Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

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8 Responses to “Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World”

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I do think it’s accurate to describe Kiefer’s work as evocative, “secular altarpieces” that point to liberation.

    I first encountered his work at Louisiana Museum, where there was a small showing of his vast paintings – maybe six works in all. At that point, Kiefer was only a name for me, with no particular associations. But to stand in a room filled with his work – well, associations flooded in very quickly.

    The work was so incredibly deep in feeling, so rich in mood, that it took some time to absorb it. But I remember feeling a kind of joy within in (not to be confused with happiness), a joy that arose from the ordinary things of life. More specifically, from the celebration of those ordinary things – lead, straw, mud, dirt, pigment.

    Secular altarpiece, indeed.

    Interestingly, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art will soon open the first major exhibit of Kiefer’s work in Scandanavia:
    http://www.louisiana.dk/uk/Menu/Exhibitions/Upcoming+exhibitions+2010/Upcoming+exhibitions

  2. I haven’t thought of Kiefer in a long time. I was quite young when I saw my first real piece by him at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. It filled me with dread and maybe some fear. He speaks in what “The Alchemist” calls the language without words. He is not easy to experience, but he can be as mysterious and opaque as can be but still get the message in. I always felt we don’t have to totally understand everything–as an artist making a piece, or as a viewer trying to experience art. This is a medium without words, after all. It reminds me of the same feeling I had seeing a large Ed Ruscha painting of Venice without water which was very scary. Those are dark places on the emotional scale I don’t like to visit much, though I think I was born there. I think he is courageous to find meaning in those dark places.

  3. thank you for this insightful summary

    • India
      Welcome to Venetian Red; we hope you will stay on for future discussions as new posts go up. I just went to your site, your “marks on paper” especially fetching. Thanks for joining our far-flung reader base (and for representing Australia?)

      Best Liz

  4. Excellent post, Nancy. Thank you.

    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, which has a steller collection of postware art, has Kiefer’s 1981 “Landscape with Wing” (oil, straw, and lead on canvas). When I was at the museum several months ago, I noticed how many people remarked on its “darkness” and intensity; one viewer stood before it for a very long time, finally saying that it evoked the deepest sadness in her. I found it its “heaviness” compelling. The painting dominated the room.

    Anyone unfamiliar with Kiefer’s works on paper (the Met in New York City has more than 50) should take a look at them. They’re full of allusions and symbols and evocations of German culture; I think, though, that even if you know nothing of Kiefer’s or his works’ backgrounds, you can’t help but be drawn in by them, to feel almost assaulted visually. I was struck by his use of watercolor, for example, in painting so emotionally charged a scene as his “Winter Landscape” — the earth snow-covered and spotted with blood, a disembodied head floating above the landscape.

  5. Did I understand right? Art seems to work here as a powerful group exorcism, nationwide, or even worldwide.
    So did ” Guernica” or “El tres de Mayo”. But unlike Picasso or Goya, Keefer stays beyond the pale as taking responsability for being born in the post-war Germany. His honest approach seems to be very profitable to his art, even if it’s so difficult to deal with, even if it makes one feel so uncomfortable…
    Thanks for this enlightening post about such an important topic.
    From France.

  6. Kiefer is a favourite artist of mine. I first came across his work in a book and was immediately drawn in by its physicality and darkness. This first viewing caused me to seek out other books about his work and to read about his life. You have done an excellent job of summarizing both.

  7. Wow. thats a name from the past. I did my final year Uni dissertation on Kiefer and Anthoni Tapies. Thanks for that.

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