Der Hirte (The Shepherd) is one of the epic series of paintings executed by Baselitz in 1965 known as the Heroes, New Types or Partisans". This ground-breaking and highly regarded series of paintings is a radical mythic exploration of the role of the individual amidst what Baselitz saw as the fragmented and barren cultural landscape of Post-War Germany. In 1957 Baselitz had 'defected' from East Berlin to live in West Germany. Exchanging the repressive dogma of the GDR for the crass-commercialism of American-inspired capitalism in the West, Baselitz came to see himself as a lone outsider, deeply alienated from the new 'ruptured' society. "You found yourself suddenly in a very alien, chilly environment," he recalled of this time, " When the traditional ties are gone, when there are no more teachers, no more fathers, that's what I mean by rupture."(Baselitz in conversation with Johannes Gachnang, cited in "A Painting for the Fathers," in German Art from Beckmann to Richter, ed. exh. cat., Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 1997, p. 120).
In his first manifesto written in 1961 and entitled Panddmonium, Baselitz confessed his attraction to the work of the 16th Century Mannerist painters, Bronzino, Pontormo Fiorentino and Parmigianino and what he termed their addiction to excess. During his time in Italy he eagerly sought out their work and the distortion and almost self-parodying sense of grandeur of these paintings clearly informed his new work. In particular, the notably small heads and distorted outsize hands and feet of figures like Der Hirte, clearly originate in the similar shaped figures of Pontormo and Matthias Grünwald's 16th Century masterpiece for the Isenheim Altar. Baselitz uses these distorted features to convey a sense of the raw physicality and simple honest nature of his figures, for the Heroes" are all simple peasant-types ;the antithesis of the intellectually pretentious, city-bound bourgeois that he saw all around him in the new West Germany.
Baselitz himself has observed that the figures in this series are partially based on his readings on Russia's reconstruction following the victory of the Red army over the Whites in the early 1920s. In accordance with this, his "heroes" are often accompanied by a red flag. Yet despite owing something to the social-realist tradition and its propagandistic portrayal of legendary Soviet 'heroes' the pervasive atmosphere of these raw and powerful works stems from two alternative literary sources that Baselitz encountered in the West. The existential landscape of Samuel Beckett, whose work he was also reading at this time, and the writings and drawings of one of his own personal heroes, Antonin Artaud, whose advocation of a wild and pure, "kick-in-the balls" form of expression was close to the artist's own heart.
The Shepherd is one of Baseltz's favorite Hero figures and is usually depicted in the role of a Saviour sheltering a burning house and a plough from a desolate Beckett-like wasteland in his large safe hands. In this portrayal of The Shepherd however, the figure is shown sitting defeated amidst a world in flames. In the place of the plough and the house which are here, along with an assortment of other debris, caught up in the fiery whirlwind, the Shepherd holds out his large empty hands towards the viewer. In the centre of each palm two burn marks are clearly visible, asserting like stigmata, the wounded status of the Shepherd and reinforcing the Christian significance of the profession.
The failure of the Post-War Germans to acknowledge the horrors of its recent past was one of the key grievances of Baselitz's generation. In depicting the defeated hero clearly displaying his wounded status, this work is a provocative indictment of the elder generation's state of denial.
Fig. 1 Jacopo Pontormo, St. Jerome as a Penitent, c. 1527-1528, Niederachsisches Landesmuseum Hannover
Fig. 2 Otto Dix, Triptych: War, 1929-1932, right panel, Staadliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Neue Meister
Fig. 3 Baselitz