British collections don't stock much in the way of German art (though Leicester Museum is a complete surprise in this respect). True, Tate Modern has some seminal pieces by Joseph Beuys on display and several important works by Anselm Kiefer. But where are the great works by Dix, Corinth, Beckman and co? Not here. Yet German painting of the twentieth century had a seriousness and directness that continues to exert its influence. Look back at the Royal Academy's exhibition catalogue German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985 and ask yourself if there has ever been an exhibition of greater quality, depth and importance in Britain.
Now I'm not sure that Britain is ready for Georg Baselitz. Today at about 4 p.m the exhibition at the RA was nearly empty. I had several rooms entirely to myself. Yet the exhibition has only just opened.
This is not a pretty exhibition. Nor is it easy. At first glance it turns on gimmicks: hanging paintings updside down; fragmenting images; returning to re-paint a subject painted decades earlier; and, the most in your face, painting pictures of men masturbating. In truth, the upside down ruse is a gimmick, but it is more tolerable when you see it as one technique among others aimed at disconcerting the viewer. This relentless desire to shock and subvert is the essence of Baselitz's work...
Immerse yourself in this cleverly-hung exhibition. Get up close to these hacked and chain-sawed sculptures. Here is an artist who can't get to an optimistic place beyond the post-war angst, guilt, and sense of violence. The techniques may be deliberately crude, and modelled on the art of the insane in the Prinzhorn collection, but the emotional charge is real and deep. It makes much of the contemporary art world seem slick and lightweight. This is the gallery equivalent of Punk Rock. And like Punk it taps into something that the glossier, more polished work seems to miss completely. Authenticity is not easy. Though there is the suggestion that in his most prolific phase Baselitz was producing to make money on the art market, than out of sincere self-expression. Neverltheless this exhibition provides a jolt to complacency.
So why are so few people going to see it (and several of these were speaking German to each other)? Perhaps the entry fee (ten pounds) is the deterrent. But I suspect we aren't quite attuned to the intensity that German art of the Twentieth Century provides...some of us are shying away from this raw emotion and darkness.