Norbert Bisky A Brush with Death

Ahead of his biggest exhibition yet, acclaimed German artist Norbert Bisky explains why his well-known family, East Germany and bloody violence have combined to influence his work.
Norbert Bisky can be brutal with a brush.

Norbert Bisky was born in Leipzig in 1970 in the former East Germany.  He is the son of Lothar Bisky, the former chairman of the Left Party, the successor to the East German ruling party. His art has been greatly influenced by the Socialist Realism style favored behind the Iron Curtain during the communist era.

He studied in the 1990s at the Berlin University of the Arts under Georg Baselitz, another famous East German artist. Today, he lives and paints in Friedrichshain, a district in Berlin, and his paintings are acclaimed internationally. Here, he talks about the influences behind his forthcoming exhibition, Zentrifuge.


Mr. Bisky, your largest retrospective to date is opening in Rostock, a city in north eastern Germany, next week...

Norbert Bisky: No, not a retrospective. I would think that is stupid. You can only have a retrospective after you are dead. I am just beginning my work.

Beginning? You have been painting for close to two decades. How long do you want to paint?

Fifty years is realistic. Then I’ll be 94. You can still reasonably paint then.

Which artists do think could still reasonably paint at such an age?

Many! Otto Piene, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon. Baselitz is jumping around like a hip, young artist. Michelangelo and Picasso also did a lot in their later years.

So the Rostock exhibition is about your formative work. What will you be showing?

The exhibition has the same name as a painting of mine from 2008: Zentrifuge – forces from out of the center having an effect, shapes exploding, masses being accelerated and pushed against the borders. Something dissolves there, the things are being decomposed in the painting.

You mixed up the face of the person in the Zentrifuge painting so much with your brush that it looks like it was worked over with a hand blender. Where does the violence visible in such pictures come from?

For one thing, I have always had nightmares. For another, there is the influence of the history of art. While studying, I spent a year in Madrid and had a studio that was so small, I could hardly turn around in it. So I spent almost everyday in the Prado collection and copied paintings.

Many of the paintings in the museum are substantially more brutal than anything I have painted to date. They became a permanent part of my visual memory. And then there were triggers, violent situations I experienced myself, such as the terror attacks in November 2008 in Mumbai. I was only a short distance away from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel at the time and was supposed to open an exhibition.

Was the Zentrifuge picture painted after Mumbai?

No, significantly, shortly before. The pictures I showed in Mumbai were already very violent. It was then very difficult showing them at all in such a tense situation.

Norbert Bisky, Antropofagia, 2013.


Does painting in this way also act as therapy?

I wouldn’t be able to shut out the world without painting. It is totally wonderful to work with your own hands, with no boss. And I can throw into the pictures what’s on my mind.

For example, the very explicit homosexual scenes that you occasionally paint.

At some point, I had to clearly and drastically formulate the subject to quiet the interpreters, who were reading something subliminally homosexual into my pictures.

You were 19 when the Berlin Wall fell. How much of the East German state is still in your art?

I have spent more of my life living in the German Federal Republic than in the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany). My consciousness is much more defined by the West. Also, because I focused on the GDR so thoroughly in the beginning, I am now finished with the subject.

I see here in your studio that you have a small portrait of the Sandman, a famous East German children's television character.

Yes, but that isn’t going to stay as it is. The Sandman must be destroyed.


It isn’t a political act but rather a totally banal, childish act. Some children just have to rip an eye out of their teddies sometime. It has nothing to do with the GDR.

For several years now contemporary art has been selling at auctions for outrageous record prices. Have you benefited from this boom?

It means a lot to me to be able to afford a studio and live well from my work. But with my gallery owners, I have consciously not raised my prices to astronomic levels. I am not part of the hype. No one is speculating with my work.

Would it be a problem for you if your art was a speculative commodity?

Of course. But I am in the happy situation of having collectors who have a long-term interest in my work.

Norbert Bisky, Colaba 5 (from the Colaba series), 2009.


What role can an artist still play in society today?

A very dangerous role. Simply because artists are able to completely question things, they can put their fingers in the wound. If done seriously, it is very taxing for the artists themselves, but also enormously effective.

Your family has a high public profile. Your father, Lothar, who passed away last year, was chairman of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to East Germany's ruling party, and then of The Left Party. Your older brother, Jens, is an editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, and has written a book about growing up in your family. Does your family history also find its way into your paintings?

I haven’t yet painted a portrait of my parents. I could maybe do that sometime. When my younger brother Stephan died, it played a direct role in my paintings.

How did that come across?

My brother died very suddenly in 2008 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was studying neuroscience. I had to clear out his apartment and, afterwards, became preoccupied with the question of the traces one leaves behind. For example, I put one of my brother’s jackets on display and artistically explored the things that interested him, such as the neurosciences.

My exhibition on neurosciences in the Dortmunder Kunstverein art association in 2009 was called Mandelkern (Amygdala). That is what scientists call the fear center in the human brain. As an artist, I didn’t want to avoid this subject, but rather consciously try to grasp the meaning of death. It was very painful, but important to endure. As an artist, I don’t want to evade such personal experiences.


Norbert Bisky's Zentrifuge exhibition will be on display from November 16 to February 15, 2015, at the Kunsthalle Rostock.

This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]