What Anselm Kiefer’s Art Teaches Us: An Excerpt from “Blood, Soil, Paint”
Born in Germany in the final weeks of World War II, Anselm Kiefer’s childhood left a permanent impression. Surrounded by the ruins of the Black Forest town of Donaüschingen, Kiefer grew up with images of burned buildings, crashed military airplanes, and destroyed machinery from which his neighbors scavenged steel for a pittance. Meanwhile, Friedrich Seidenstücker was photographing Berlin’s Tiergarten park shorn of vegetation, ground pummelled by military vehicles, and the Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”) who formed chains to salvage bricks from heaps of masonry.
After Kiefer’s early success freed him from financial constraints, he bought a giant former brick factory in Barjac, Gard, in France which he used as his studio to make large installations out of rubble, cast concrete, earth, sheet lead, straw, dried sunflowers and other materials. His art recreated the Germany of his childhood to mediate on how rubble eventually becomes soil in which plants and crops can grow.
Kiefer links wartime debris with German Romanticism. He detected in Hitler – as did Munch and Dalí – an innate form of masochism and desire for failure specific to the German character. The German Romantic worldview is epitomized by the solitary traveler famously depicted in the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich contemplating ruins in the wilderness as a symbol of man’s hubris, the cyclical decline of civilizations and the unassuageable power of nature.
One embodiment of that Romantic melancholic yearning for a ruined landscape is found in the idea of the Ruinenwert (“ruin value”) refined and popularised by Albert Speer. The chief architect of the NSDAP after the death of Troost. Speer consulted with Hitler to conceptualize buildings that would appear noble and mighty when ruined. “By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics,” he wrote, “we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.” Just as the nobility of the ancients was apparent in the ruins of their buildings, an effect of nobility could be achieved by the modern architect through the creation of buildings designed with their ruins in mind.
The ruin, the picturesque, the grotto, and the overgrown cemetery – and the cemetery isle – had resonance for the Romantics beyond cognitive appreciation; such places spoke to the immortal soul and the aesthetic feeling within man, which distinguished him from beasts. In the ruin, we find the fusion of man’s handiwork and nature’s action – taken by the Romantics as a refutation of Apollonian rationalism through the destructive power of Dionysian nature.
Kiefer painted the Speer-designed Berliner Neuen Reichkanzlei in ruins, accelerated from new to ruined in one decade. At the centre of the space, he placed a palette and dedicated the picture as a monument to the unknown painter. It was an ironic tribute to the lost artists of history and especially the failed Austrian painter who founded a thousand-year Reich that lasted less than twelve years. Troost’s Ehrentempel (“honor temple”) in Munich, erected in 1935 to commemorate Hitler’s failed putsch of 1923, was also painted by Kiefer. The ruins of the Reich were thus cast by Kiefer in terms of natural, cyclical decline.
In Kiefer’s paintings – deliberately subjected to oxidization, fading, and cracking, executed partially in industrial and non-art materials – the debris of history is a matter of deep time, which surpasses the lifetime of individuals and even nations. His interests stretch back to the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. He sees layers of history forming above the past, concealing but not totally erasing its traces. Kiefer is the artist as archaeologist. Soil in his work is a palimpsest, where civilizations write their stories across the land, impermanently, and new cultures arise to take their place.
Kiefer’s art presents parallels between current events and apparently distant phenomena, seeing recurring patterns and persistent symbols. In the 1970s, Kiefer painted interiors of wooden buildings in reference to the mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg and Casper David Friedrich. Friedrich’s ghost haunts in particular Kiefer’s photographs of German landscapes made in the mid-1970s, where the faded printing resembles the mists of the Romantic sublime.
One of Kiefer’s earliest mature works was a large book composed of a series of woodcuts of German military heroes. A large wall-painting version was made by the artist pasting roughly printed pages onto a canvas which was then overpainted. Kiefer gave the work the title Teutoburger Wald (Teutoburg Forest)(1977), after the site of the famous victory of the German tribes over Varus’s legions. In Varus (1976), he depicted the interior of a forest, inscribed with names of famous Germans, including poet Heinrich von Kleist, philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Field Marshal von Schlieffen, and Hermann, destroyer of Varus.
The absence of unequivocal condemnation of German history in his art led to criticism of Kiefer early in his career, while the ambiguity of his national, mythological and Romantic subjects made liberal German and international art critics suspicious of his intentions. His art – freighted with evocations of German ancestors and national myths – meditates on themes of blood and soil. And any evocations of ancestors, national myths, and German nationhood especially, inevitably confront the post-war world with powerful emotions. Liberal post-war conceptions of history tell us that is forbidden territory. But Kiefer’s work shows that it can be confronted frankly and honestly.