Georg Baselitz, one of the most recognized German artists of the twentieth century, often paints in reaction to traditional art and suppressive political regimes. In Peasant Petitioners Meeting V. I. Lenin, Baselitz reinterprets Vladimir Aleksandrovich Serov’s 1950 realist oil painting A Visit to Lenin through a modern, critical lens. The painting exemplifies Baselitz’s lifelong interest in depicting figurative scenes through expressive color and gestural brushwork, as well as his signature convention of painting human figures upside-down.
Serov’s original painting features three peasant men leaning over a table to converse with an attentive Vladimir Lenin. In his revisionist version of Serov’s scene, Baselitz entirely removes the image of Lenin, focusing on the plight of the peasant men instead of their leader. Baselitz emphasizes the haggard nature of the supplicant peasants through his loose brushwork and the earthy tones of his paint. Harnessing the emotive power of color, the vivid pink paint Baselitz has applied to the peasants’ hands and ruddy faces attests to the hard work they must endure under their oppressive government. By creating a painting of peasants on a large scale, and removing the figure of Lenin, Baselitz elevates the disenfranchised poor to subjects worthy of high art. Baselitz further subverts Serov’s painting by reimagining it upside-down. A trademark of his style since the late 1960s, Baselitz’s upside-down paintings encourage the active engagement of his viewers: one must mentally flip the image in one’s mind to truly understand what one is seeing. In this painting, Baselitz provides subversive commentary on politics, the Social Realist painting tradition, and painting in general.
Baseltiz has been a controversial figure in the art world since his first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1963, for which he was charged with displaying allegedly scandalous works. His interest in the brutally pessimistic human figure and the overt political tones apparent in many of his works can be traced to a childhood spent under authoritarian governmental regimes. Baselitz grew up in Germany under Nazi rule, and began studying art in 1956 at the Hochschule für Bildende und Angewandte Künst in East Germany. Attending an anti-Modernist art school with a curriculum influenced heavily by Communist theory, Baselitz was trained to paint conservatively in the Social Realist style. Expelled after two semesters for creating art that the school deemed inappropriate, Baselitz successfully applied to study the next year at a more liberal art academy, the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künst, in West Berlin.
Instrumental to Baselitz’s artistic development were the paintings of the American Abstract Expressionist artists that he saw at the academy’s New American Painting exhibition in 1958. Exposure to works by Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, among others, would inform Baselitz’s gestural brushwork style and use of vivid colors. However, Baselitz simultaneously embraced the German tradition, and his love of vivid colors can be traced back to the dynamic palette favored by the German Expressionists. Hitler and the Nazis had deemed the art of the German Expressionists ‘degenerate’ and attempted to erase such works from their nation’s cultural history. As he experimented with Abstract Expressionist painting in his early years, Baselitz was also reclaiming German Modernist painting from a history of national suppression.
Unlike other East German artists who rose to prominence in the 1960s, like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, Baselitz did not fully embrace Pop art or the mass media in his works. His style is often deeply personal, and influenced by his own memories and experiences. At a time when the wholly abstract works of Pollock, Rothko, and Motherwell were considered the forefront of the avant-garde, Baselitz steadfastly refused to obliterate figural representation from his works. His honest paintings force viewers to confront the brutality of life, and his aggressive brushwork serves to enhance the shocking realism of his imagery. Confronting his viewers with images of destruction and devastation, Baselitz’s art evokes the brutality of twentieth century authoritarian political regimes, and the pain experienced by those, like himself, who lived through them.