Anselm Kiefer

Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

Is Anselm Kiefer the most German of all German painters today? Or is it only the outer shell of his work, its subject matter, which circles obsessively around the links between painting and the patrimony of German culture, that makes him appear so? This most comprehensive survey of Kiefer’s work to date, running from the early ’70s to the present and traveling from Düsseldorf to Paris and Jerusalem, ended with recent paintings in which, judging by the titles at least, the artist has left the sphere of German myth, or has at least joined it with that of the Orient. For the most part, however, one is reminded of King Ludwig of Bavaria and of Richard Wagner, who showed something similar to Kiefer’s aims in their plans for a triumphant cultural revival. This dream of grandeur lies with an ever-growing weight of pathos on Kiefer’s work.

Kiefer’s development, though neither smooth nor easy, has been consistent. As if in remembrance, grave and temple, death and hearth, wing and snake alternate in his iconography as self-reflexive embodiments of his efforts to come to terms with painting. Two ideas are essential to an understanding of Kiefer: that of painting as painting, as a kind of ritual activity, and that of painting as conveyor of the content of tradition and the national cultural heritage. Every fiber, every particle of material in Kiefer’s works is simultaneously a painterly medium and a vehicle loaded with personal, mythic, and historical meaning: straw is the relic of earth and harvest, threatened by fire, and, when cast as Margarethe’s hair, the stuff of Teutonic myth; sand is the sand of the Brandenburg marches, where the writer Theodor Fontane once wandered and where Kiefer now seeks the spirit of the earlier artist; birds’ wings are wounded nature, or emblems of the free flight that is also boldly symbolized in these heavily ballasted paintings by an airborne palette.

One can travel the same path in the opposite direction, from the bearers of meaning to the materials of painting, or to the iconic code of reflection on painting. The image of the “painter’s grave” appears in different variations which relate to and merge with that of the “painter’s studio” and of the unspecified “bunker,” in a complex that is among the most revealing leitmotifs in Kiefer’s work. Resumtio, 1974, shows a winged palette, crowned with a delicate shimmer of light, rising above or out of a grave. One of the hardest and most concentrated of all Kiefer’s works, the painting lightens its muddy coloring of white and black with a delicate blue, which signifies artistic hope; the entangled motifs of death and liberation here aim deep at the central problems of Kiefer’s oeuvre. Malerei der verbrannten Erde (Painting of the scorched earth, 1974) shows the white contours of a palette above a burning landscape, and clearly but equivocally raises the question of the power of the painter and of art in the situation following the conflagration of the German cultural community during the Nazi period.

Kiefer’s paintings definitively open up the hornets’ nest of German repression of history, and this achievement must be stressed. Yet to reduce the work to such a “politicum” will not do. Between bunker and floating palette, between scorched earth and Wagnerian temple for the unification of art, between the catastrophic end of culture and the great creative vision, the painter battles for the life of painting, for art’s resurrection. Kiefer’s rude break with avant-garde purity (“pure” painting), his fixation with rooting up the buried past, his provocative mixture of sacred and taboo in imagery and media—all seek to emerge from a burning chaos into a purified spirituality, into a catharsis of the grand but guilt-laden myth, so that creativity and humanity may rise again after the immolation of the earth. Painting is sick because culture has been wounded, and not only in Germany. Yet culture holds out the only promise of salvation. Can healing perhaps lie in the feverish duel among its material, emotional, and analytical potentials? In the representative selection of this exhibition, these questions push to the fore. The “unknown painter” who appears in Kiefer’s work is a vision—and perhaps is also Hitler, but there is more lying in that bunker than a historical reference. Painting/art itself lies there, and the fire that consumed it can also liberate it.

Yet isn’t Kiefer’s powerful analysis of the deadly elements in German culture outweighed by the pleasure one takes in the heavy pathos of his paintings? It’s impossible to escape the painterly intensity of these works. Yet at the same time, uneasiness gathers. The undertow of Kiefer’s cultic sites drowns spiritual or esthetic distance. The emotionality, the monumentality, the gloomy pleasures of the flaming hearth in the close, vaulted rooms congeal Kiefer’s subtle ambivalence into a theatrical shudder of horror.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.