Sunday, March 9, 2014

Happy Belated Birthday to Anselm Kiefer

Yesterday was the birthday of German artist Anselm Kiefer. Born in Germany at the end of WW II, he chose to try to understand Germany's past - including the Holocaust - through art. His work is controversial, ambiguous and, once seen, impossible to forget.

Naturally his work has occasioned copious amounts of art critic verbiage. One of the most astute comments came from an essay by Andreas Huyssen (from the journal October 1989) in which he writes that Kiefer's work is about memory, not about forgetting and should be placed in the context of German culture after Auschwitz.

"For German critics," Huyssen wrote, "the issue was rather how Kiefer went about dealing with this past. To them Kiefer's deliberate strategy of opening a Pandora's box of fascist and nationalistic imagery amounted to a kind of original sin of the post-Auschwitz era."

Anselm Kiefer, Shulamite [Sulamith], 1983, oil, emulsion, woodcut, shellac, acrylic, and straw on canvas, 213 x 145 inches / 541 x 368.3 cm (Doris and Donald Fisher Collection). © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of the artist.

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime and dawntime
we drink and drink Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky
he cultivates snakes and he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite

—the final lines of Paul Celan's poem, "Death Fugue," published 1947, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène (a stage set that tells a story) suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).  Sulamith, is inscribed in the upper left hand corner, a graffiti-like testament in white paint upon the stone, to Celan's brave young Jewish girl consumed by this living hell, who came to her death in a chamber such as this because she had not the golden hair of Aryan Margarete but the dark “ashen hair” of Shulamite. Kiefer transformed architecture meant to honor Nazi heroes into a memorial for their victims. (

Margarethe (oil and straw on canvas) was inspired by Paul Celans well-known poem "Todesfuge" ("Death Fugue").

The Romanian poet Paul Celan was the only member of his family to survive incarceration in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but committed suicide in 1970, at the age of 49, after producing a body of work that included the searingly painful poem, "Death Fugue". In it he talks of the inhabitants of the camp drinking black milk and digging graves in the sky. Two figures are contrasted in the poem and act as the central metaphor: Margarete, with her cascade of blonde Aryan hair, and Shulamite, a Jewish woman whose black hair denotes her Semitic origins, but which is also ashen from burning.

Kiefer's work is obsessively concerned with images of myth and history. His enormous canvases, layered with plaster, straw, grit and densely painted in grey, black and vermillion pigment evoke the suffering, death and destruction of the Nazi era. He illuminates the myths around WW II and the era that preceded it by the titles of his works, by quotes from the poet Celan. He has been inescapably drawn to the symbols which were cynically used by the Nazis to create an imaginary past which justified their actions in the present. His work of the 80's which mocks, not glorifies the Nazi appropriation of German myth, broke the taboo of "that which will not be spoken of." He wants to work through a past that older Germans want to forget and that younger Germans never knew.

Wooden Room is part of a series of monumental paintings Kiefer made while studying under the artist Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf
 As Kiefer has said in reference to this national legacy of World War II, "[A]fter the 'misfortune,' as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again. . . . . It's nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust."

It's all part of his mission to confront the past. "In Germany, if something is finished, they like to flatten it, bring it down, make the grass grow over it. That's no good. You should keep these old buildings because they played a role and they can teach us something." (Interview, Manchester Guardian, 2011).

Osiris, the god of the underworld, was murdered by his jealous brother, Set, who dispersed his body parts across the land. Osiris's grieving widow, Isis, searched for his remains, literally "re-membering" and resurrecting him. The parable's theme of destruction and renewal speaks directly to Kiefer's interest in reassembling and reclaiming elements of Germany's history and identity at a time when so many of his compatriots seemed intent on forgetting.

Kiefer illustrates humanity's quest for heaven through an immense, stepped temple that dominates the scene. A television circuit board connects copper wires and shards of a porcelain plumbing fixture, which, scattered across the vast canvas, allude to Osiris's strewn body parts. By conflating contemporary elements with a mythological story, Kiefer connects the modern and ancient worlds, forging a new, universal image of reunification and synthesis (with scars still intact).

Kiefer 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 or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys 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.

The powerful imagery and ideas behind Kiefer's work could stand for any victims of injustice - for the refugees in today's world, for political prisoners, for all who suffer under the boot of tyranny. 

In 1990, Kiefer was awarded the Wolf Prize. In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded him the Praemium Imperiale for his lifetime achievements. In the explanatory statement it reads:

"A complex critical engagement with history runs through Anselm Kiefer's work. His paintings as well as the sculptures of Georg Baselitz created an uproar at the 1980 Venice Biennale: the viewers had to decide whether the apparent Nazi motifs were meant ironically or whether the works were meant to convey actual fascist ideas. Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world. He created epic paintings on giant canvases that called up the history of German culture with the help of depictions of figures such as Richard Wagner or Goethe, thus continuing the historical tradition of painting as a medium of addressing the world. Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort."

Review of his show at SFMOMA:

Movie: Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow:

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