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Anselm Kiefer
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Wikipedia About Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer (born March 8, 1945) is a German painter and sculptor. He studied with Joseph Beuys and Peter Dreher during the 1970s. His works incorporate materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac. The poems of Paul Celan have played a role in developing Kiefer’s themes of German history and the horror of the Holocaust, as have the spiritual concepts of Kabbalah. In his entire body of work, Kiefer argues with the past and addresses taboo and controversial issues from recent history. Themes from Nazi rule are particularly reflected in his work; for instance, the painting “Margarethe” (oil and straw on canvas) was inspired by Paul Celan’s well-known poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”). His works are characterised by a dull/musty, nearly depressive, destructive style and are often done in large scale formats. In most of his works, the use of photography as an output surface is prevalent and earth and other raw materials of nature are often incorporated. It is also characteristic of his work to find signatures and/or names of people of historical importance, legendary figures or places particularly pregnant with history. All of these are encoded sigils through which Kiefer seeks to process the past; this has resulted in his work being linked with a style called “New Symbolism. ” Kiefer has lived and worked in France since 1991. Since 2008, he has lived and worked primarily in Paris and in Alcácer do Sal, Portugal. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Anselm Kiefer, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Born in Germany the year World War II ended, Anselm Kiefer probably could not help but be burdened by the weight of history. He studied art in Karlsruhe, then in Düsseldorf, where he met Joseph Beuys, whose abiding concern lay in exploring and teaching art’s potential for healing and reparation. Kiefer chose painting as his primary mode of expression and expanded the medium by combining profound subject matter with eccentric materials such as straw, shellac, and lead, and unusual processes like open-air aging. Although his interest does not lie in reviving classical history painting, Kiefer’s works approach that genre from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in their grand physical scale, topicality, and astounding visual and material effects.1 His paintings contain no landscapes peopled by perfectly proportioned anthropomorphic gods and godly humans. Instead, his settings are scorched earth or dimly lit sepulchers, with human beings all but evacuated. History is a dark cavern of the subconscious, inscribed with ruination and mourning, leading to even deeper labyrinths of archetypal mythologies.

From the very beginning of his artistic career, Kiefer has investigated what it means to be German and to be an artist in the tabula rasa left by National Socialism, which had confiscated visual imagery in toto. In Occupation (1969), an early photographic series done in a conceptualist vein, he took pictures of himself making the Sieg Heil gesture against the backdrop of historical monuments or expansive landscapes at different locations in Europe. In subsequent bodies of works in the 1970s and early 1980s, he persistently analyzed the question of what constitutes Germanness by exploring subjects such as the Nibelungen and other Wagnerian legends, “the tree and forest” mythology, Albert Speer’s Nazi architectural monuments, and the figures of Margarete and Shulamite from Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfuge” (“Death fugue”).2 In the early 1980s, the artist began to delve into a more eclectic mix—the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, the Norse myth of Edda, the Book of Exodus, and Egyptian mythology.

In the mid-1980s, biblical themes and medieval mysticism became especially prominent in Kiefer’s vision, and both paintings in the Walker Art Center’s collection are products of this change. Die Ordnung der Engel (The Hierarchy of Angels) (1985–1987) is based on the description of “celestial hierarchy” by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.3 The title is inscribed above the horizon, drawn close to the upper edge of the painting in what appears to be sea foam or clouds. Across the horizontal expanse of the dark gray and earth-toned canvas, nine rocks of curdled lead are hung with wires at varying heights, each one identified, with a tag, as one of the nine orders of the celestial hierarchy. An airplane propeller cuts across the top, as if sending the ranks of angels flying across the landscape. The propeller, a familiar motif in Kiefer’s work, is meant as “an object moving through history and time in a spiral motion, finally arriving on the surface of his painting.”4Emanation (1984–1986), by contrast, is a vertically elongated canvas. The horizon is placed in the lower section of the canvas, creating an ominous firmament stacked on top of a forbidding sea. The column of molten lead almost completely bisecting the painting refers to, among other sources, the description in the Bible of how God led the Israelites through the wilderness: “By day in a pillar of cloud … and by night in a pillar of fire” (Exod.13:21). Both the notion of emanation and the hierarchy of heavenly beings are features of medieval Jewish mysticism, inherited from the Neoplatonic philosophy of early Christian thinkers.5

German critic Andreas Huyssen, refusing to accept that Kiefer’s paintings transcend history via myth, writes: “Kiefer’s work can be read as a sustained reflection on how mythic images function in history, how myth can never escape history, and how history in turn has to rely on mythic images.”6 While Kiefer would certainly see his art as a resolute working-through of a disastrous history, not as an apology for or glorification of it, it is difficult to deny that his art generates an experience of transcendence, even if that means a descent into the bowels of the human spirit where nobility and charity, violence and rage, play equal parts.

  1. Occupying the highest position in the academic hierarchy of genres in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, history painting—also known as the grand genre—found its subjects in mythological, historical, literary, or allegorical themes. It ranked above all other types of painting—portraiture and landscape, for instance—as it was intended to edify the mind rather than merely please the eye.

  2. Andreas Huyssen succinctly inventories these different ingredients of German civilization explored in Kiefer’s art in his essay “Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth,” October 48 (Spring 1989): 29. Paul Celan’s poem was written in 1945 while he was in a concentration camp and published in 1952. It is reprinted in full in Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), 95–96.

  3. Dionysius the Areopagite is the first-century Athenian who was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul. The story is narrated in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:34). The author of The Celestial Hierarchy, however, was a fifth- or sixth-century philosopher who impersonated the original Dionysius and is thus called “Pseudo-Dionysius.” See The Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition, 2001). In another painting of the same title—currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago—Kiefer inscribes the philosopher’s name, intentionally misspelling Areopagite as “Aeropagite.” Rosenthal suggests that Kiefer draws a connection between the prefix “aero,” which relates to air, aerial, and celestial, and angels and airplanes. See Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, 137.

  4. Ibid., 137.

  5. In his correspondence with Martin Friedman dated September 1989, Kiefer identifies the Bible, the Kabbalah, and the Babylonian Talmud as the painting’s textual sources (Walker Art Center Archives).

  6. Huyssen, “The Terror of History,” 27.

Chong, Doryun. “Anselm Kiefer.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center