly, in 1932, socialist realism became the official art of the Soviet Union and, after 1945, its satellites including East Germany.
Baselitz does not merely parody totalitarian realism. He infects it with its opposite. These paintings are the revenge of degenerate art. The gooey, luscious collapse of form into formlessness in Painting for Our Fathers is perversely decadent. The heroic has truly gone to seed.
So far, so dadaist. Yet Baselitz paints not to destroy art history but save it. He was inspired to paint Heroes by a revelatory visit to Italy. In 1965, he went to Florence on a scholarship and was blown away by its art. Specifically, he fell in love with mannerism, a 16th-century style that rejected the harmony and proportion of earlier Renaissance art in favour of distortion and disorder. All of the long limbs, big hands and tiny heads of Baselitz’s Heroes consciously remake Renaissance mannerism as cutting-edge contemporary art.
This is why they stand at the very centre of postwar Germany’s artistic rebirth. It might be difficult to understand why German art burst so powerfully out of the ashes of 1945 to become the greatest in Europe today. It has to do with a courage and audacity in acknowledging history – and in refusing to let the dead hands of Hitler and Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany from 1971, close off the resources, the giants, of the German past. Like Joseph Beuys resurrecting ancient mythology and Anselm Kiefer reclaiming Romanticism, Baselitz took a past tainted by Nazis – and Stalinists – and made it new. There’s nothing, his Heroes reveal, so subversively degenerate as painting the human body.
Since the 1960s Baselitz has spent his life looking at the human form with impassioned and quizzical eyes, turning people upside down, carving crude totemic figures out of wood, and in his most recent works expressing the anguish of old age in brutally real images of physical decay. While the Michael Werner Gallery returns to his artistic roots this September, his latest paintings and sculptures are revealed at White Cube. They depict thin, timeworn, almost mummified hands. The hands of an artist who rescued the human pulse from the forces that would efface it.