Anselm Kiefer: The Artist as Miner of a History of Nightmares


A look inside Anselm Kiefer’s studio

Phaidon Focus book goes inside the celebrated German artist’s sprawling studio complex La Ribaute in France

Inside Anselm Kiefer's studio at La Ribaute, Barjac, France
Inside Anselm Kiefer’s studio at La Ribaute, Barjac, France


ABOUT PHAIDONPhaidon is the world’s premier publisher of books on the visual arts. We believe passionately in the creative act and aim to make it exciting and understandable by all and to celebrate its greatness in everything we produce. We have published books with some of the most creative artists, architects, designers, photographers and chefs of the 20th and 21st centuries. We work collaboratively with the creative arts world’s most inspiring names to achieve the most faithful representation of, and the truest insight into, the way those artists and visionaries interact with the world around them – whatever medium they work in.

Check out our books is currently spending its lunch breaks reading through the excellent Focus series of books that are published next month – today we finished the Anselm Kiefer one by Matthew Biro. First a little about the Focus series. The books are designed as a lively, authorititive and accessible introduction to the work of the artists featured in the (initial) six-strong series (Kim, the editor, is already hard at work on the next instalment). As the title suggests, each features special Focus sections that explore specific and important themes, series, pieces or events in each artist’s career, so whether you’re new to the artist or you already know a bit you’ll come away enlightened and, we hope, nourished.

Concrete towers at La Ribaute, Barjac, France
Concrete towers at La Ribaute, Barjac, France

With an artist like Kiefer you can imagine the focus points are many and varied. We don’t have room here to bring you a precis of all of them – and naturally we want you to buy the books. However, we can say it was a tough choice picking just one particular ‘Focus’ to represent what is an engaging yet thorough book by the foremost Kiefer expert. In the end it was a choice between Biro’s brilliantly enlightening deconstruction of Kiefer’s 1981 work Interior, Innenraum and his description of La Ribautethe studio complex the artist began creating in the 1990s and what Biro calls ‘a total work of art’. In the end, we plumped for the latter purely because it’s better suited to a blog entry and because we suspected a few more of our readers might not now that much about it.

La Ribaute, Barjac, France
La Ribaute, Barjac, France

“From the mid 1990s, Kiefer’s Barjac studio-estate, which spread over 35 hectares (86 acres), also became his most ambitious project, where he made, displayed, warehoused and imagined his oeuvre. A former silk factory on a hill that the German expatriate transformed into a vast complex of living spaces, studios, workshops and storage facilities, it was also an environment in which he created a new type of ‘land art’ consisting of gigantic concrete structures, some reduced to post-war-like ruins, in the midst of the rural French countryside. For some, La Ribaute was Kiefer’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, or ‘total work of art’, a theatrical experience that combined multiple media and that stood as the pinnacle and sum-mation of his career.

As this studio complex developed over 17 years, it grew in shape and complexity. Originally consisting of three nineteenth-century stone buildings surrounded by fields and woods, it was expanded with a single-minded intensity to combine modern functional structures with strange, unwieldy, reinforced-concrete constructions. Since the late 1990s, more than fifty separate edifices – glass and steel greenhouses as well as concrete bunkers – were erected on the property; and, in the new millennium, an amphitheatre and a crypt were added as well as massive concrete towers, sculptural waves and freestanding staircases.

Kiefer's studio La Ribaute, Barjac, France
Kiefer’s studio La Ribaute, Barjac, France

Paintings and sculptural installations were sited in the various buildings, and as the complex extended, it seemed like a palimpsest of forms and traces from multiple time frames. La Ribaute and its environs were also the vast set on which Kiefer ‘shot’ his photographs. A number of his new books and paintings were based on it, as well as the factory-like ‘alchemical forge’ where he allowed his artistic fabrications to age and transform. As Kiefer’s production increased, La Ribaute also provided a context for developing his various ‘houses’ and ‘greenhouses’ of art, structures that served as containers for different groups of work.”



Last updated: July 4, 2009 12:47 am

The art of Anselm Kiefer rises from the ruins

Entering a golden courtyard through a hidden gate in a hôtel particulier in the Marais, you expect the noise and dust of Paris to still instantly. But in German artist Anselm Kiefer’s stately home in the French capital, you instead meet chaos. Assistants shriek as they lug giant boards across cobbles. Bricks totter, barbed wire sways, a motorised buggy whirrs. Sculptures of life-size, headless figures ballooning into white crinolines lend a surreal note. Through the din, a thin, greying, ascetic-looking man in black T-shirt and jeans carefully dabs lead on a large panel crusty with silver-blue impasto.

When I admire his fragmented women, Kiefer laughs dryly and inquires which one I identify with. Spidery graffiti on stone walls reveal that the martyr topped with a rack is the tortured St Catherine; the brick block-head belongs to Greek courtesan Phryne, who offered to rebuild Thebes; and a figure whose neck soars into a tower of charred books is Sappho but also, the artist adds, “a monument to all the unknown women poets”.

Kiefer is a builder-scholar who makes art from a mix of rubble and mythology. The sets and props filling his courtyard are for the world premiere of Am Anfang (In the Beginning), with which the Bastille Opera celebrates its 20th anniversary next week; the production is also Gerard Mortier’s Paris swansong. It is Kiefer’s first work with opera, though not for want of invitations. “I am usually offered Wagner,” he grins, “but I say no because it’s too …” he flounders for the English word, “too next”.

Kiefer does indeed recall Wagner. His dense, coagulated paintings, layered with materials from wire cages to sunflower seeds to children’s clothes, and sculptural installations such as the sombre “Palm Sunday”, currently on show at Tate Modern, evoke the grand narrative structures and metaphysical scope of the 19th-century romantic tradition. But Kiefer is also a 21st-century multimedia artist, and for the Bastille he strikes an experimental note. Working with young clarinettist and composer Jörg Widmann, he crosses art with new music and a sort of abstract drama: “the actors look like sculptures; they don’t move; I’ve even painted their clothes” .

The spectator at Tuesday’s opening will be greeted by a map representing the Fertile Crescent, the area between Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt that has long obsessed Kiefer. “My work is called In the Beginning,” he says, “because it begins by the end. This is a region of the world where our destiny has been played out … where empires have risen and fallen. A place of ruins that chronicle the throes and rebirths the world has undergone.”

His condition in accepting Mortier’s invitation was “not to play it all on one level. The Bastille is on nine levels, with studios on different floors; it’s like a little town, and I thought, I’ll do it if I can play it as a landscape.” He has piled up “12,000 years of bricks” on different stages, while 12 towers – representing the tribes of Israel – shudder as Widmann’s chords “sound through the ruins like celestial messengers come from the desert, to take possession of space and time”. Beginning in 600 BC, “when there was a lot of action in the fertile crescent, the Jews were separated into the diaspora, there was a sense of the world melting” – but paralleling today’s political unrest too – the opera turns on history’s endgames, from the destruction of Babylon and Thebes to the Trümmerfrauen, the “rubble women” who scratched and scraped at Germany’s debris in 1945.

Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen at the end of the second world war, and “failed to die. My mother couldn’t feed me and there was no powdered milk – at the last moment it came from Switzerland. I was born in the cellar, they put wax in my ears to shut out the bombings – like Odysseus blocking out the sirens of Donaueschingen.”

The visual imprint of his childhood is inescapable in paintings and sculptures which turn on ruined buildings, burnt-out remains, grey-brown-black tonalities. “As a child I had no toys; our house was bombed, but there were lots of bricks. Ruins are wonderful because they are the beginning of something new, you can do something with them.” By the age of four, he was a little builder, begging “for bits of cement, but they couldn’t give me any”. He is still compensating, he laughs. He erected 52 new buildings around his atelier in Barjac near Nîmes, creating his own village; his second Paris studio is the enormous former depot of department store La Samaritaine.

Kiefer dots his conversation with wry jokes, as if forcing himself to lighten up, but he remains, like his art, deadly earnest. “The psychological situation” of Germany during his childhood “was horrible. There is no morality about war; it always destroys people’s minds.” He began his career as a photographer with performances mimicking the Nazi salute; his work, infused with Jewish mysticism and post-Holocaust writings such as Paul Celan’s Death Fugue, is one long challenge to the Germans “who tried to forget”, as well as a self-doubting response to philosopher Theodor Adorno’s questions about art after Auschwitz. “I had no responsibility but I feel completely involved. In the night I still think someone can come to take me away. The denunciations … I know it won’t happen but I wake up and think on that. The brutishness, the horror is unimaginable.” He left Germany in 1990, the year of reunification.

The theme of In the Beginning, latent in all Kiefer’s art, is “theodicy” – theological attempts to defend God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil. “Man is so badly constructed, there is a mistake in our brain,” Kiefer says. “If you give man permission and reason, he will behave like that [like the Nazis] – not everybody, but yes, I think, the majority. I was always overwhelmed by the Old Testament – by its poetry and brutalism. Its God is threatening, vengeful. To prove God is good is to prove something impossible.”

Brought up “too strictly” as a Catholic in a “little, bourgeois milieu”, Kiefer dreamed of France, “spoke like Racine and Corneille” at school, and developed “a genius complex. I thought, ‘I don’t need to go to art school.’ I chose law, I thought that was the most cynical thing to do. I always looked to the most unreasonable solution, I always tried to prove the contrary.”

Later he acquired an art education, and was influenced by Joseph Beuys, whom he believes he appreciated more “because I had studied law”. But he brushes away questions of artistic inheritance – “I don’t want to speak about other artists, it’s not interesting. I feel in a long line with the dinosaurs. Memory is my material.”

We adjourn for mineral water in the long cool library lining the ground floor round the courtyard. A book on Caspar David Friedrich lies on the table and Kiefer admits to the impact of the philosophy of romanticism. “I’m a little particle in this immense intelligence. We know nothing of why we are here, where we come from. First the world is flat, then it’s round, now there are galaxies and the big bang. The universe is so big, absurd – this is what makes me insecure.”

In In the Beginning, the Jewish people “stride across the stage, delineating its limits, heading for where there is nothing other than nothingness”. The key biblical quotation is from Isaiah: “My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me. The night of my pleasure hath He turned into fear unto me.” Is there then, I ask, no redemption in Kiefer’s vision?

He answers slowly. “I can recognise beauty. For me, the work is redemption. It’s the only way I can live, the only possibility to create an illusion. It’s still an illusion – but it’s my illusion.”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic

‘Am Anfang’ is at the Opera Bastille, Paris, from July 7 to 14, +33 1 71 25 24 23



Anselm Kiefer: ‘This Tristesse Isn’t Just Mine’

White Cube

Anselm Kiefer has been fascinated with Mao Zedong since the ’60s.

With propaganda images burned into his memory, the 67-year-old has painted Mao throughout this career, but this week’s solo show at White Cube in Hong Kong marks his first in Greater China. “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom” includes sculptures and vast landscapes with faint images of the former Chinese leader in the background.

Getty Images

Anselm Kiefer

Mr. Kiefer rose to fame in 1969 with “Besetzungen” (“Occupations”), a series of self-portraits in which he displayed Nazi salutes. He became a fixture at the Venice Biennale in the 1980s and has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Academy of Arts London. In 2007, he was the first artist to be given a permanent commission at the Louvre since George Braque in 1953.

Last year, he was the subject of “Over Our Cities Grass Will Grow,” a documentary that featured the gigantic sculptures and buildings that he created in Barjac, a village in southern France. He also has plans for an ambitious installation near Koblenz, Germany, at the site of a decommissioned nuclear reactor, though the local Green Party has so far blocked the purchase.

Mr. Kiefer spoke with The Wall Street Journal about misquoting Mao, destroying photography and how his studio functions as his brain. Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.

The Wall Street Journal: What inspired this show?

Mr. Kiefer: I was, for a long time, interested and fascinated by Mao. The first paintings I did about Mao were already in the 1980s. When this show was coming up, I was pre-occupied with Mao.

What inspired the landscape format of the paintings?

They are based on photos I took in Auvergne, in France. It was many years ago. It’s a mountainous area. We went in springtime, and it was blooming everywhere, like an explosion.

I took a lot of photographs, but I was disappointed. A photograph is only one layer. It’s very flat. You can see the photographs underneath the paintings. Now I’ve painted the photographs, adding meaning and giving it layers. I destroy the photographs with my painting.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom” is a misquotation of Mao and a reference to a period of supposed reform in 1957.

The title is not only ironic. It’s complex. In the 1960s, in Europe and in Germany, Mao was a moral institution. Students were looking in the Little Red Book for solutions, even if they had a problem with their family, or their children.

But I was already a bit critical of this. I thought there was a lot of propaganda around Mao. There was a magazine at the time called “Peking Rundschau” and it was all about China. There were pictures of these workers in steel factories. It’s a difficult thing to work in a steel factory, but these workers were all smiling and laughing for the camera. I thought, “You don’t laugh when you do this work.”

I was fascinated, and I admired Mao, but at the same time, I also thought something was wrong.

Your early work dealt with the legacy of Adolf Hitler. How does he compare to Mao?

There are parallels, but there is a big difference: Mao was a cultured poet. Hitler was a petit bourgeois. His taste, concerning art, was really bad.

You visited China once in 1993. What did you learn from that trip?

It taught me that history is not objective. History is formed by the people, those who have power and those without power. Each one of us makes history. Each time period will construct its own Mao. In 10 years, you’ll have another Mao picture, another Mao idea. If the personality is rich, like Mao was, you’ll always have new interpretations.

You moved to Paris in 2010. How are you adjusting to life there?

I’ve worked all my life in the desert, in isolated places. I was isolated in Germany, and I was isolated in the south France.

It’s good to be in the city. For once in my life, I want to be in the center, surrounded by colleagues, intellectuals, poets.

You have an unusually large studio. How do you work there?

It’s an old department store warehouse. I have 36,000 square meters. There I can see all that I’ve done all my life. My paintings never finish. I have paintings there from the 1970s. If I have an idea, I can take it out and finish it. The whole space is like my brain. It’s like I’m walking through my brain.

Some critics have described your work as depressing, something one can tolerate in a gallery but not at home. How do you respond to that?

If I do something that depresses, it’s not because I’m depressed, but because political life and history is depressing. When Hitler was overcome, we thought we would be in a better world. But we are not. We had Rwanda and so many other massacres. This tristesse isn’t just mine. But I don’t feel sad. I’m happy.


February 1988

The Anselm Kiefer retrospective

by Hilton Kramer

It was to be expected that the Anselm Kiefer retrospective, which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in December, would be accorded a rapturous reception, and so it has been.[1] Throughout the nineteen-eighties, as the art market soared and an almost unencompassable quantity of meretricious painting glutted the galleries, the museums, and the public consciousness, the emergence of a new master—an artist who could be seen as transcending the more compromising scenarios of the new art scene—was anxiously awaited. And no sooner was the need for such a redemptive figure openly acknowledged than a consensus of sorts seemed to settle on Anselm Kiefer as the leading candidate. This young German painter, born in 1945, seemed to have everything that the role called for: talent, vision, ambition, dignity, and the kind of gravitas that was so conspicuously lacking in so many other artists who were swamping the scene. He even seemed to be in possession of that rare thing in contemporary art: an interesting mind. Most important of all, however, was the fact that Kiefer had a subject guaranteed to win the nervous attention of the entire Western world: the nightmare of the Nazi era and its meaning for European civilization. Both the subject and Kiefer’s handling of it conferred an almost instant distinction on the artist, and he quickly became one of the mythic figures of the international art world.

In New York, remarkably, it wasn’t even held against him that he exhibited his work at Mary Boone’s. From the outset he was exempted from the usual strictures as critics hastened to register their approval—and their awe. It therefore came as no surprise when, in reviewing the current retrospective in Time, Robert Hughes—on this occasion, as on so many others, voicing the established opinion as if it were a personal discovery—hailed Kiefer with the kind of praise (“the best painter of his generation … an unmistakable greatness of vision … a victory for the moral imagination”) usually reserved for the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and, well, Lucien Freud. The stampede was on. Or, to alter the metaphor, a canonization was in progress. Critics from far and wide descended upon Chicago to attend the press view of the exhibition as if it were a religious obligation, and many remained— not so much looking at the show as transfixed by it—far longer than is usually the case with such events. The atmosphere at the press view was in fact exceptionally solemn and respectful, and to the note of reverence that dominated the occasion there was added at times a discernible element of intellectual anxiety as the large, stately galleries of the Art Institute took on the air of an examination hall in which the critics could be observed checking with the curators and with each other to see who might have the right answers. It would have been unthinkable in such a hushed and reverential atmosphere to crack a joke, especially a vulgar one—which, as a matter of fact, is what critics often do at such events—and everyone seemed agreed that the one thing that would not be mentioned, despite the Mary Boone connection, was the artist’s prices. You do not mention money in such sanctified surroundings. I have been going to the press views of museum shows for more than thirty years, and I’ve never seen anything to equal the solemnity of this one.

Given this response, it is a mercy, of course, that Kiefer’s work is as good as it is. It may be premature to speak of his “greatness,” and victories of the moral imagination are not, I think, to be so quickly proclaimed, but Kiefer is undoubtedly an artist of extraordinary gifts. The critical questions to be answered are: What exactly are those gifts, and what has the artist accomplished with them? That he is undaunted by the challenge of very large subjects—whole areas of German history, mythology, and culture, and the peculiar modalities of German social pathology, all of which remain, as far as their art is concerned, a closed book to the majority of contemporary artists— does not necessarily mean that Kiefer has been consistently successful in finding a way to deal with such subjects as a painter.

The secret of Kiefer’s immense appeal just now—if, indeed, it can be described as a secret—lies, I believe, precisely in his willingness, or, if you will, his compulsion to place these subjects at the center of his art. To the degree that we sense in this compulsion something authentic and involuntary— an impulse that goes beyond anything we have lately come to associate with the tasks of art—it speaks to our own appetite for an art that transcends the aesthetic, and it is natural that we should be exhilarated by our initial encounters with it. As I share in that appetite, at least some of the time, I have a certain sympathy for artists who are driven to minister to its needs, and Kiefer is clearly one of them. (He may even, in this sense, be “the best” in his generation—but where, alas, is the competition?) Yet as I am also aware of how easily such an appetite for the extra-aesthetic is nowadays satisfied—and how short-lived such satisfactions so often turn out to be—I tend to be wary of the kind of art that makes its appeal in the name of something other than art.

But is this, in fact, what is actually going on in Kiefer’s art? Or is his status as a visionary with something important to tell us about history and the human condition a phenomenon that has been imposed upon a body of work that cannot finally support the heroic role that is now being assigned to it? I count myself among Kiefer’s admirers, but what I admire in his art does not seem to have much to do with what so many others see in it, or claim to see. For in my view Kiefer is an artist who demonstrates over and over again what, in the last years of the twentieth century, the limits of art—particularly the limits of the art of painting—now are when it comes to dealing with the great moral and historical issues of the modern era.

That Kiefer has made a determined and sometimes inspired effort to test and transcend these limits is, it seems to me, undeniable. That he brings immense reserves of energy, imagination, and invention to bear on his quest for a meaning “beyond” art is certainly to be accounted a significant part of his artistic enterprise. But the quest itself has an essentially Sisyphean character; it is its destiny to be repeatedly defeated. It is this pattern of Sisyphean defeat that gives to Kiefer’s art its special poignancy—a poignancy, it must be said, that is not always clearly distinguishable from a certain mode of German sentimentality. The spiritual yearning in Kiefer’s work is something that we are all made to feel. There is no way to miss it, if only because it is given such elaborate, operatic trappings. But in neither art nor life are yearnings to be mistaken for realizations. And in art at least, it is only realization that counts. Everything else—even the most exalted yearnings—belongs to the realm of failed dreams.

Kiefer paints—or perhaps one should say constructs, for he uses all sorts of materials —three types of pictures: landscapes, images of architecture, and what might be called didactic diagrams or charts. Many are of immense size, most conform to a bleak and mournful palette of blacks, grays, and earth colors, some—quite a few—have words inelegantly painted onto their surfaces, and all are weighted with symbols drawn from history, mythology, literature, folklore, or the artist’s own biography.

The best of these paintings are the more recent symbolic landscapes: Nuremberg (1982), The Mastersingers (1981-82), Midgard (1980-85), The Book (1979-85), The Order of the Angels (1983-84), Emanation (1984-86), and Jerusalem (1986). The least successful are certain of the didactic-chart paintings—Way of Worldly Wisdom (1976-77), for example, which is said to commemorate, with appropriate irony, the victory of the ancient Germans over Roman invaders at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the Year A.D. 9. I must confess to having no interest in the subject, and the ponderous ineptitude with which the painting is executed, even if intended as a mockery of the theme (but how can one tell?), does not offer much in the way of aesthetic compensation. Kiefer’s gift is the characteristic German gift for graphic images, but wherever his subject calls for the representation of faces or figures—Ways of Worldly Wisdom is almost all faces—he shows himself to be a very inadequate draftsman. His drawing is always at its best—which is to say, most powerful and moving—where it serves, as it does in the symbolic landscapes, to provide his paintings with a simplified, overscale format. It is drawing that takes little interest in the subtleties of pictorial space —as we can see at a glance in the macabre architectural paintings. If not for their references to the architecture that Albert Speer created for the Nazi regime or their other historical allusions, the architectural paintings would have to be considered eccentric variations on familiar academic themes. Even with their highly charged “content,” I am not sure they escape a descent into pictorial cliche. It is, in any case, on the basis of the symbolic landscapes—and on certain works on paper that are related to them—that Kiefer is likely to survive and develop as a significant artist. The architectural paintings are a dead end, and the didactic charts and diagrams have already been abandoned.

It is in the contemplation of nature that Kiefer’s pictorial imagination seems to attain an expressive freedom it does not enjoy in relation to his other subjects. For the German imagination, nature is not always a realm entirely distinguishable from culture. In Kiefer’s painting, certainly, nature is by no means free of the darkness of history that is his abiding obsession. It is deeply implicated in the myths of a culture that has conferred so many spiritual or symbolic meanings on natural phenomena that the life of the earth seems at times to have been stripped of its independent existence. Which is to say that for Kiefer, as for so many German artists, nature is an allegory—a world of spirit as well as a realm of organic materiality—and it is in the effort to encompass its double nature, so to speak, that his landscape paintings achieve their special distinction.

There is much about these landscape paintings that identifies them as belonging to the Neo-Expressionist school—not only their oversize, “heroic” scale, but their curious mix of materials: straw, lead, sand, crockery, etc. In Kiefer’s case, however, we are always made to feel that something akin to a systematic iconography is what governs this use of materials even if we cannot instantly identify the exact iconographic use to which they are being put. More often than not, there is in these landscapes an overload of materials attached to their surfaces that makes the paintings look heavy, ponderous, and overworked in the Neo-Expressionist manner. Yet in Kiefer’s case, these excesses appear, paradoxically, to be in the firm control of a very particular vision—a vision that is mystical in the German style, turning every material perception into a metaphysical conundrum.

About this whole aspect of Kiefer’s work, the wonderfully detailed catalogue that Mark Rosenthal has written to accompany the exhibition is an indispensable guide.[2] James N. Wood and Anne d’Harnoncourt, in their Foreword to the catalogue, speak of Mr. Rosenthal’s lengthy text as “an essential tool for our understanding of the quotations and iconography that are central to [Kiefer’s] work, much as a skillfully annotated edition of Ulysses aids the reader of Joyce,” and they are right to do so. On everything from the kind of use Kiefer has made of Caspar David Friedrich and Jackson Pollock to his relation to Joseph Beuys[3] to more specifically iconographic research— which buildings are referred to, what historical events or literary symbols or private experiences are invoked—Mr. Rosenthal can usually be relied upon to give us the requisite information. In this respect, his catalogue is a triumph of art-historical scholarship. But, as is even the case with Ulysses, such aids to understanding esoteric allusions are not to be taken as a substitute for our experience of the work itself. Even when we find ourselves properly informed about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, there is still the problem of what to make of Ways of Worldly Wisdom as a painting.

The landscape paintings are less problematic, to be sure, because they are so much more accomplished—so immediately compelling—as paintings. They have a power, at once pictorial and poetic, that is not dependent on our perfect understanding of their symbolism. Kiefer is an artist who imparts to every picture a characteristic emotion—an emotion that is relentlessly dour and obsessed with death—and you can’t mistake it for anything else. Every painting sounds the requiem note, and the landscape paintings sound that note more effectively than any others.

Indeed, I think it is only in the landscape paintings that Kiefer has to some extent freed his painting from its dependence on hermetic symbolism and achieved the kind of archetypal expression he is searching for. The landscape paintings are wasteland paintings. They are scorched-earth images—images of an earth and a world that is rotting and returning to the primordial mud. They are images of a sublime that has “fallen” into decay. Their real subject is death, and the death that haunts them is as much the death of art as it is the death of the earth. All of this can be vividly—and indeed, insistently—seen in the so-called “books” that Kiefer has produced in such profusion, for what are these large sketchbooks or scrapbooks of images and non-images if not an avowal of the death of art in the face of the enormities of modern history?

In speaking of Kiefer’s relation to Joseph Beuys, Mr. Rosenthal writes that Kiefer “undoubtedly gained from [Beuys] an enormous sense of mission and ambition, that is, the wish to grasp great regions of human history within the boundaries of his art.” It is this sense of a great mission that has conferred on Kiefer’s enterprise its enormous prestige. Yet in the celebration that is now being lavished on this gifted and unusual artist, we ought not to overlook the central place that the death motif occupies in the oeuvre that is celebrated. For myself, though my admiration for Kiefer is undiminished, I cannot say that I have been persuaded that he has succeeded in bringing “great regions of human history within the boundaries of his art.” On the contrary, what this retrospective makes clear to this observer, at least, is that the object of Kiefer’s Sisyphean quest continues to elude him.

  1. The Kiefer exhibition, jointly organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was shown in Chicago from December 5 to January 31. It will be on view in Philadelphia from March 6 to May 1, and will then travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (June 14-September 11) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (October 17-January 3, 1989). Go back to the text.
  2. Anselm Kiefer, by Mark Rosenthal. The museum (paperback) edition is published by Chicago and Philadelphia at $24.95. The trade (hardcover) edition is distributed by the Neues Publishing Company at $35.00. Go back to the text.
  3. On Kiefer’s relation to Beuys, see also Sanford Schwartz’s article, “Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, and the Ghosts of the Fatherland,” in The New Criterion for March 1983. Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 February 1988, on page 1

Copyright � 2013 The New Criterion |

Critic’s Notebook

How German Is It

by May 27, 2013

The historical and mythic themes of Anselm Kiefer’s epic canvases aren’t as compelling as they once were, when he made a redemptive difference in the world by disentangling Germanic culture from the sinister pathos and catastrophic effects of the Third Reich. Since then, his titanic spins on exalted subjects (medieval philosophy, the Kabbalah, the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann) have seemed more pretext than passion. In a new show at Gagosian, he evokes the Morgenthau Plan, a grotesquely vengeful wartime scheme, proposed by F.D.R.’s Treasury Secretary, to reduce conquered Germany to a primitive agricultural state. (After being fitfully applied, the policy succumbed to imperatives of the Cold War, if not to common decency.) The allusion, expressed in written phrases, feels incidental to standard Kieferian imagery of blasted or flowering fields in steep perspective; the work could just as well be about something else, or nothing much. But the visual music of encrusted textures and ineffable colors is as overwhelming as ever—Wagnerian in its conflation of the deathly with the ecstatic, on a scale as big as buildings. 



Anselm Kiefer, in Love with Loss

Sanford Schwartz

A still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow showing Anselm Kiefer’s ‘tottering, bunker-like’ structures

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a solemn, at times soporific, look at the work of the artist Anselm Kiefer, whose paintings and sculptures can be rather solemn to begin with. Directed by Sophie Fiennes, the movie is occasionally a documentary—when we see Kiefer doing an interview, or making his artworks with his studio assistants—but, devoid of narration, it is more often an art movie. For long, portentous stretches, no one is around. The camera merely takes in, accompanied by astringent music by György Ligeti and Jörg Widmann, the world of ruination that Kiefer has been creating in various buildings, set in fields and forests, in Barjac, in southern France, where he has lived since 1992.

For those of us who have admired, even been awed by, the work of the symbolically-minded German artist, simply seeing Kiefer in his studios, speaking with his assistants (in French), is fascinating. Bespectacled, trim, and not looking his sixty-five years, he isn’t a recluse, but in the three decades that he has been a world-renowned figure he has done a good job of staying out of the limelight. He came on the scene in the early 1980s with enormous landscapes and interior scenes that, whether of burnt-out fields or smoldering, empty, vast halls, suggested, with an unexpected lyrical and elegiac force, the devastation of modern German history.

Over the years, though, Kiefer’s work, continually summoning up Bible stories, wartime legends, and mystical awarenesses, has become woozily grandiloquent. He is an extraordinary showman, however. His pictures, where model ships or women’s frocks are often placed atop images of endless fields, the sea, or forests, can have a phenomenal physical presence. He is a master transformer of materials. From the first he made lead, steel, straw, glass, or crumbly clumps of cement with rebar sticking out bespeak fragility and delicacy. He has practically invented a sculptural form: a loose, disheveled pile of something, whether booklike shapes or plain detritus, placed flat on the gallery floor.

The filmmaker at Kiefer’s Barjac site

In recent years he has been creating sculptures that are in effect tottering, bunkerlike buildings. Fiennes’s movie shows that, moreover, Kiefer has been building a network of often rubble-strewn spaces. Her camera goes down one weather-exposed corridor after another. We see the artist or his helpers (sometimes on tractors) pushing earth around, digging holes, pouring cement, breaking panes of glass, and burning piles of books. The Barjac site, which includes little buildings, underground passageways, depots that seem to double as walk-in sculptural environments—and a number of the artist’s own huge studios—is, however, irritatingly hard to encompass. How vast is it? How do these buildings relate to one another? The film, unfortunately, is loath to look at itself as a giver of plain information.

A viewer assumes that one day visitors will make pilgrimages to Barjac much the way they now go to the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas, to see the work of Donald Judd and the art he collected, set out in the many buildings he purchased there over the years. Barjac is the un-Marfa. Where Marfa is about clarity of light, distinct artistic accomplishments kept rigorously in order, and a sense of the past as manageable and containable, Barjac is a setting of dust, dirt, dangerous shards of glass, tenuousness, relics, and symbols to be deciphered.

A still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow showing Kiefer at work on a painting

In thrall to loss, literature, and the past, Kiefer has something in common with the American painter Cy Twombly, who died in July, at eighty-three. His works also seduce us with their gracefully distressed surfaces. And both artists—who will scrawl phrases or titles onto their pictures in a similarly stylish, scratchy hand—make me restless with what feels like a too-easily-achieved beauty. Although it doesn’t sum him up, Twombly’s art evokes the lost classical, Mediterranean world (he was based in Rome from 1957). Kiefer’s art often takes us to the charred, stained German past. One believes with both that something is unearned, that what we look at is vaguely illustrational: a grafting of literary, political, or historical associations onto bravura manipulations of materials. These artists, at times heroic in their achievements, can also make the beautiful feel like the pretty.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is playing at The Film Forum in New York City through August 23rd.

August 19, 2011, 1:30 p.m.



Anselm Kiefer: ‘The Independent wants to know if I am a Nazi!’

In 1969, he photographed himself giving Nazi salutes in public. Forty years on, Anselm Kiefer is a titan of world art, but his controversial work still picks at the scabs of the Fatherland’s history. So why does this most German of artists live and work in Paris’s Jewish quarter?

Like just about every school in the Marais district of Paris, the école élémentaire around the corner from rue Michel-le-Comte bears a plaque to the memory of its most famous pupils – not scholars or statesmen, but those who were among the “11,000 enfants furent déportés de France par les Nazis et assassinés dans les camps de la mort parce que nés juifs”: the 11,000 children deported from France by the Nazis and killed in death camps because they were born Jews. Things that happened nearly seven decades ago are alive on the streets of this still-Jewish quarter of Paris, and nowhere more so than in the vast hôtel particulier that is the home and studio of Anselm Kiefer.

You’ll know Kiefer: it’s hard not to. If you went to the Royal Academy a couple of springs ago, you’ll have cricked your necks looking up at Jericho, the twin towers the honorary Royal Academician had built in the courtyard of Burlington House – 50 foot menhirs of concrete heaped in teetering piles like cargo containers in stone. These paled beside’ the 52 structures Kiefer has erected in the years since 1993 at his other studio, La Ribaute, near Nîmes in the South of France – a one-time silk factory whose 85-acre estate includes tunnels, hills and caves, all woven into a massive Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. If your travels haven’t taken you to the Cévennes of late, you might have seen Aperiatur Terra, the artist’s 2007 show of largely monumental canvases – typically 10ft high and 25ft long – at the St James’s branch of his London gallery, White Cube. And if all of these have passed you by, then you can discover Kiefer later this month in exhibitions at both White Cubes, one show called Fertile Crescent, the other Karfunkelfee [roughly, Carbuncle Fairy]. All of which is to say that Anselm Kiefer and his art are a very big deal indeed, and in various senses of the term.

None of this answers the obvious question, though: why a German artist, born in the dying days of Hitler’s Götterdämmerung, has chosen to live and work in the Marais. To answer that, you need to rewind to last July and shift arrondissements from the 3rd to the adjoining 11th – to the Opéra Bastille and the piece which Kiefer staged there, called Am Anfang (In the Beginning).

As with much of his work, Am Anfang is difficult to categorise. The piece being shown in an opera house, the audience may have expected something in the line of bel canto. They didn’t get it. The curtain rose on a scene of desolation, towers like those in Jericho multiplied into a ghost town. Through these wandered a group of women, clinking bricks with hammers to the mildly atonal music of Kiefer’s compatriot, Jörg Widmann. The scene looked vaguely biblical, and, on one level, it was: one of the women was Shekhinah, the Talmudic version of the Holy Spirit, while another was Lilith, Adam’s apocryphally demonic first wife. None of this seemed to impress the audience, though, a number of whom booed roundly from curtain up.

What, precisely, was their problem? In the absence of any home-grown artist of world standing, the French government has courted Kiefer with the kind of privileges last accorded to Picasso. It was Kiefer whose work was chosen for the re-opening show of the Grand Palais in 2007, who was last year invited to decorate a staircase at the Louvre – an honour given to only one other artist since the war – and who was asked to write Am Anfang to mark the 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille. A little resentment on the part of the French arts establishment would be understandable. Then again, Parisian opera-goers may simply have found Am Anfang obscure and pretentious, which it was. The work’s title is taken from the opening words of the German bible (Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde: In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth), its libretto made up of quotations from the Old Testament. The 180-page programme to the work listed its librettist as “Anselm Kiefer, after the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah”. We are not talking Bizet here.

Possibly, though, the audience was bothered by the fact that Am Anfang seemed to suggest that Biblical ruination and the destruction rained down on Germany at the end of the war were part of the same process; that the sufferings of Old Testament Jews and Nazi-era Germans were equivalent. Lilith and the rest may have been Israelis, but in Am Anfang they looked like Trümmerfrauen – the “rubble women” who picked bricks from the ruins of cities such as Hamburg and ‘ Dresden in the years after the war. Sitting in the vast library of his vast Paris house, Kiefer recalls those years.

Born into a Catholic family in the pretty Black Forest town of Donaueschingen in March 1945, seven weeks before Hitler’s suicide and the end of the war, the artist is a youthful 64. Children by his Austrian second wife, Renate Graf, run about, apparently disappointed that the Englishman called Charles who has come to interview their father is not the Prince of Wales. Kiefer, wiry and in Lord Longford glasses, looks vaguely priestly: he giggles when I say so.

“I wanted once to be… not a priest, I wanted to be an archbishop!” he says, confidentially; then, waving at a collection of ecclesiastical hats on his bookshelves, adds, “You know, I have all the clothes. I was in Rome a long time ago, and I went to the tailors for the Vatican and they measured me for the robes for bishops and archbishops. The Pope was difficult. They said, There’s only one, and I said, That’s not true – there were once three: a woman was even the Pope. And they said, no we won’t do it. So I went to another shop and now I have them all – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal and pope.”

Although he can still recite the Mass in Latin, Kiefer is no longer a Catholic. Nor, despite the robes, does he seem keen on the current German Pope, whom he crisply refers to as “Ratzinger”. “Ratzinger wants to make Pius XII a saint,” Kiefer cries. “That man, he signed the Concordat [a 1933 treaty between Hitler and the Holy See]! You know, the Concordat has never been cancelled? And do you know why? Because in Germany, you have to pay 10 per cent of your taxes to the Church!”

The life led by his children in this nobleman’s house with its cobbled courtyard and endless, echoing rooms is in stark contrast to Kiefer’s own childhood. “My mother and father, they put wax in my ears so I couldn’t hear the bombers coming,” he says, then laughs his cartoon-dog giggle. “It’s like Odysseus, you know? I like that. And the Trümmer, the rubble, that was me – I was in those bricks, I played with them in the ruins, I built houses from them. I was part of that little German myth.”

It was this, presumably, that left the artist with his taste for ruination. “Children take all as given, and it is for this reason that ruins are beautiful – to me, extremely beautiful,” he says. “I think the most beautiful movie in the world is the one when planes were sent after the war over Germany to film the ruins – these are for me the most beautiful pictures. It’s wonderful because the vertical becomes the horizontal, you know? On one side, something is hidden because it’s buried and on the other something is exposed – you see the forms. I love this.”

It seems an odd fondness for a man who chooses to live in a perfect 17th-century mansion in the un-bombed heart of France’s un-scarred capital, a point with which Kiefer disarmingly agrees. “Towns that are really well done, like Paris, they are finished,” he says, nodding rapidly. “There is nothing you can add. They need bombs, these towns, to be interesting, no? With ruins, you start again. Then they could become enigmatic.” Distantly, I seem to hear the booing at Am Anfang; it is broken by the phone ringing, a call from the White Cube’s owner, Jay Jopling. “Jay!” Kiefer cries. “The Independent is here! He wants to interview you! He wants to ask you if I am a Nazi!” I cringe slightly, as, I have no doubt, does Jopling.

But then it is a question that is meant to embarrass, and one that Kiefer has long asked himself – “Not whether I am a Nazi, but whether I would have been one. It is an important thing for all of us to know.” A student of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s, the young artist’s remorseless picking at the scabs of German history went even further than those of his master. In 1969, aged 25, Kiefer staged a series of actions called Besetzungen [Occupations], in which he had himself photographed doing Sieg Heil salutes at various European monuments. This, as may be imagined, went down like a cup of cold sick with German critics: the only one who defended the work was an artist called Rainer Küchenmeister, and he, as Kiefer points out, had been in a “KZ – you know, a [Nazi] work camp. He said the work was fun.”

Having begun by blotting his copybook in heroic form, Kiefer went on to provoke his countrymen mightily. Throughout the 1970s, he made art that alluded to Teutonic myths, to Wagner, to the dark, soughing forests of Caspar David Friedrich. (By happy coincidence, Kiefer means “pine tree” in German.) Some of this art was shown at the 1980 Venice Biennale, to predictable critical outrage back home. The problem was that works such as Malerei der verbrannten Erde (Painting of the Burned Earth), made with the help of Wagnerian fire and axe, were not clearly anti-German. In a day when history was being rewritten backwards to impeach Wotan, Bayreuth and the Black Forest as pre-conspirators in Nazism, Kiefer’s work refused to toe the party line. Making himself a kind of Teutonic Everyman, the artist simply would not airbrush his own German-ness out of the picture. For many, this failure to bury the past made him complicit in it.

Which, I think, explains the house in the Marais, part of Kiefer’s dogged refusal to make life comfortable for himself or other people. I earlier described Am Anfang as obscure and pretentious, and I did not mean those things nastily. To understand the work of most contemporary British artists, you could probably get by on a bit of Baudrillard, a copy of The Naked Lunch and The Ladybird Book of Science. To get Kiefer, it very much helps if you speak Sanskrit, can recite the Latin Mass and have a working knowledge of the works of Paul Celan and Velimir Khlebnikov.

These last have been a particular source of inspiration to the artist over the past decade. Since Kiefer left Germany, his work has become less specifically German and more syncretic, historically omnivorous: contentiously, Jewish Kabbalism is a favourite current source. Celan, a Romanian Jew whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, went on writing in German after the war – “In the language of the killers, the criminals,” says Kiefer. “It’s as [the 1960s Austrian poet] Ingeborg Bachmann said: your native tongue is like a house, that you have to go on living in it even if you don’t like it.” Khlebnikov, the dedicatee of Kiefer’s 2005 show at White Cube, was a noisy Russian Futurist who invented a universal language known as Zaum. The two poets dealt with the problem of cultural inheritance in different ways, the one by embracing it with nose tightly held, the other by radically reinventing it. Kiefer’s art has a go at both.

To manage this, the artist has had to become a scholar, a magus. The room in which we sit is, at a guess, 60ft long by 20ft wide and is lined end-to-end with books. The book has been a potent symbol for Kiefer for years now – one literally weighty tome, a six-foot lead volume called The Secret Life of Plants, was shown at the V&A last year – and this, too, has a German significance: the Jewish poet Heine prophetically remarked that wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen (Where men burn books, they will end by burning people). Knowledge – knowledge made visible – is a guard against disaster. If this seems pretentious, then, says Kiefer, “Artists are pretentious. They pretend to know all. It’s like any mythology: mythologies pretend to explain the world, in a way that scientists can not. The more they know, the less they know. The artist’s role is to play at being omniscient, omnipotent. But it’s just a role, a pretence.”

When I ask him if, after all these years, he minds still being tagged as a German artist, Kiefer instantly says, “No, no, not at all. How can I deny it? The material is German, whether you like it or not.” He pauses for a moment, then goes on. “On the other hand, I’m also part of the world. I’m not responsible for everything – I’m five per cent, the rest is what is going through me, different artists, different histories. I don’t feel so individual now – more and more less and less.” He giggles. “I’m a channel!”

All of which means that the work you’ll see at White Cube this autumn is pretty much what you’d expect to find if you’ve followed Kiefer’s history. His is not an art of novelties: it is an art of glacially slow accretions, and an archaeological excavation of these. New paintings such as Liliths Töchter hark back to the dark Teutonic woods of work made in 1971, to the steep recessions of the fields in which Kiefer stood, a young artist, saluting Hitler, 40 years ago. The history of these latest works is buried in their own three-inch-thick pigment as if in a shallow grave. Or, perhaps, in ruins.

As Kiefer sees me to the courtyard of his great, strange house, he points to a series of large canvases hanging in the sun, their paint scarred by the artist’s brush or Parisian weather or both. I ask him if they are finished, and he stops short. “Finished is a difficult word,” he says, eventually. “Sometimes I think a work is finished, and then five years later I start it again. That’s what happened with these.” Then he turns with that crazy laugh and says, “Maybe a work is only finished when it’s ruined, no? You wouldn’t believe how many people send me photographs of my paintings when they have fallen down from the wall! They are always afraid that the work will fall down, that objects will fall from them.” He pauses, then says, “It is not so easy, I think, having a painting of mine.”

The Fertile Crescent / Karfunkelfee will be at White Cube Hoxton Square, London N1; and White Cube Mason’s Yard, London SW1, from Friday to 14 November (tel: 020 7930 5373)




Flowers of Retrenchment: Anselm Kiefer’s Alternate History

Anselm Kiefer, “Morgenthau Plan” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 113 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer, “Morgenthau Plan” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 113 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer has scaled back, way back, from his preposterously overproduced previous solo at Gagosian, but with Kiefer we are always talking about relative degrees of gigantism.

In her review of that show, which was titled Next Year in Jerusalem (November 6–December 18, 2010), Roberta Smith of The New York Times set the scene this way:

The Gagosian space is crowded with 25 sculptures encased in large, often towering vitrines with floors of cracked (or scorched) earth. Each contains a sinister ruin: the fuselage or engine of a vintage airplane; a fleet of small suspended U-boats made of lead; a white plaster ball or wedding gown jagged with shards of glass; an immense and brittle thorn bush dotted with painted flames.

The scuttlebutt I heard at the time was that it cost a million dollars simply to install the exhibition — a figure that does not seem out of line given the quantity of plate glass that had to be factored into the handling.

In many ways, the new show is a retrenchment. Fifteen out of the eighteen works on display are paintings. There are no vitrines, just a few freestanding sculptures. Some of the paintings contain elements that project into the room, but most do not.

While the vitrines in Jerusalem felt simultaneously precious and over-the-top, they were also something different, an exploration of new territory even if the themes were recycled.

In contrast, the most successful paintings in Morgenthau Plan, as the new show is called, could have been made at any point in the artist’s career. I am thinking of two in particular, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” and “der Morgenthau-Plan” (both 2012), which present Kiefer’s familiar blasted landscapes with a powerful density of materials and a refined sense of touch.

Anselm Kiefer, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 74 13/16 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 74 13/16 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

However, the rest of the works, with a few exceptions, range from the middling to the embarrassing. What is remarkable is that Kiefer himself supplies the reason why.

The exhibition’s title refers to a proposal drawn up in 1944 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, that would take the demilitarization imposed upon Germany after World War I many steps further, leading to a total deindustrialization of the country. Factories would be decommissioned and the economy would revert to a form of pre-modern agrarianism.

On a shelf in the Gagosian Gallery entrance, piled in a neat stack next to copies of the exhibition’s checklist and press release, there is a letter from Kiefer to Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Henry Moore Foundation, in which he describes the evolution of the series:

Unless a person wishes to practice l’art pour l’art, he needs a subject. But where does that subject come from? This past year I have painted a number of pictures of flowers. […] They’re beautiful. But beauty in art needs meaning. One can’t have just beauty on its own. True art does not portray beauty alone. Beauty needs a counterpart.

And these paintings are unusually colorful and beautiful, again, in relative terms, for Kiefer. Some of the color shifts, from icy blue or hot pink to the ashen gray we know so well, are stunning. But they are also unstructured and pictorial in the most illustrative sense. Their masterful wielding of surface and pigment knocked me out at first glance, but I eventually started to cringe.

Kiefer continues:

If he paints flowers for six months and they become more and more beautiful, closer to perfection, he begins to believe he is losing himself, his identity as a painter, as a good painter. He can even develop a bad conscience because the subject is so easy. […] In thinking about this flaw another flaw occurred to me: the Morgenthau Plan. For it too ignored the complexity of things.

And so I had hit upon the Morgenthau Plan, which would now be associated with the flower paintings. (Emphasis mine.)

He goes on to write that if the plan were implemented:

With the destruction of industrial sites more land would have been gained. The fields would have been opened up for plants of all kinds, for carpets of flowers everywhere.

And so the paintings map out an alternate history for Germany in which the Morgenthau Plan has been put in place and the country’s industrial zones have reverted to their natural state.

The only problem is that the concept has been retroactively ”associated with the flower paintings.” They did not spring from the idea, which bristles with paradoxes (Morgenthau’s radical proposition, presumably based on the belief that the Germans are an incorrigibly warlike race, played into the hands of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, and he used it to rally the population, an effort that possibly extended the length of the war).

Consequently, the repurposed paintings lack all urgency, devoid of historical focus as well as the formal rigor and abstract thinking that make something as florally sumptuous as Monet’s water lilies, to choose an obvious comparison, continually compelling to contemporary eyes.

In her review of Jerusalem, Smith starts out on a positive note (“The German artist Anselm Kiefer knows how to put on a show”), sidling up like a Renaissance assassin about to slip a shiv into the kidney:

Portentously titled “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the Gagosian exhibition is effective middlebrow art as catharsis, spectacle with a message.

That’s pretty damning, and while such an assessment doesn’t necessarily carry over to the work in this show as a whole, it’s hard to shake the “middlebrow” epithet while looking at a painting like “Große Eisenfaust Deutschland, kleine Panzerfaust Deutschland (Velimir Chlebnikow)” (2012), a field of flowers with rusting machine guns mounted at the top.

Kiefer’s interplay between two and three dimensions is a well-worn trope by now, but it may not seem so stale if his pairing of disused weaponry with an overgrown landscape weren’t so obvious and literal. The same holds true for the even more theatrical “O Halme, ihr Halme, o Halme der Nacht” (2012), in which the guns are replaced by an airplane wing.

There are two works, however, that stand apart from the others. One is “Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt” (2011-2012), a colossal Romantic seascape with Courbet-style waves rolling ahsore and heavy, lowering clouds along the horizon line.

The work’s distinctive painterly realism and blue-dominant coloration pull you in, but after a few moments the 19th-century look begins to feel uncomfortably retro, as if Kiefer is attempting to revive a long-dead style for no particular reason.

Anselm Kiefer, "Oh Halme, ihr Halme, oh Halme der Nacht" (2012). Acrylic, emulsion, oil and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 149 5/8 x 220 1/2 inches. © Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Charles Duprat.

Anselm Kiefer, “Oh Halme, ihr Halme, oh Halme der Nacht” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 149 5/8 x 220 1/2 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

What I found more intriguing was “Oh Halme, ihr Halme, o Halme der Nacht” (2012), which features a typically blackish Kiefer landscape — a furrowed field diminishing in raked single point perspective — with handwritten text taking up the entire upper half of the picture, from the horizon line to the top of the canvas.

Kiefer’s practice has always incorporated words or phrases that reflect the work’s titles or themes. Sometimes this is quite evocative, as in his series “Dein Goldenes Haar, Margarete,” but just as often the meaning of the painting can depend too much on what is written on the surface.

In “Oh Halme,” Kiefer appears to have allowed his literary bent to run wild. If the actual meaning of the text remains obscure to non-German speakers, its intrusion upon the landscape nevertheless creates a disruptive and refreshing visual element.

Compared to “Nigredo – Morgenthau” and “der Morgenthau-Plan,” the two paintings I mentioned earlier — which, though impressive works, do not escape the trap Smith defines in the same review as Kiefer becoming “better and better at making Anselm Kiefers” — it feels less assured, even confused and hesitant. But for a superstar painter, that seems like a good place to be.

Anselm Kiefer: Morgenthau Plan continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 8.



A life in art: Anselm Kiefer

‘I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us’

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: Eamon McCabe for the Guardian

In 1969 Anselm Kiefer, then a 24-year-old art student in Karlsruhe, travelled round various locations in France, Switzerland and Italy where he was photographed giving the “sieg heil” (Hitlergruß) salute outside prominent buildings. His exhibiting of a selection of the images, under the title Occupations (Bezetzung), for his degree show provoked anxious incomprehension among his tutors and, later, anger among the public and critics. The taboo-breaking work has now entered the art-historical canon and Kiefer has been credited with an early “naming” of the evil that so many of his countrymen had chosen to forget, but more than 40 years after it was produced, Occupations remains one of the most polarising artworks to have emerged from postwar Germany.

Late last year in New York, an exhibition of Kiefer’s work featured some of the 1969 images alongside more typical later work such as huge glass cases displaying tableaux made up of cotton dresses, palms, bushes, an aeroplane fuselage and burned books, as well as large paintings of the German landscape made with ash, lead, snakeskin and other organic materials. “When I moved to my new studio in Paris a few years ago I had the space and opportunity to look at old work, often for the first time since it was made,” he explains. “I found all these negatives from 1969 that I’d never even developed. So I developed some of them and put them in a big container for the New York show. It seemed a long time ago when I made them, but even after all these years some people did not like them at all.”

The show attracted a small demonstration, but Kiefer says he is “used to hard reactions. When I first thought of the work I didn’t know anyone else who was doing anything similar, but I had always thought that I had been born an artist and so what I did was art. I was very confident. If I hadn’t been I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. Even by the time of the Venice biennale in 1980, when I was supposedly established, not a single critic was for me. Everyone was against my work. Of course, they later turned in my favour, but I needed a high degree of confidence to continue.”

Kiefer’s willingness to engage with the German myths and preoccupations that had been contaminated by association with Nazism earned him a certain notoriety throughout the 1970s and 80s. He worked in the darkly symbolic forests, echoed Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscapes and cited Wagner via photography, painting and sculpture. He incorporated the alchemical materials of fire and melted metals and became increasingly absorbed by the Jewish myths and beliefs that the Nazis had attempted to eradicate. Over time he began to co-opt his long-standing interest in poetry and myths from many different cultures, not so much in search of a solution to the questions of why we are here and what we are doing, but more to explore human philosophical endeavour in the face of the uncaring natural processes of entropy and decay.

It is a dauntingly formidable prospectus that, for some, can slip into portentousness. One critic of the New York show summed up her antipathy by explaining that she “found the fact that MoMA had to reinforce its walls for the 1988-89 exhibition to support the weight of huge, often lead-covered canvases more significant than the paintings themselves”. But the historian Simon Schama admires Kiefer precisely for his heft, commending his “heavy-load maximalism” at a time when “impish minimalism was king of the contemporary art world”. Kiefer, Schama says, “is incapable of making trivia”. Marina Warner maintains that his “apocalyptic vision has been central to the dilemma about what to remember and how to remember it, to the tensions around oblivion and commemoration . . . The alchemical art builds a historical and literary polyphony, certainly, but at a deeper level it also relates to ritual, to ritual’s yearning to redraft events, to turn death into a celebration.”

Kiefer was in London last week to install his new show at the White Cube gallery. Despite the almost theatrically high seriousness of his work, the now 66-year-old artist cuts a rather cheery figure as he greets staff and checks lighting levels at the gallery, accompanied by his wife and two young children. The exhibition is named after a play by the 19th-century Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love), about the Greek priestess Hero and her lover, Leander, who drowned while swimming the Hellespont to be with her. The show comprises large photographs of seascapes, some of which have been subject to various processes, including electrolysis, to ensure that their surface, when exposed to the air, changes appearance over time. Variously superimposed upon the images are obstetric implements, Euclidian drawings, a lead model of a U-boat and the presence of Kiefer himself.

“It is a show about impossibilities,” he explains. “Putting a Euclidian diagram on a seascape is about the impossibility of capturing the sea. The sea is always fluid. The geometrical figure gives the impression of fixing it at a certain moment. It’s the same as us imposing constellations on the sky which, of course, are completely crazy and nothing to do with the stars. It is just for us to feel more comfortable. To construct an illusion for ourselves that we have brought order to chaos. We haven’t. I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us.”

Kiefer was born in a small Black Forest village in March 1945, just a few months before the end of the war. He was brought up near the Rhine, not far from both the Swiss and, more importantly, the French borders. “Because of the history and geography I was driven to French culture. And the Rhine would flood every spring so the border never seem fixed, although I couldn’t cross it. France lay behind this moveable frontier and was quite enigmatic because I couldn’t go there but it was there. In effect it was the promised land, but not because of the physical state of Germany. I actually liked the ruins from the war as a child. I used to build little houses out of the rubble.”

His family were Catholic and Kiefer was an altar boy who can still recite the Latin mass. He says his parents were quite conventional in their faith, “but I was interested in transcendence from a very early age. I was interested in what was over there, what was behind life. So when I had my first communion I was very disappointed. I had expected something amazing and surprising and spiritual. Instead all I got was a bicycle. That wasn’t what I was after at all.”

He was making “quite big pictures for a very small child” from as far back as he can remember, but although his facility for art was always acknowledged, Kiefer chose to study law at university, claiming that he must have “had some sort of complex in that I thought I was already an artistic genius and so didn’t need art school. And while I never wanted to be a lawyer, I was interested in the language of law. A law textbook is amazing in how little it has to do with life. In that sense I suppose it is a little like art.” While at law school he continued to make art, but eventually realised he needed to meet with other artists, and so transferred to art school. “Before then I hadn’t really kept any of my work; this felt like a real start.” It coincided with him also first properly comprehending recent German history.

“I got hold of this record which was made by the Americans to educate Germans about their own history. It included speeches from Hitler and Göring and Goebbels, and I was both shocked and fascinated by the sense of will they projected. It had all only happened just a couple of decades earlier, but in school it was taught as if it was about Alexander the Great. It was a dry piece of ancient history. And although my father had been an officer during the war, the war was not really talked about at home. My father was not a Nazi, but of course he was infiltrated by the ideology. So my family, like many others, stuck to this illusion about the Wehrmacht not being Nazis, just being soldiers. But of course we know today a lot of them were involved in the extermination of Jews and others.”

At Düsseldorf art school Kiefer met Joseph Beuys. “I was never in his class but I showed him my work several times. I was working in the forest and would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my Beetle and drive to show him. He was the first one to say clearly that my Occupations photographs were art. My other tutors just wrung their hands: ‘Is it morally right? Is this allowed?’ Beuys looked at them and said straight away it was a good action, and for him, action was art.”

Throughout the 1970s Kiefer devoted himself to Germanic myths. He explored the forests where early German tribes had defeated Roman legions and which were an “infinite vessel of mystery, of fairytales, of childhood memories”. He absorbed the romantic sturm und drang of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and skyscapes, and delved deep into Wagner’s music and his place in German culture. “My mother once made me listen to Lohengrin on the radio from Bayreuth and it made a big impression. I was attracted to the idea of the holy grail as something far away and enigmatic and a sort of destination where you desperately want to get to, but you know you will never arrive. That sense of longing came to me very early in my life. And art is longing. You never arrive, but you keep going in the hope that you will.”

Kiefer says he was on the left as German politics became increasingly violent throughout the 1970s, “but I was always critical. My brother was in the Communist party and was invited to spend time in China and was absolutely seduced. He is much more intelligent than me, but he came back saying ‘there are no more flies because it is so clean’. When the Baader-Meinhof actually started murdering people I thought it was just like the Nazis again. They felt they could be judges just as Hitler did. Indirectly all this must have affected my art, but not directly. That said, the Tate once bought a triptych of mine that I had painted on very cheap wallpaper. Later they found the phrase “there is torture in German prisons” written on the back of the picture and asked me what it meant. It actually had nothing to do with the art, but it obviously showed I cared about what was going on. But I’ve never made art for the daily political situation.”

After German reunification Kiefer moved to Barjac in the south of France, where over time his studio complex became a work of art in itself as he steadily constructed a series of towers, tunnels and buildings. In 2008 he relocated to Paris and a vast studio space that had once been the depository for the La Samaritaine department store. France has treated him well. He has been commissioned to create site-specific installations at the Grand Palais, became the first living artist since Braque to create a permanent installation at the Louvre and directed and designed the sets for a new opera, Am Anfang (In the Beginning) that marked the 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille. In January Kiefer was appointed to the chair of creativity in art at the Collège de France. “I first came to France aged 17 in a truck and was, quite by accident, dropped off at the Louvre. I always think in circles, so I do like it that I now have a painting there.”

France also provides him a vantage point from which to observe Germany. He says the war is now over, “but I wish it was more over. I wish that Europe was more united. Helmut Kohl was criticised for a lot of things quite rightly, but concerning Europe he was very good. Germany needs a strong Europe, because you still cannot completely trust Germany.” He says the fact that it is a comparatively young nation has had an impact. “It doesn’t have the positive national myths of other countries. The French have their revolution, the English the Empire, being the first democracy and Magna Carta, the Americans have their war of independence. Germans just have defeats in wars, so they are always feeling a little bit inferior, and then they over compensate. Being tied closer into Europe would help that.”

Although his move to France coincided with an intensified investigation of myth and religion in his work, Kiefer is no longer a practising Catholic, but acknowledges that “even people who seem not to be spiritual still long for something; I’m sure this is the reason we have art and poetry. I think without spirituality we cannot live, and in this respect the best religion is Hinduism, which teaches that each religion can contain some little truth. Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth. It never can, but it can get quite close. It is the dogmatism of the church, the idea that words can express a single truth over hundreds of years, that is complete nonsense. The world changes. Language changes, everything changes. Paintings certainly change.”

Kiefer’s relationship with the processes of time goes beyond mere acceptance. He leaves sculptures and paintings outdoors exposed to the elements. He has subjected his work to acid, flamethrowers and axe attacks. At the White Cube show the colours are already changing. The huge photographs will remain stable while they are sealed under glass, but as soon as they are exposed to the air they will become dynamic. This sense of the provisional and contingent, and the resistance to the idea of a “finished” work, raises philosophical questions as to the curation of his, and by extension of all, art. Talks are underway to establish a joint German-French foundation to look after the Barjac complex, with the specific intention of allowing nature to slowly reclaim the site. Curating his art has become less a matter of conserving it than accompanying it through history.

“It is a fascinating area, and at the heart of what I do. I like it that the White Cube photographs will change, and hope to find a collector who will be brave enough to take them out of the glass. But art should be full of intriguing questions such as this. Art really is something very difficult. It is difficult to make, and it is sometimes difficult for the viewer to understand. It is difficult to work out what is art and what is not art. All this can be hard work. Sometimes in recent years I’ve felt that the parameters have changed. It seems too often a luxury product, a weekend hobby. The only question asked is ‘what’s the price?’ When I was studying the stakes seemed higher. Art was challenging, like Kant or Hegel or Derrida. It was something really worth thinking about. A part of it should always include having to scratch your head.”

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