Anselm Kiefer

Helen van der Meij Gallery

This show of huge woodcuts demonstrated a continuous development in Anselm Kiefer’s work and at the same time revealed a direct use of figurative motifs: trees, a river, and monumental architecture. However direct these motifs, their meaning is multilayered, as is the use of wood on the formal level. On cut-out pieces of paper glued together in enormous collages, strong black forms in tarlike paint are pressed onto the off-white grounds. Kiefer uses the woodcut process to depict both the trees within the picture and the borders of the picture; the trees are printed with boards drenched in ink, giving a black, silhouettelike effect, whereas the borders are printed with thinly inked planks whose grain is allowed to show, giving the impression of wood frames. The image of a river, sometimes inscribed as ‘Rhein,’ recurs; here the grain motif is used for the streaming water, as if both river and woods had a common, hidden source.

Horizontal and vertical lines are strongly emphasized, as in the pre-abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian (Kiefer in fact called a 1976 painting of a tree Piet Mondrian, Hermannschlacht). This stern effect is heightened by the presence of sinister 20th-century classical buildings formed of horizontally and vertically piled stone. These are the unrealized architectural projects of Albert Speer’s teacher Troost, intended as monuments for unknown German soldiers in North Africa. Their dramatic appeal is used by Kiefer, who, in accompanying texts, turns them into “Graves for the unknown painter.”

Is Kiefer referring to the deaths of so-called “debased” Expressionist painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, driven to suicide by the very masters of culture who designed these monuments for their soldiers? Perhaps the implications are not that literal: the riverflows by as historical reality, past miragelike monuments, never built. By borrowing loaded symbols and giving them new content Kiefer creates an historical fiction in which art is considered as grave a matter as the “Struggle for National Glory” and similar glittering goals.

Formally the woodcuts are intricate. Kiefer’s tautological use of materials is typical of art since the late ’70s, when his own series on spiritual heroes of Germany originated. In these works portraits of Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others, between elongated trees, are blurred by linear patterns that also suggest the grain structure of wood. What differs from Kiefer’s earlier work, though, is the expanded use of figurative elements. The question arises whether by clarifying the image Kiefer is not at the same time blurring content in such a way that these woodcuts might be read as the glorification, not just of art, but also of other sentiments. By showing proto-Third Reich architecture he brings German history closer than he did when casting Brünhilde and Siegfried on the stage. But it is precisely this search for limits and this questioning of over-connoted forms that Kiefer seems to be aiming at. The very fragility of these woodcuts, and the loose way in which they hang, flowing, on the walls, contradict their sinister references.

Saskia Bos