A group of four large wooden sculptures, loosely representing figures, face each other in a high-ceilinged white gallery space.
Georg Baselitz: Sculptures 2011-2015, installation view. Photo: Hugo Glendinning, 2023.

The Artist Who Brought Giants out of the Forest

When he met the giant wooden sculptures by Georg Baselitz – currently showing as part of the artist’s current solo exhibition at Serpentine – journalist Dr Ulrich Bruemmer was reminded of the central presence of trees and shadowy forests in German culture. In this essay, he wanders through the wooded history of the German landscape, considering folklore alongside his own memories of the forest.

Hans Georg Kern, later to become the artist Georg Baselitz, was born where my mother was born ten years before him: in Upper Lusatia, a peaceful landscape with small hills and lots of forest – lots of very dark forest. This region called Upper Lusatia is located in Saxony, in East Germany. When Hans Georg Kern left the German Democratic Republic and went to West Germany to work as an artist in a free environment, my mother had already left her homeland in 1948, ten years before Baselitz, fleeing the Soviet-occupied zone to escape the threats of the Soviet soldiers a young woman- faced in these years. Without any artistic ambitions.

When I was still a little boy and Germany was divided by the Wall, we visited our relatives in Upper Lusatia, crossing from West to East Germany every summer. They lived near Deutschbaselitz, the home village of Hans Georg Kern, the name of which Baselitztook as the inspiration for his artist’s alias. I liked it there in the woods, especially in the large, dark Taucherwald forest. There was good wood there to carve from –ust as children like to do.

But one day, in the early 1980s, we were suddenly no longer allowed to enter this forest. My Saxon uncle had already warned us – there had been rumors. These were only secret whispers, because the GDR was a dictatorship without the right to free speech. Then, suddenly, there were military prohibition signs everywhere and sometimes we even saw soldiers. What had happened? The Soviet Army had set up bunkers and placed man-made giants of great destructive power in the middle of this vast forest: SS-12 medium-range missiles. Nuclear missiles for the Cold War. The Taucherwald remained a restricted military area until 1991.

A black and white etching of two women running from a small house through dense, low woodland.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham from 'The Robber Bridegroom', from the 1916 English-language edition of The Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. Source: The Internet Archive.

Us Germans have a special relationship with our forest. One third of Germany is covered by forest, and all the details of its management are regulated by a specific law, the Federal Forest Act. But beyond the daily practicalities of the forests lies the imagination of their power, from a time when nearly the whole country was covered by the woods. This is where the giants and the villains live, where the heroes fight – not just in the operas of Richard Wagner, but in many German folk legends.

Baselitz turns the world upside down in his paintings, I already knew that about him, but not much more. I didn’t know that the artist also made sculptures until I visited the Serpentine Gallery with a group of young international journalists. The curator of the exhibition, Tamsin Hong, introduced us to the German artist, and told us how forests were one of his first motifs, which he – provocatively – turned upside down in his paintings. That was new to all of us. In the exhibition we saw works of art that were not originally intended for the public, but instead were conceived as models for bronze sculptures.

On the way to the Serpentine South Gallery, we walked through Kensington Gardens with its many wonderful trees. Then we entered the gallery and were confronted with trees of a completely different kind in the exhibition. Shaped forces of nature that towered over us all. Baselitz works with chainsaws, axes and winches and often carves a sculpture out of a single large tree trunk.

Overwhelming? Yes, but I was also a little frustrated that I had never seen such huge wooden sculptures before. Only at first glance did I perceive these sculptures as brutal, but despite their size, they seemed somehow delicate to me. The chainsaw exposes the vulnerability of these wooden giants.

I was most impressed by the huge feet that give the figures stability and ground them. Where trees have strong roots, Baselitz has given his sculptures strong feet.

Detail of a large wooden sculpture on a grey floor, showing the sculpture's six roughly-cut wooden feet with pointed heels and six skinny legs.
Detail of 'BDM Gruppe' [year], by Georg Baselitz. Image: [studio credit], 2023.

In Baselitz’s homeland, the Krabat legend from the 18th century also plays an important role. Krabat is a Sorbian[i] beggar boy. One day he gets lost in the forest and comes across the Black Mill near Schwarzkollm. He is taken on as an apprentice by the master of the mill. However, he soon realizes that his master is a sorcerer who is in league with the devil. Today, the book Krabat is compulsory reading in many German schools, especially in Saxony. The tale was captured in a novel by Otfried Preußler, a former teacher, andtook him ten years to write befor he finally published it in 1971.

The forest offers Germans a peaceful refuge and at the same time it is often a place of trepedation and adventure. The fairytales and folk tales collected and told by the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm are good example of this.

In fairytales, the forest symbolizes change. The heroines in the stories go into the forest, overcome dangers and come out of the forest transformed. Take Little Red Riding Hood, for example. The guileless young girl learns in the forest through her encounter with the wolf that she must not trust just anyone. Dear Little Red Riding Hood goes into the dark forest to visit her sick grandmother and is eaten by the evil wolf. Although everyone is saved in the end – apart from the evil wolf, who does not survive the rescue operation – the message is clear: be careful in the dark forest, especially as a young girl! And beware of the bad wolf who wants to devour you. Psychoanalysts would certainly be able to interpret the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood in other ways.

Another famous story is that of Hansel and Gretel, two children abandoned by their parents in the forest, doomed to starvation and then destined for the cooking pot by an evil old woman. However, they trick the powerful witch and throw her into the fire. There’s the fairy tale of Snow White too: pretty and young, much to the chagrin of her wicked stepmother, who wants her dead. So, Snow White flees into the forest to live with the seven dwarfs, before returning to her father’s castle in all her glory as a young queen.

If you consider the special relationship that Germans have with the forest, it becomes clear that the forest also has a symbolic meaning. In the story, the fairytale hero must move from one place to another by crossing the forest – this journey is almost always part of German fairytales.

A coloured illustration plate from an old book, showing the roots of a large tree where a gnome-like figure has his beard trapped. Above him, looking on, are two young women, one dressed in white and one in red.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham from 'Snow White and Rose Red', from the 1916 English-language edition of The Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. Public domain.

The inner transformation or maturation that heroes undergo in these fairytale forests is often accompanied by trials and dangers. The main character is frightened, but also finds support, and their transformation is almost always ‘magical’ in some way. Sometimes this character resists their own transformation. Then they try to hide in the forest and must first be freed from their inner constraints by another person. Typically, a young girl is found by her prince in the forest and taken to his castle – for marriage, which in historic contexts would have been considered a rite of passage into adulthood . There is something fundamentally ambivalent about the German forest as a place of transformation, because it stands for the unknown, which can appear both threatening and promising.

In the early 19th century the forest’s role in German identity further developed in art and literature. The rediscovery of the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, who described the people and nature in what is now Germany in his work Germania, 98 CE, played a major role in this. He described the Germanic tribes as wild, uncivilised and resistant – interpreted as an origin story of the German people. The Romans struggled with the unfamiliar and densely wooded landscape , and some Germans historically viewed their ability to flourish there where the Roman armies struggled as a sign of their strength and superiority over the peoples settled in the sunny south.

Of central importance in this context is the Varus Battle, in which Arminius crushed Roman troops in the Teutoburg Forest more than 2,000 years ago. Rather than a battle on an open plain, the VArus Battle took place in the dense dark forest, where the Germanic tribes could overpower the Romans. Arminius had managed to unite these many different tribes into an alliance to resist the invaders. As a result, the Roman Empire was unable to spread to the areas east of the Rhine. In 1875, shortly after the founding of the German Empire, a monument was dedicated in Arminius’ honour in the town of Detmold on the River Weser. It is still the tallest statue in Germany.

Today, the public sculpture is intended to act as a “memorial for peace” in the spirit of the regional association. The 125th anniversary celebrations in 2000 were largely free of political undertones. Summarizing the political symbolism of the monument, the Hermannsdenkmal has offered a wide range of interpretations throughout its history: from an aggressively anti-French, nationalist symbol to the exclusion of German Catholics, Jews and Social Democrats to a place of peaceful appeal for the unity of a diverse Germany and the freedom of all nations.

During the wars between Germany and Napoleonic France, the poet and politician Ernst Moritz Arndt linked the protection of the forest with the preservation of the people. He wrote in 1815: “For now, in many European countries, the axe that is laid to the tree often becomes an axe that is laid to the whole people.” It was also Arndt who recommended a protective wall of huge fir trees against the French soldiers. Reforesting also meant fortifying.

In his 1960 book Crowds and Power, which reads a little like wading through a dense forest, Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti describes the connection between the German veneration of the forest and the art of war: “The mass symbol of the Germans was the army. But the army was more than the army: it was the marching forest.”

An etching of a warrior holding one arm aloft, surrounded by a crowd of soldiers in the woods.
Hermann (Arminius), by Augustus Tholey, 1894. Image source: WikiMedia.

How can Germans proceedwithout their woodlands, which have been cut back for centuries and still face new threats? In the Romantic period, the forest in general – but especially the German forest – was exaggerated as a place of longing and stylised as a national symbol.

Some of these national symbols are ambivalent. Far-right groups in Germany during the 20th Century coopted a variety of these symbols of the historic forests, fairytales and Varus battle for their own propaganda and patriotism

In recent decades, too, the German forest has played an important political role in a different way. The forest was of central importance for the early environmental and nature conservation movement. Forest dieback (Waldsterben) was one of the most important environmental issues in German-speaking countries in the early 1980s. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the debate about the dying forests had a considerable political, industrial policy and social impact, and is considered one of the reasons for the rise of the Green Party. It was also the concern about the forest that ultimately changed the political landscape, at least in Western Europe.

In German, the concept of sustainability is older than you might think and was coined – where else – in Saxony, the home of Baselitz. Sustainability is a basic rule of forestry science: no more wood may be felled than can grow back. In more general terms, this means that people must not consume more than can be provided again in the future.

The first use of the term Nachhaltigkeit (sustainability) in the German language, in the sense of long-term responsible use of a resource, was by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in his 1713 work Silvicultura Oeconomica. It comes as no surprise that von Carlowitz was a Saxon nobleman whose family had been responsible for the management of the Saxon forests for many generations.

Georg Baselitz’s home village is now part of the small Saxon town of Kamenz. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an important poet of the Enlightenment, was also born here in 1729. The densely wooded area also forms a dense cultural landscape.The Kamenz Forest Festival is a traditional school and local festival celebrated in August during St. Bartholomew’s Week. Based on a 500-year-old legend about war and peace, the Kamenz schoolchildren parade through the decorated town center dressed in white and carrying sashes, wreaths of flowers, flags, and torches. The pupils are accompanied by groups of flags, marching bands and orchestras. For a whole week, Kamenzer Forest becomes a widely popular amusement park with rides, shooting ranges and catering facilities such as a beergarden. In 2021, the Kamenz Forest Festival was added to the German list of intangible cultural heritage. It is not known how many people toast their fellow citizen Baselitz with a beer there each year.

A close-up image of wood with many notches from axes.
Detail of 'BDM Gruppe' [year], by Georg Baselitz. Image: [studio credit], 2023.

Why wood of all things? Wood as a central material and symbol for Baselitz. When I visited the gallery, the exhibition’s curator Tamsin Hong told us that Baselitz likes to live near forests and has a deep connection with the forest. Where does the artist’s attachment come from? Is it love or respect, or perhaps fear of the forest? You don’t have to be a psychologist to look for motives in a person’s biography. Perhaps the young Hans Georg Kern roamed the woods of his homeland a lot as a child. Back then, in the 1940s, there wasn’t much variety in entertainment for children, and they were often left to their own devices.

Was Baselitz also guided by metaphysical motifs? In any case, wood is a living material, different and friendlier than stone and steel – the latter had caused a lot of damage during World War II, which Baselitz experienced as a child.

Now I have learned that wood is a central material for Baselitz and at the same time has the power of a symbol for him. In the various aspects of his work and his life, Baselitz reflects on the central importance of the forest for German identity. My encounter with Baselitz’s wooden sculptures at Serpentine, and my exploration of forests as integral to German identity here, allows me to explore questions I have around my own connection to German identity which I will continue to reflect on for some time to come.


[i] The Sorbs are an indigenous West Slavic ethnic group, with around 80,000 people, living in the German region of Lusatia. They traditionally speak the two Sorbian languages – Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian – which are closely related to Czech, Polish, Kashubian, Silesian, and Slovak.


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