Anselm Kiefer (1945)


Son of an officer in the Wehrmacht, Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen in the border regions of the Black Forest and Lake Constance in March 1945, under fire from the Allied bombardments that devastated and annihilated the country a few weeks before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. After studying law, literature and linguistics, he turned to art in 1966, going to academies in Freiburg and Karlsruhe before receiving the support of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), who at the time was a teacher at the Academy of Düsseldorf and who would go on to collaborate with him.

Soon after the war, Communism became the enemy of the Western world: the Cold War started, and because the position of the Federal Republic of Germany became strategic, political will was to forget the past. But for many intellectuals and artists, the burning question remained: from the Enlightenment philosophy of Kant to the Romantic poetry of Novalis, from the music of Bach to the paintings of Friedrich; magnificent German culture had generated Nazi barbarity. How would it be able to survive it and evolve?

At the risk of provoking misunderstandings, Kiefer bravely confronted this painful question which he made a personal matter. Already in about 1969 he represented himself doing the Nazi salute in the middle of an empty, dismal landscape close in atmosphere to the Romantic paintings of Caspar Friedrich, in Ohne Title (Heroische Sinnbilder)/ Untitled (Heroic Symbols), before developing the series in different contexts that were halfway between the ridiculous and the tragic. He used the gesture again in a series of photographs showing different European sites that had been affected by the war (Occupations).

"To know oneself, one has to know one's people, one's history... I therefore dived into History, awakened memory - not to change politics but to change myself - and drew on myths to express my emotion."

To this end, Anselm Kiefer would frequently turn to landscape – following the example of the German Romantics – which he also used to symbolise "a [historical] reality that was too difficult to be real."

In the 1970s, canvases showing vast expanses of scorched earth where flames still burned, (Maikäfer flieg! 'May bug, fly!' 1974) - evoking the Nazis' scorched earth policy in Russia – were combined with a pressing need to revisit the founding myths of German history and identity. He started with the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, and the victory of the Cherusci, Arminius – the "liberator of Germany", according to Tacitus – whose name would be exploited by the Nazi regime in its more modern form, 'Hermann'. Conversely, Kiefer linked himself with the figure of the defeated Roman, Varus, that he evoked by associating him with the German forest, the historical setting for the battles but also for German mythology: it serves as a context for Varus (1976) where the names of great men who have shaped German culture are displayed. But the forest also marks the connection with the barbarity of the modern era if we think of the 'Goethe Oak' at Buchenwald...

Through his anti-heroic interpretation of the myth and the inclusion of the work in a series ironically entitled Wege der Weltweisheit (Ways of Worldly Wisdom 1976-77), Kiefer indicates that he has hijacked it in the service of absurd ideas. Likewise, he dealt with subjects taken from mythological stories, 'Parsifal' and 'The Song of the Nebelungs'; the latter a national epic poem which would be taken up by Wagner and nineteenth-century German nationalism, before being used by Hitler (in a poster where he is dressed as Siegfried). Nothung ('The Sword' 1973) alludes to Sigmund's sword that was broken by Odin then repaired by Siegfried, but here it is neutralised and incapable of symbolising the renewal. Right from this first period, however, Anselm Kiefer nurtured a hope for regeneration through artistic creation, as shown by Malen ('To Paint', 1974), a barren landscape above which a palette of blue in the sky releases a nourishing rain onto the earth. Elsewhere the palette of blue is winged like a guardian angel (Resumptio, 1974).

At the beginning of the 1980s, monuments and ruins from photographs published by the Nazis appear in his painting; questionable imagery at first glance that calls on the perceptiveness of the spectator. Wanting to ridicule the theory of Ruin Value drawn up by the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, who intended to build in enduring materials so that these neoclassical-style buildings would look like Roman architectural remains at the end of a millennium, Kiefer gave, for example, in Innenraum ('Interior', 1981), the New Reich Chancellery in a state of majestic ruin, having been entirely destroyed in 1945 by the allied air force.

The moment came to face the Holocaust: Kiefer confronted German and Jewish identities in the form of pairs of works in which the symbolic content, without human representation, thus seems to observe the Bible's second commandment. Influenced by the German-speaking Jewish Romanian poet, Paul Celan, who would continue to inspire him, the golden hair made from a tangle of straw with a flame above it, represents the 'Aryan nature' of Faust's Margarete (1981). Against this is Shulamith (1983), the female lover from the 'Song of Solomon' that Kiefer set up as the incarnation of the Jewish victim. Made out of black plaster and ash, Shulamith took the form of the Neo-gothic architecture of the memorial of the soldier, transformed into a place of memorial for the victims of the Holocaust through the presence at the far end of the scene, of tongues of fire evoking at the same time the fate of the Jews in the death camps and the light of a menorah. From that time, Kiefer diversified his technique, adding objects and other materials to the pictorial paste, such as straw, locks of hair, pieces of cardboard, ash, sand, earth, concrete, lead, silk, saliva, chalk, pieces of plants, ruins and scrap.

His attachment to Jewish culture only grew from then on, strengthened further by a journey to Israel in 1984. Characters and stories from the Hebrew Bible frequently fed into his imagery, such as the theme of Jacob's Ladder illustrating the dialectic between the finite and the infinite, not to mention Isaac Luria's (16th-century) Kabbalah: Jewish mysticism based on the belief that God is the text revealed on Mount Sinai, and God being infinite, the meaning of the text must become him through multiple interpretations linked to the esoteric content of letters, words and numbers. Kiefer dealt particularly with the theme of Lilith, the antithesis of Eve, through the metonymy of a lock of black hair as a symbol of her destructive action: she exercises her destruction on a world represented by the skyscrapers of Sao Paulo made out of an amalgam of materials – paint in a paste, ash and carbonised elements (1987-1990). But the artist was equally seduced by Luria's philosophy of History in three times: the Creation of the world consisting of the tsimtsoum or retraction, followed by the shebirat ha-kelim or breaking of ten heavenly vases (sefirot), making up the tree of life and incapable of containing the intensity of the divine light received through emanation; but this dispersal brings about at the same time a reconstitution and repair, the tiquon. Perfectly matched to his thinking and artistic creation, Kiefer appropriated it for himself from 1990, and in the year 2000 produced a brilliant cycle of five canvases 9.4m high for the arches of the chapel at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris: Tsimtsoum, Emanation, Die Ordnung der Engel, Sefiroth, La Brisure des vases.

He also developed in the 1990s a keen interest in Robert Fludd, mystical philosopher of the 17th century and author of theories about the correspondence between all constituent elements of the Universe, from stars to living beings – human, animal and vegetable; theories that science today increasingly confirms, moreover. Beyond the The Secret Life of Plants series in connection with numbered nebulae, Kiefer linked Fludd to Buddhism and identified himself with it by representing himself lying down in a Hatha-Yoga posture called 'shavasana', or corpse, under enormous sunflowers - which in their name are themselves linked to the cosmos (Die Orden den Nacht 'The Orders of the Night', 1996) - or indeed under a vault covered with stars (Sternenfall 'Starfall', 1995).

There were so many ideas that came to reinforce his desire for the concept of a perpetual cycle of life; where death, like destruction, is not an end but only a stage in a long chain of transformations.

As well as philosophy, poetry has proved to be a major source of inspiration for Anselm Kiefer, who uses it as a reference but also as a specific material through fragments of texts that he frequently includes on the surface of his work. He has created links with the Russian Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and the Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) as well as with Paul Celan (1922-1970); the three having used language to fight against forgetting and barbarity. Moreover the book-object has been extensively present throughout the artist's work, ever since the series of burnt books in 1975. But in Für Paul Celan: Aschenblaum ('For Paul Celan: Ash Flower') in 2006, although the consumed books lying on the burnt earth still evoke the repressive violence of the auto-da-fés (a prelude to the cremation of men that Heinrich Heine had earlier sensed with foreboding), Kiefer demonstrates a cathartic approach in the title: fire has become the instrument of the transformation, like the Phoenix who rises from the ashes.

Anselm Kiefer's books are made from various materials including plaster, sand, canvas and ash, but most typically from lead, which he has used prolifically since 1978, even buying the sheets of lead taken off Cologne Cathedral at the time of its restoration in 1985. This very malleable material, which is therefore easy to work with, is linked to the cold and lifeless planet of Saturn, but is also the base material for alchemists who, from the work of blackening or 'nigredo', produce gold or luminous material like minium (red lead oxide) which allows the fabrication of crystal.

It is not surprising that the principles of alchemy appeal to Anselm Kiefer who since childhood has been inclined to assemble all sorts of reclaimed materials that he would transform and carry out a sort of 'redemption' on them. In the first decade of the century, he created Mutus Liber (named after a text on alchemy that appeared in 1677), a collection of display cases in glass and lead that have an alchemic link with the objects they contain. He took them from his stock or 'accumulation of possible objects', made up of burnt films, compasses, scales, old machines, pieces of works that had been destroyed etc.. and kept in a cellar in Barjac (in the Gard) where he settled in 1992. Among his display cabinets of modern curiosities, we could take Dresden (2010) which symbolises through sparse and fragmented elements, the destiny of the city – home of the first German Romanticism in 1798 (Novalis and Schlegel), and of the principle of symphysics (bringing together science, philosophy and art) – which was entirely destroyed in the night of 13-14 February 1945. In Ouroboros (2014), a steam train pulling its small wagon of coal crosses the moor -a lead book strewn with dead leaves - in a journey leading to the hell of the final solution.

All these display cabinets are found in his studio, one of numerous buildings made in Barjac by the artist who left Germany after his divorce and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He transformed the landscape of his property at Le Ribaute into an enormous open-air installation: in particular, tall concrete towers known as 'houses' - often unsound or even in ruins - have been erected, evoking archaeological remains or post-war rubble, in which he presents paintings and sculptures or even strips of lead covered with his own photographs. The site, with its studio that has become an enormous warehouse and theatrical space, has its roots as much in the total art of Wagnerian opera and cinema, as in German modernity of the 1920s, Dada and Bauhaus.

In this way Kiefer constantly extends his artistic practice by diversifying materials and techniques in a desire to create a fusion of the arts, to the extent that he has produced stagecraft, scenery and costumes for opera, including Am Anfang ('In the Beginning') on the text of the Old Testament, with music by Jörg Widmann and commissioned by the Opera-Bastille in 2009.

His immersion in nature in Barjac provoked a transformation in Kiefer's painting; he started to cover his canvases with fields of flowers in warm, bright colours, the lightness of which contrasts particularly with his paintings saturated with materials that have dark, muted tones - even if colour has always been present. ("The longer you stay in front of my paintings, the more you discover the colours. At first glance one has the impression that my paintings are grey, but by paying more attention, you notice that I work with material that brings colour.")

The fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany triggered something in the artist who from then tackled the suffering of his nation without taboo, notably with Der Morgenthau Plan (2014), denouncing the policy of the Americans - who came back to destroy the German soul – to de-industrialise Germany in order to turn it into an agricultural country. Between 2002-2012, with Lasst 1000 Blumen blühen ('Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom') he turned his attention to the traumatic history of other nations, such as the Cultural Revolution imposed by Mao that caused thousands of deaths. He even dared to bring together Jewish and German identities in suffering: Thora ('Tora' 2010) – the name both of Moses' Pentateuque and the fiancé who dies the day before her wedding in the Nordic legend – is a damaged typewriter, similar to the one in the photo taken by Margaret Bourke-White at the time of the Allied air raids.

Author of a body of work that is huge in terms of its quantity, scope and richness, Anselm Kiefer has constantly worked by tying himself to spiritual sources, so that light and life burst forth from the destruction and death caused by History: again we can take as examples his numerous landscapes with an upward-looking perspective, or the towers at Barjac soaring into the sky. Through his reconciliation with the past, and therefore with himself, he finally seems to have reached a new serenity, even if his installation in 2015, Mme de Staël – De L'Allemagne ('Mrs de Staël – From Germany'), still deplored the political pathology of one Ulrike Meinhof (member of the Red Army Faction) being present in a eulogy to German culture.

"The content of my work may not be contemporary but it is political. It is activist art of a sort." (1990); "What also interested me was the challenge of conveying spiritual thoughts in artistic terms" (2000).

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Art works from Anselm Kiefer