Anselm Kiefer, 1945-
By Eilís Doolan
There are few contemporary artists who match Anselm Kiefer’s unflinching willingness to confront history. Born on March 3rd 1945, Kiefer is not only one of the most significant post-war artists, but one of the most important artists working today. Through his work, the German painter and sculptor addresses the dark heritage of his home country, and works with larger themes of history, identity and mythology. His works, which are often monumental in scale, are remarkable in terms of their powerful imagery and acute analysis.
Born in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, just a month before Hitler’s suicide, Kiefer’s childhood was spent growing up around the ruins of World War II, at a time when Germany was consumed by denial, silence, and, what art historian Simon Schama defined as “willed amnesia.” It was out of this context that Kiefer’s desire to address Germany’s past grew. Many of his works question why the guilt and scar of Nazism was buried in the post-war period. Kiefer first addressed the theme of history in his 1969-series of photographic self-portraits titled Occupations (1969). For the series, Kiefer dressed up in his father’s old military uniform, and captured himself standing with his arm raised in the Nazi salute –which had been officially banned in Germany. The photographs were taken in France, Italy, and Switzerland, and are representative of Kiefer’s protest against forgetting.
In the 1970s, Kiefer turned to greater explorations of identify and history. Parsifal (1973) is a monumental painting set in the attic of Kiefer’s home—it is the last of a series of four paintings. The series refers to Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. As such, the painting references mythological German heroes – the same heroes around whom also the Nazis built their cult. Parsifal is a painting that is ominous and cavernous. At the top of the composition, Kiefer has painted the name Parsifal, and in the bottom left corner we can discern the name Amfortas, as if etched into the wood by the mythological figures themselves. At the centre of the attic, on a wooden stool, we find Wagner’s Holy Grail. But Kiefer’s grail drips real blood—the blood spilt by German history.
By the 1980s, Kiefer had become one of the leading representatives of Neo-Expressionism. Still influenced by the weight of German history, Kiefer turned towards a greater interest in the materiality of the canvas, and began introducing new materials like sand, straw, and lead into his paintings – a technique with which Kiefer still works today. The incorporation of these natural elements lends a sense of fragility to the heavy subjects of Kiefer’s works. Completed in 1983, Urd, Werdandi, Skuld (Die Nornen) depicts a long, vaulted passageway lit by a fire at its centre. It is likely that the space is based on German Facist architecture, as Kiefer often used photographs of old Nazi buildings as architectural sources. As in Parsifal, the painting is marked by strong spatial recession, which guides the viewer into the dark recesses of the hall. The inscription at the top has been painted in white. The letters are spindly, thread-like, as if etched by a trembling hand. The Norse title of the painting refers to the three fates in Norse mythology, representing past, present, and future. At four metres high, it is an imposing and unapologetically confrontational work. The combination of materials (paper, oil paint, plant fibres, and even leather strings) results in a densely textured and heavy surface. What’s more, the work appears to be burnt in places – the result of Kiefer’s tendency to take blowtorches to fissure the surface of his paintings. Kiefer breaks down the boundaries between myth and history to consider the human condition, and how the human condition might be marked by past, present, and future.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kiefer left Germany to settle in New York. Then, in 1992, Kiefer moved to the South of France. There, he continued to work with themes of history, myth, and the human condition. Painted in 1995, Kiefer’s The Land of Two Rivers is a monumental work with the inscriptions Tigris and Euphrates, two rivers at whose banks the oldest human civilisation are believed to have emerged. Though these ancient societies have long decayed, Kiefer’s painting calls them back to the present. Once more, his work seems concerned with the desire to remember, or at least to protest against the danger of forgetting.
More recently, Kiefer completed a series of works depicting Mao Zedong. In the series, Kiefer explores ideas of power and abuse. Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom (2000), a painting depicting a grey statue of Mao, is part of this series. Kiefer has painted the panel with washes of muted grey and beige tones, and has attached thin roses and wooden sticks to the panel, producing an unruly texture to frame the statue.
Today, Kiefer continues to paint and sculpt at his 200-acre art studio, built on the site of an abandoned silk factory in Barjac, France. There, Kiefer compares his process to the workings of the cosmos—a constant cycle of “construction, reconstruction, and demolition.”
“Anselm Kiefer, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom 2000.” Tate Modern. Accessed 25 February 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/kiefer-let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom-t07841.
“Anselm Kiefer, Urd, Verdandi, Skuld (The Norns) 1983.” Tate Modern. Accessed 24 February 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/kiefer-urd-verdandi-skuld-the-norns-ar00036.
“Anselm Kiefer.” Guggenheim. Accessed 27 February 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/anselm-kiefer.
“Anselm Kiefer, The Land of the Two Rivers (Zweistromland).” Guggenheim. Accessed 27 February 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/11.
Macpherson, Amy. “Behind the scenes: Anselm Kiefer’s studio at Barjac.” Royal Academy. Published 18 August 2014. Accessed 27 February 2019. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/behind-the-scenes-anselm-kiefers.
Yetob, Alan. “1/5 Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future.” Aired 18 November 2014 on BBC One. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUQuhoqTKtg.