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Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy 


By Anna Leung

Simon Schama in his magisterial opus Landscape and Memory describes Kiefer as an exorcist intent on tracking down the ogres of myth that from time long past appear to connect the German landscape with militant nationalism and its recent ignominious history. Certainly the current exhibition, despite showing recent works that testify to Kiefer’s concern with a far wider remit, is dominated by the painter’s attempts to confront and understand Germany’s troubled past. Born in March 1945 when the allies were reducing town and country to rubble and ashes, he was brought up in the time of Adenauer’s economic miracle which effectively entombed the all too recent Nazi past in order not to remember its fascist legacy.


These were the years of the Stunde Nul, Ground Zero, when post–war art retreated into abstraction for fear of facing the remembered horror, a voluntary collective amnesia which Kiefer, having given up his law studies to study art in Freiburg, took it upon himself to challenge by taking a series of photographs of himself, sometimes clad in his father’s military uniform, making the forbidden Nazi Sieg Heil salute. In Occupations, Kiefer positions himself facing the horizon or against a famous European monument such as the Roman Coliseum. One photo based on Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveller Looking over a Sea of Fog strongly suggests a cultural matrix between the German Romantic tradition and what was to form the psychological underpinnings of the Nazi mentality. It was this mentality that Kiefer was intent on examining from the inside, so to speak, specifically focusing on its interconnection with a native German identity whose family tree, rooted in the Teutonic forests, was to give rise over the centuries to a pantheon of German spiritual and cultural heroes. Kiefer depicts these as flawed heroes, the consequences of their greatness often skirting disaster, so it is no accident that in his series of woodcuts Paths of Wisdom of the World, Hermann’s Battle the poet Hölderlin and the enlightenment philosopher Kant are placed alongside a cultural mythmaker such as Fichte and the armament maker Krupps. The fact too that Kiefer chooses as his medium woodcut prints based on existing portraits and photos, the printing technique most associated with German identity, is not merely circumstantial. Occupations then constitutes Kiefer’s first attempt to ask the taboo question of whether a Nazi mind-set was not already inscribed in Germany’s mythical and cultural past, which has as its logical corollary that Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was not just some historical aberration. Kiefer repeatedly used this pantheon of flawed spiritual heroes to pose the prohibited question and challenge the German people’s amnesia. Their names appear in Varus and in Germany’s Spiritual Heroes 1973, where suggestively the torches in their honour in the sombre timber hall are in danger of setting it alight. An early painting, Man in the Forest 1971, deals with the same theme, depicting the artist in the garb of a Norse god (or a night shirt suggesting dream material) holding aloft a burning branch that could either light the way through the dense forest or, conversely, burn it down. That is the core of the existential dilemma Kiefer finds himself dealing with and for which art making represents an act of confrontation and overcoming. The next step would be to set alight his actual paintings as he does in his book The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen in which photographed landscapes of fields are gradually transformed into pitch black monochromes as artistic violence is turned against suspect aspects of himself. The element of fire figures prominently in Kiefer’s art practice and is often aligned with his interest in alchemy and the use of lead as a basic transformative material. A whole cluster of his ideas revolves around alchemy: ascent or descent, heaven and earth, melancholia and mourning. Alchemy was to be the theme of his breakthrough exhibition at the 1980 Venice Biennale.



It is significant that at some point Kiefer turns his back on representation and instead uses names to embody his narrative. It is as if he is aware of the inherent duplicity of the image that can be used complicitly or critically and to very different effects. This comes out most compellingly in his two companion paintings of Schulamith and Margarethe, both 1983. Kiefer’s first attempts to represent the Jewish victim Schulamith were as a naked woman with a mass of dark dusky hair but in the end he chose a very different solution that brings to mind the Second Commandment against the use of graven images. The two portraits are based on the poem ‘Death Fugue’ by the Rumanian Jewish poet Paul Celan, who was born in 1920, lost all his family in the concentration camps, and committed suicide in 1970. Kiefer has admitted that poetry is an extremely important source of inspiration for him, that he feels lost without it and feels especially close to Celan. 

Whereas a straw strewn landscape somewhat reminiscent of Pollock’s drip paintings represents Margarethe and her ‘straw golden hair’ the image of Schulamith, the dark haired woman of The Song of Songs, is evoked non-figuratively by the deeply recessive perspective of the vaulted brick chambers typical of the vernacular architect Wilhelm Kreis’s Mausoleums for German War Heroes. Margarethe, with her blond hair, represents the archetypal Nazi woman rooted in the soil. Look carefully and you will see that the tips of straw are alight. Conversely the painting of Schulamith, enacting the biblical prohibition on image making in order not to worship false idols, refers to her by her absence and thus highlights the fate of the missing Jew in Germany. Kiefer believes that the German people had amputated themselves by killing their Jewish population: ‘They took half of German culture’ he said ‘and killed it’. The only reference to Schulamith is her name squeezed into the upper left hand corner and perhaps a reference to a menorah right at the extreme end of the crypt though it could be yet another candelabrum like the ones fitted to the alcoves which seem to be covered by black veils, perhaps another allusion to mourning. A number of his works dating from the late 70’s take as their subject the iconoclastic controversy and introduce to Kiefer’s work the use of toy tanks, which we see repeated in the large vitrines in the courtyard based on the Russian poet Chlebnikov’s ideas of cyclical time which stress art’s inevitable link with politics.


Kiefer was influenced by Beuys who belonged to the generation ahead of him, fought for the Luftwaffe and was the first German artist to challenge the taboo and attempt to persuade the German people to acknowledge the reality of their criminal experience during the Nazi period, even if only by omission. Kiefer on the other hand was a ‘Nachgeborenen’ and while close to Beuys, whose unofficial student he had been for a short period, did not court publicity through performance. His series of photos Occupations was not intended for an audience but for himself. He wanted to prove a point or come to a greater understanding of the fatal attraction that Hitler and the National Socialists exerted on the majority of the German people – though do I detect an element of mockery or even self-mockery? Kiefer remains a relatively private and reclusive figure; compared to Beuys, whose thinking was fundamentally utopian, his vision is far darker and his core beliefs more tinged with scepticism. Even light has a dark side for Kiefer. But in the 70’s, much like Beuys, he was suspicious of Pop and the Americanisation of life and art that created a cordon sanitaire around art, distancing it from the deeper issues of everyday life. Like Beuys, Kiefer was critical of Pop’s and Colour Field Painting’s narcissistic attitude that seemed to prioritise a purely formal aesthetic. On the other hand he admired Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko and Barnett Newman whose belief in the sublime attached them to the European Romantic tradition. Kiefer understood that landscape and history painting needed to be reinvented. He returned to German Expressionism and reclaimed the importance of content. Rejecting the notion of flatness he adopted in depth perspective while at the same time emphasising dense surface texture and the symbolic weight of the non-traditional materials that poetically inform his vision. It is this opposition that gives gravitas and beauty to his work.  


Wooden Interiors were Kiefer’s first large scale paintings. These ‘attic pictures’ return to figuration. They are characterised by an extremely steep linear perspective that contrasts with the timber’s wood grain patterning. It emphasizes the wood grain’s two dimensionality and thus creates a state of tension in the viewer. The inspiration for these interiors came from his studio near Hornbach, a remote village near the Black Forest that used to be a village school, and that Kiefer took over in the early 70’s. The attic is the stage for various mythological and theological scenarios. In Quaternity 1971 Kiefer questions the relationship between good and evil. The three fires represent the Christian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost while a serpent labelled Satan and depicted half in light and half in shadow creates the quaternity, suggesting that evil, demeaned in Christianity as Lucifer the fallen angel, cannot be totally extirpated from our psyche. The serpent reappears in Ressurexit, slithering towards the steps leading up to the studio. Elevated beyond and literally above the frame, the studio alludes to art’s ability to transcend life’s existentialist dilemmas but only at the cost of exiting this world.


For Kiefer the artist’s palette is a symbol of the imagination and creativity but he recognises that art, like the work of poets and philosophers, can be vitiated and debased. In Nero Paints the scorched palette hangs in front of a scorched field, partaking of the guilt. Accentuating its culpability, the brushes tipped with fire point to a village ablaze on the far horizon. Kiefer repeatedly represents the palette as a hostage to darker forces--art in the hands of a psychopathic ruler. For example, in To the Unknown Painter the palette takes the place of the unknown soldier and is entombed in Speer’s Mosaic Room of the Reich’s Chancellery. Ash Flower represents the denouement of this series of interiors based on the Chancellery. It is an immense canvas which Kiefer worked on from 1983 to 1997, building up layers of paint, ash and sand etc. Its symbolic import depends not only on this accumulation of material that speaks of the decline of empires (the subject of Osiris and Isis 1985-7) but on the sunflower in the centre, which on closer inspection is found to be upside-down, its black seeds falling into the ash but now transformed into a source of renewal. The ash flower refers to a Celan poem, and functions as a memorial to his murdered family as does another massive landscape, Black Flakes of 2006, with its furrows of earth interspersed with extracts of his poetry and featuring in the middle of the canvas, as if for ever presiding over it, one of Kiefer’s leaden burnt books. 


Kiefer’s relocation to France in 1993 was indicative of a new orientation. But continuities remain. Indeed by this time he had a tried and tested set of motifs and materials: ever more grandiose cross cultural subjects that embrace the Kabbala and other esoteric writings from diverse cultural traditions, some long past and abandoned--Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec and Buddhist--and ever more materials--lead, dried flowers, mud, clay, resin, shellac--plus everyday objects tempered by fire and often purposefully exposed to the erosion of the elements. Moreover the fact that by this time Kiefer was recognised as a leading post-modernist whose work encompassed romantic tendencies pointed to his ability to appear both radical and traditional. Noted too was a shift from a specifically German perspective to a new internationalist outlook that sought out correspondences and hidden affinities between macro and micro levels. Thus in Falling Stars 1995 Kiefer shows us a link between the cosmic and the human, the panoply of constellations seeming to rain down from above, reflecting a cosmos caught within a perpetual cycle of creation, destruction and regeneration. This theme is often repeated with sunflowers bending over the recumbent artist as in The Orders of the Night


This cycle of perpetual transformation and the role of ideas in the making and destruction of empires also feature in the two sculptures made specifically for this exhibition. Ages of the World, which takes up one whole gallery, is part pyramid or totem, part funereal or sacrificial pyre and reminds us of our driven-ness, in the confusion of the world, to search for metaphysical meanings. The Language of Birds attests to the wisdom found in books but also warns us that, despite our high sounding philosophical, theological and metaphysical systems, not only are we are forever strangers to the real source of knowledge (that is, Kiefer the sceptic, might add, if such a dimension of reality really exists) but that such knowledge can suffer gross misinterpretation and give birth to deluded thinking; the sculpture’s wings are too heavy to fly. His art too is caught up in this dilemma which presents a challenge not only to the German people but to all of us – namely that we in the West no longer believe in Paradise but are still driven by the need to imagine one. 


Kiefer’s art has become increasingly grandiose, his studios likened to vast building sites. Appropriately, like a twenty-first century Wagner, in 2009 he took on an opera at the Opera Bastille in Paris, designing and directing Am Anfang (In the Beginning) which is based on texts from the Old Testament. But apart from a healthy scepticism regarding our hunger for metaphysical certainties and despite the allure of the Gesamtkunstwerk (the Wagnerian total work of art) Kiefer demonstrates that, however conditioned we may be by the circumstances of our birth and our status in the world, it is possible to accept these limitations and yet make an ethical choice. Goaded when a young artist by Adorno’s statement that ‘After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric’ Kiefer, I think, still holds to Adorno’s ethical stance expressed in his essay 'Commitment' which, amending his original position, insists that: ‘The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting….it demands the continued existence of art (even as) it prohibits it. It is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.’


© Anna Leung 21 October 2014

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-reitred from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking pccasional information groups to current art exhibitions.

Anselm Kiefer was on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from 7 September - 14 December 2014.


Images (from top of page): 


Portrait of Kiefer:

Anselm Kiefer, For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers, 2006

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, The Orders of the Night, 1996

Anselm Kiefer, The Rhine (Melancholia) (Der Rhein (Melancholia)), 1982-2013

Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Ages of the World, 2014 Photograph: Howard Sooley/Royal Academy of Arts

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (detail), 2013.

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