Der Hirte is a masterpiece from the celebrated series entitled Heroes or The New Types. Created between 1965 and 1966, this groundbreaking 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. The Heroes drew on subjects and themes from the German Romantic tradition.
Baselitz depicts a male figure in worn, baggy clothing plagued by doubts standing alone amongst the ruins, like a defeated soldier returning after the war to the ravaged homeland. Rather than representing nature as sublime, an aspect integral to the German Romantic tradition, Baselitz shows a scorched landscape, whose ravaged terrain and bleeding trees represent the destruction of war. A large white duck is shown between the shepherd's legs, a reference interpreted by Andreas Franzke "as an emblem of a bucolic strain that is represented by ducks in earlier paintings and gouaches accompanied by reminiscences of Saxon landscapes." (A. Franzke, Georg Baselitz, Munich, 1989, p. 66.)
As Michael Brenson notes, "In Baselitz's late 20th century world, nature has been too roughed up, too exploited, too toxified to allow for a religion of landscape. Baselitz wants to make his paintings an expression for a life force essential to nature and human life, but with little relation to the way either of them looks and feels. He sees art as an arena beyond good and evil, where reality has not yet been sorted out, where nature is not just harmony and peace, or flowers and wings, but something that can seem to the human mind savage and cruel. Only by struggling for an obsolete immediacy that renders conventional distinctions sentimental and useless can Baselitz conceive of an art that has the right and the potential to endure." (M. Brenson, Georg Baselitz, New York, 1992, p. 13.)
Paintings like Der Hirte show gigantic male figures with enlarged body parts towering over the charred landscape. The image is one of destruction and survival, channeled through the figures of "heroic" new men: the poet, painter, herdsman, all outsiders from contemporary urban life. Such characters evoke the new men and heroic workers which dominated Socialist Realist art, the art of the Communist countries. By including the artist as a "new man", or a "hero", and through providing artistic props and attributes to other figures in the series, Baselitz reflects on the role of artist after the war and reinforces his identification with such figures.
Der Hirte belongs to the Heroes of 1966, which are more monumental and classical than the 1965 figures. The latter works reflects the influence of Italian Mannerism which Baselitz studied during his 1965 stay in Florence. In addition to the monumentality, Mannerist influences can be seen in the use of distortions, non-naturalistic color, increased expressiveness and emotion in the figures. The smaller heads are contrasted with the enlarged hands which are often turned to expose the palms, expressing a vulnerability, even "a sense of poignancy and pathos." (D. Waldman, Georg Baselitz, exh. cat., New York, 1995, p. 34.)
In the Heroes series, Baselitz makes many references to the history of art, as well as to European history. The massive forms of the figures recall artists such as Max Beckmann and Georges Rouault. Baselitz has also spoken of the literature of the Russian revolution and Suprematist works documenting the victory of the Red Army over the Whites as having a profound influence on the Heroes. The distorted forms of Baselitz's figures clearly originate from Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.
Diane Waldman notes that the "works in the Heroes series refer to historical and current events in Germany. These paintings fuse a knowledge of European history with an awareness of postwar abstract painting. But they must also be seen as the self-portrait of an artist who was conscious of his origins and ambitious enough to create a new conception of the painter and a new type of painting in Germany. Baselitz resolved the conflict between past and present styles by recognizing that among his German precursors--Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Casper David Friedrich, and Emil Nolde--were models who had dealt with both beauty and ugliness. In his own paintings, Baselitz has attempted to reconcile past and present, beauty and ugliness through the creation of prototypes--"motifs," as he called them--outside of time." (Ibid, pp. 47-48.)
Fig. 1 Baselitz, Untitled, 1966
Fig. 2 Giacopo Pontormo, St. Jerome as a Pentitent, c. 1527-1528, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover
Fig. 3 Francis Bacon, Painting, 1946, Museum of Modern Art, New York