PRINT April 1998


You stand on the threshold of a ground deeply riven, a vast field where mud, ashes, snow, and straw are mingled in a wasteland stretching to the far distance. The horizon is too high to offer much more than an intimation of the heavens, and the rutted earth recedes at a diagonal so sharp that you are swept at once into this troubled landscape, drawn too deeply in to make even eventual escape seem likely. Dark and tiny against the sliver of sky stands one of Nuremberg’s beloved Gothic churches—likely St. Lorenz or St. Sebald. To the far right of it: one of the eighty watchtowers that guard the city’s fourteenth-century wall. And farthest of all, at the left extreme of the horizon toward which you are being swept, there appears to be a mountain, also dark, yet topped with clouds that hint but barely of crisper air, loftiness, and freedom. Around you on all sides, though, like a rich manure or peat, is the straw of this earth, fragile and abundant, ready to burn.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer’s Nürnberg in Philadelphia a decade ago. Nothing had prepared me for the experience, but, looking at the work, I realized immediately that I had been waiting to see this painting—this one and no other, it seemed to me then—for years. The visual impact was immediate and stunning; I saw people actually reel from their first encounter with the canvas. Here was a painter who had fully absorbed the lessons of Jackson Pollock—the literalness and materiality of surface, the perfect ambiguity of a pictorial space at once infinite and flattened to nothing, the consoling certainties of a composition inextricable from the properties of matter itself. This is the formal language of radical doubt, and such skepticism is also, of course, the lingua franca of our shattered century. We trust only the irreducible to be real.

And yet in Nürnberg this visual fundamentalism also serves as a kind of fixative for the painting’s more expansive meanings. As if in reversal of the impulse by which Pollock at one point used his skeins of paint to conceal the figurative forms beneath (“I choose to veil the imagery”), Kiefer releases the grand tableaux and geographical sprawl that were always latent in Abstract Expressionism. And in striking contrast to his American predecessor, Kiefer does not limit his engagement with time to the personal scale of gesture. This is history painting. Nürnberg represents not just landscape or nature but das Land, that quasi-mystical ground from which German idealism and sentimentality have extracted so much self-deceiving fatefulness, so much destiny. That the Germany professing this attachment started two world wars and caused the death of almost 50 million people in this cenwry is for Kiefer a fact to be accepted. In Nürnberg he challenges his compatriots (but not only them) to look upon their past without idealism. More difficult still, he asks all of us to acknowledge that history’s most repugnant eventualities can have their origins in achievements often laudable in themselves.

Birthplace of Dürer, storied center for music and cultural life, setting for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Old Nuremberg embodied much of what is most admirable in Germany. But just as Die Meistersinger later became a favorite of Hitler’s, so the city’s second florescence was as the capital of Nazi pageantry. This dark rebirth is alluded to in Kiefer’s painting by the extensive areas of black—ash, surely—and by the natural combustibility of the straw with which the picture plane is luxuriantly strewn. Nuremberg’s third incarnation, of course, the one now instantly summoned up by its name alone (which Kiefer has scrawled across the top of the canvas) was as the site of the war tribunal before which Nazism was finally called to account. Kiefer asks in his painting that we look evenly upon all three Nurembergs, all three Germanies. To wish them reconciled or differently weighted, one against the other, is, he implies, to betray both the true terribilità of history and the civilization it purports to represent.

An idea so keenly couched, a painting so agonizingly poised: it is easy to feel rebuked by Kiefer’s strength of purpose. (Indeed, he has spoken in interviews of the despair he felt while making the work of this period.) And yet anyone proposing to address the important questions, in a work of art or otherwise, must sooner or later arrive at the same precipice: How are we to understand history, civilization, catastrophe? We can never be done answering. So the jolt of recognition I felt when I first laid eyes on Nürnberg was in part collegial. My own work as a novelist has for some time now been directed, however modestly, at these same intractable questions.

Because nothing about art, whether visual or literary, is as indispensable as its capacity to deliver otherwise intolerable truths. “Art is amoral,” writes John Banville, “whether we accept this or not; it does not take sides.” A person can know this with perfect clarity and still be astonished at the harshness of the beauty implicitly portended. “The finest fictions,” Banville concludes, “are cold at heart.”

Ted Mooney