PRINT January 1990


THE ANCIENT DREAM OF transcending both the physical and the symbolic limitations imposed on us by gravity—a dream expressed in the myth of Icarus—has often appeared in Anselm Kiefer’s iconography/ cosmography. The symbolic icons of the wing, the palette, the fire, and the snake/angel, in, works such as Ikarus—märkischer Sand (Icarus—Mark sand, 1981) and Die Ordnung der Engel (The order of the angels, 1983–84), testify to the inextricable rapport Kiefer sees between historical events and celestial metaphysics. In Kiefer’s attempt to view the vicissitudes of history from a privileged artistic position, Icarus becomes the alter ego for the artist, providing the metaphor for both aspiration to transcendence and the inevitable fall that may follow his doomed dream, and thus, ultimately, suggesting the complexities in the idea of utopian salvation. Now, in his most recent show of work from 1989, “Der Engel der Geschichte. Mohn und Gedächtnis” (The angel of history. Poppy and memory), Kiefer has approached the subject once again, in a deeply disturbing mise-en-scène. Burdening the classical ideals intrinsic to the myth (sublimation, the search for an inner harmony, the transcendence of conflicts) with their dark complements (arrogance, expansionism, repression), the artist suggests that the contemporary conquest of the heavens, from military aviation to space exploration, testifies to a desire in the collective consciousness to affirm its potency in the sky, a compensation for an impotence, an inability to negotiate, that it feels in the here and now.

Here we see three lead airplanes (seemingly large-scale models of B-1 bombers), two broken airplane wings, and eight paintings relating to flight. The first plane,named Melancholia (after Dürer’s famous etching), carries on its right wing a glass polyhedron containing dust and dirt. From Berenice, a broken wing, issues a cascade of black hair, dark as the smoke from an engine in flames. Mohn und Gedächtnis, another rough bomber, bears on each wing a stack of lead books sprouting tendrils of dried poppies. Through windowlike apertures on the fuselage, the wings, and the tail of Jason, and similarly in the single-wing work Die Argonauten, one discerns traces of human teeth, hair, snakeskins, poppy seeds, detritus, and dust. Though striving for the air, the planes in “Der Engel der Geschichte" seem pulled down by their own weight, to come to rest on this austere gray floor. They seem to have flown to destroy and to be destroyed, to gain freedom and simultaneously to lose it. Moved, like Icarus, by insane folly, they have inevitably returned to earth in the form of shreds of bodies, smoke, and ashes. And even the books, the ponderous weight of culture, exhibited on their wings cannot absolve these destroyers.

With Berenice, named after the ancient Egyptian woman who offered to give her famously beautiful dark hair to the gods if her husband returned safely from war—the gift was accepted, and taken up into the sky as a constellation—Kiefer adds one more heroine to the pantheon of female figures in his works, all characterized by their capacity to love and by their long hair. Here he addresses the nobility and futility of Berenice’s sacrifice. On the other hand, Jason and Die Argonauten, evoking the myth of the warriors who sought the Golden Fleece through numerous adventures, murders, and deceptions, suggest the vanity of illusory victory. And finally, borrowing the show’s subtitle, “Poppy and memory,” from a volume of poetry by Paul Celan, Kiefer intensifies his elegy for the dead. By invoking the flower that is used in memoriam yet that also, paradoxically, induces loss of memory, he points toward an oblivion that may be the only way he sees to deal with the loaded past.

In numerous works Kiefer has referred to the dream of unification of the German nation, a concept that has pervaded German thought and politics over the centuries. Now that dream seems within grasp again, in a euphoric atmosphere troubled by disquieting questions about the future of all of Europe and the inevitability of redesigning its geographic, military, economic, and political checkerboard. In light of the contradictory reactions that accompanied the opening of the East German borders—from the initial, uncontainable joy and curiosity to the preoccupation, suspicion, and even aversion experienced in the West—the desire for freedom expressed by the East Germans seems tempered by the realization that the road forward is paved with problems and ambiguities.

In the form of these aggressive airplanes humbled to earth, Kiefer confronts us with the contradiction we are forced to experience when a dream from the abstract realm of myth is transformed into the concrete realm of history. In this paradoxical moment, as Europe looks at the meaning of its own past and tries to shape its future through its uncertain present, his work raises another question: how much space is left for the ideals of freedom when Romantic élan clashes with political praxis? How difficult will real changes be when so many peoples have to face all the risks of “the unbearable weightiness of the new”?

Ida Panicelli