Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Anselm Kiefer at SFMOMA (part 3 of 3)

 Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982. Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper (SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Kiefer’s work is a search for transcendence and our place within the cosmos through engaging with the most horrific event of the 20th century. In his attempt to make art overtly spiritual, Kiefer uses his version of symbolic images, which reference the occult, the Kabala, and Germany’s bloody past. As befits the work of a powerful first-generation postwar German artist, his work combines elements of self-reproach, agonizing memory, and the need to engage with the ghosts of militarism, Antisemitism  and the worship of violence.  According to Robert Hughes, “he is one of the few visual artists in the past decade to have shown an unmistakable greatness of vision.”

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up as Germany recovered from the disasters of war. As he matured, he observed how Germany largely avoided dealing deeply with the Nazi past in the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue art, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, the relationship between history, philosophy and religion and how to engage with the moral dilemmas of Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmidt (1888-1985).  Schmidt's philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmidt joined the Nazi party in but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry soon caused him to be distrusted and forced from his post. 

For Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology while pondering the dilemmas posed by his ideas. “I was interested in people like Schmitt,” the artist has said, “Because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

His increasing desire for solitude lead him to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living there as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly – about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29).  This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

Although not officially a student of Joseph Beuys, Kiefer sought him out in and has acknowledged the spiritual influence of the older artist. Kiefer was inspired by Beuys's interest in deploying an array of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols as a means by which to engage and understand history, an understanding even more important as Germany entered the prosperity of the 1960’s and sought to bury her past, without coming to grips with it.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981. Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas. @SF MOMA

But, as Robert Hughes pointed out, Kiefer is utterly different from his mentor. Beuys was as much a performing artist as shaman, given to transitory and Zen like events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). Kiefer shuns publicity, lives in an isolated village, is more of a traditional painter rather than conceptual artist and produces staggeringly complex pieces that overwhelm and then, engage the viewer.

Rising to prominence in the 1980s alongside “neo-expressionist” painters such Baselitz, Kiefer’s art was influenced by the tradition of both German symbolism and pre-WW II German expressionism with its focus on societal critiques. Kiefer has said that he has always wanted to deal with large issues in his art; he has dared to quote from the fascist architecture of Albert Speer and the German myths and legends so beloved of the Reich. His work has been intensely controversial and, simultaneously, intensely popular.

Kiefer attempted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust in the first place. His early work is still controversial. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations have been categorized as neo-fascist, and a sinister nostalgia for Hitler. Simultaneously attempting to mock, criticize and parody Nazism is a difficult business and it’s doubtful whether Kiefer succeeded. Perhaps only Mel Brooks, in his iconic "Springtime for Hitler" parody could successfully mock the Third Reich and Kiefer, for all his talent, lacks the comedic touch.

He is much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. Celan, a concentration camp survivor evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials. In an 1983 painting, both the title and the subject are taken from a concentration camp poem by Celan. Shulamith was the Jewish woman whose black hair turned to white ashes by burning in contrast to the golden locks of hair belonging to the German ideal of womanhood, Margarete. The cavelike interior is based on the Nazi memorial funeral hall for German soldiers (the 1939 Hall of Soldiers); the walls and ceiling are blackened and far in the back a small fire burns--the altar of the Holocaust, a dungeon-like temple whose interior resembles the crematoria where millions died. 

Shulamith. 1983. Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, straw and woodcut fragments on canvas
114 x 145 in.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and “the domain of artistic inspiration.”

In Auping’s essay on Kiefer, he is quoted as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”    (Auping, 39). 

Melancholia,1990-91. lead airplane with crystal tetrahy 126 in. x 174 in. x 65 3/4 in. (320 cm x 442 cm x 167 cm). Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Donald and Doris Fisher. Kiefer's lead-winged creation with a crystal tetrahedron on its left side recalls the ravages of the air raids of World War II

Kiefer also does not believe in permanence. His monumental  works have disintegration and decay built into them and emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power,  the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting skeletons of modern German society, he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

In the tumult of today’s world, we need a language to understand tyranny as well as escape from it, Zen tranquility as well as Wagnerian force. Picasso, according to Dore Ashton, is supposed to have once asked (rhetorically), “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” And then he answered his own question, “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Your Golden Hair, Margarete. 1981. Oil and straw on canvas

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world, showing us our wounded body and broken spirit, and reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. His works evoke secular altarpieces, a contemporary Grünewald with the body of history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war, rather than the body of Christ. His enormous landscapes evoke the battlefield after the war -- barren, with mysterious fires burning in the muck but with the distant hope of redemption through a search for our place within the cosmos.

also cross-posted at Venetian Red (slightly different version): http://venetianred.net/
Anselm Kiefer, Heaven and Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Robert Hughes. Germany’s Master in the Making. Time, Dec 21, 1987. and also see Robert Hughes, Nothing if not critical.
Carl Schmidt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Schmitt


Zoomie said...

Sturm und drang. Too dark, both physically and psychologically/emotionally for me. The work, not your writing.

namastenancy said...

He is a difficult painter which is why a version of the essay was cross-posted on Venetian Red. I knew that she has a different audience than I do, perhaps one more in sympathy with Kiefer.

Kathy Hodge said...

Thank you for an excellent post. I'm a big fan of Kiefer's. One of the few artists who seem to stop time when I view their work. His work is monumental and the color is gorgeous and rich, even apart from the large issues it grapples with. It's political art that communicates even without being tied to a particular time period. Still, it's very interesting to explore the influences which lead to the work.