From the lingering drone that opens Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ to the riotous satire of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Three Penny Opera’, German culture is nothing but consistently stirring and the work of Anselm Kiefer stands at the forefront of the Germanic cultural panorama. But in the years since the Second World War, this stack or artistic riches has not always been fully acknowledged by Germany’s own people, a fact Kiefer has been instrumental in correcting.
Like many who have visited the current Royal Academy retrospective of his work, I was acquainted with Kiefer’s art, but perhaps was not aware of the breadth of his practice or the scope of his influences. Over a forty five year career he has embraced painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, woodcuts and architecture, examining universal questions of belief and meaning as he progressed with each of these disciplines.
Addressing the Nazi tyranny is another considerable plank of his work something every German artist emerging in the immediate postwar years had little choice but to consider. At the same time as producing an examination though, Kiefer has also participated in an act of reclamation, retaking the iconic fields and forests and mythological heroes of his homeland for use in his work, freeing them from the Nazi propagandists who had twisted their meaning.
The best examples of this attempt at reclamation can be seen in his ‘Occupations’ and ‘Heroic Symbols’ collections. ‘Occupations’, created for an exhibition in the late 1960s, features self portraits of the artist in his father’s World War II uniform performing the banned Nazi salute in front of historic European sites. Naturally the paintings caused outrage, but they were not devised to shock, rather to make that point that the Nazi legacy could not be cloaked in a veil of silence and forgotten about, rather it had to be approached. Kiefer made plain that his generation owned their nation’s past whether they liked it or not and willful ignorance would not be the best foundation on which to construct a new Germany.
Kiefer again slips into the guise of a Nazi in ‘Heroic Symbols’, depicting himself standing in front of statues of Roman warriors while performing a Nazi salute. As well as raising a subject that had been cloaked in a grim public silence, Kiefer also dons the uniform in order to try and reenact what his forebears did in an attempt to understand them and to try and conclude if, in their position, he would have participated in the horror.
Some have tried to label Kiefer’s work as ‘Neo-Romantic’ a title that has been challenged, but does bear some credence when one considers his often barren landscapes. In ‘Winter Landscapes’, Kiefer depicts a snowy scene, the white stained with blood that drips down from the severed head of a woman that floats ethereally over the forests and fields.
Trees figure in many of Kiefer’s landscapes, Germany being a nation where the forest is as important to its national identity as the sea is to Britain. Kiefer’s trees reference ‘Yggdrasil’ the Norse myth that depicts an immense tree of life linking all the worlds of the universe.
This mythological, almost alchemistic element, is a theme that is consistent throughout Kiefer’s practice and in the 1970s he began to examine the link between the earthly and celestial more closely. In ‘The Orders of the Night’ the artist portrays himself lying beneath huge sunflowers which embody the connection between the Earth and the sky as the flowers follow the sun. “When I look at ripe, heavy sunflowers, bending to the ground with blackened seeds,” Kiefer says, “I see the firmament and the stars.”
Kiefer was particularly inspired during this period by Robert Fludd, the Elizabethan astrologer who believed that for every plant on Earth there was a corresponding star in the sky. Fludd famously published his ‘Diagram of the Spheres’ in ‘Utriusque Cosmi’, one of the most famous occult symbols ever created. The diagram is constructed from a series of concentric spirals, each representing angels, stars and elements, which stretch downwards from God to our own terra firma. The document resembles the rings of a tree trunk, a Kiefer influence already discussed, but half circles, arcs and crescents are also recurring in his work.
The artist shows himself lying beneath an arc in one painting representing the progression of life, while in another painting Kiefer draws inspiration from the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, noting that clay writing tablets in the area were created from the same material as bricks, questioning if building bricks, like tablets, can contain the notes and memories of a lifetime. In ‘The Ages of the World’, a piece of sculpture created by Kiefer especially for this exhibition the artist presents a funeral pyre representing geological time and the history of art and culture, a totem pot-marked by meteorites and fuel, suggesting the cyclical nature of our planet’s birth, death and rebirth.
In the final gallery of the exhibition the artist turns to the primary inspiration of many German artists throughout history and the lifeblood of the country, the River Rhine. He presents the river in woodcut form and in doing so remembers the role it played in his youth when the Rhine would regularly flood the basement of his childhood home near the French border and he would wonder if the neighbouring nation had invaded his house in liquid form.
One of the most impressive elements of Kiefer’s work is that it exists at all. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in the wake of the Holocaust: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ and the quote bears testament to the challenge Kiefer faced, as a young German born just two months after Hitler’s death, when he choose self expression as his life’s work.
In his 1981 works ‘Margarethe’ and ‘Sulamith’, Kiefer attempted what Adorno had deemed impossible and approached the Holocaust in two paintings. On the two canvases of oil, acrylic and straw he depicted the mythic ideal of German womanhood Margarethe on one and Sulamith representing Jewish womanhood on the other. Margarethe and Sulamith were both referenced in Paul Celan’s poem ‘Death Fugue’, which he composed in Czernowitz, a German labour camp after his parents had been murdered by the Nazis. The poem depicts Jewish prisoners referring to the two women in a song as they dig their own graves under the watch of a blue-eyed German commandant holding a serpent in his hands. The words of the song note that the women’s hair, once beautiful, was now streaked with ash from years of war.
Kiefer unites the two in the artworks. He does not depict the women themselves but instead the Margarethe canvas references the once black hair of Sulamith with shadow curving and worming its way through the painting, while the Sulamith canvas is streaked with golden straw, a reference to the lost lustre of Margarethe’s blonde hair, the two paintings together reunifying the Germany the Nazis tore apart.
“The Germans have cut themselves off from half of their culture,” Kiefer said in response to his work, “they have disabled themselves. One thing is the Holocaust, the other this amputation of oneself. All the culture of the 1920s and thirties, in all its fields, theatre, philosophy, cinema, science etc, disappeared.” It is not too much of an overstatement to say that Anselm Kiefer began the German people’s reacquaintance with their artistic soul.
All photographs courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.