I have always been a great admirer of Anselm Kiefer’s. I am enthralled by his inclusion of miscellaneous materials, sand, pebbles, latex, wax, grit, lead. And being also acquainted with the work of the poet Paul Celan, I felt that his enthusiasm for this poet meant that perhaps he was a kindred spirit. His large canvasses of landscapes also impressed me. They are harmonious, and impactful.
However, after attending Marcus’s Verhagen’s lecture I am not so sure.
What I gleaned from Marcus’s lecture is that Kiefer was, in fact, a conflicted individual. On the one hand he repudiated Germany’s Nazi past and on the other he was seduced by their mass spectacles and grandiose gestures.
Some of his paintings allude to Nazi salutes and although perhaps they were intended as satirical not always do the meanings intended by an artist get conveyed to the viewer and it is possible that the unintended ambiguity is a result of this conflict.
So although I would like to give Kiefer the benefit of the doubt so to speak,
I do not believe in his absolute innocence.
To give an example of this ambiguity I would like to start with a watercolour called: ‘Ice and Blood’, 1971
In the 60s Germany was conflicted between those who wanted to make a break with the past, who wanted to supress discussion about the war and the Third Reich, and wanted a policy of normalisation and to put the past to rest. National pride and identity were admissible concerns and one could separate them from Nazism.
And then there were those who wanted to come to terms with the past and who rebelled against the silence of the post war generation. They wanted a sustained look at their recent history and ask questions such as why did so few rebel against the Nazis. For them remembering was a duty. Kiefer falls under the second category
At least he would like to. And yet for him remembering the past is not an innocent matter. As one can see from the above watercolour although he wishes to disown the visual images from the Reich, somehow exorcising the context from which they originated, the image is nevertheless disturbing. By the mere fact of reproducing the Nazi salute he is perpetuating a gesture which is now banned in Germany. If his intention was to be ironic it doesn’t necessarily follow that it can/will be perceived as such. And in the future it can be seen to represent a right wing view however erroneously.
My next image is rather less ambiguous. Kiefer went to Norway and photographed the landscape that inspired the Scandinavian Nordic sagas, or myths. These were also valued by the Nazis regarding them as a model of an ancient pan German culture. The watercolour is called ‘Sick Art’, 1975.
But here the picture is covered in sores and boils. One could see this as a protest against the Nazi appropriation of Nordic culture. This kind of landscape was considered the wellspring of a purely Germanic culture. Wagner had also taken this up and was therefore much admired by the Nazis. Nothing seemed untouched. Everything was tainted.
But the disfigurement could also be seen as a counter attack against the Nazi concept of Degenerate art which itself was an attack against the avant garde in the 1930s.
The picture is also covered in boils. This landscape is reminiscent of the work of Emil Nolde. Although Nolde had signed up to the party, probably to further his career, ironically his work was condemned and he was hounded by the Nazis, his art termed unGerman. This type of art was considered diseased, a cancer degrading German culture. Here Kiefer’s intentions are more clear. Splattering boils across the picture he is criticising both the concept and more concretely the art.
In ‘Winter Landscape’, 1970 one can further see Kiefer’s critical view of the Holocaust. In 1944 the Nobel prize winner Paul Celan wrote a famous poem called ‘Death Fugue’. This poem inspired Kiefer and he made several paintings referring to it. In it Celan speaks of prisoners who drink black milk and dig a hole in the sky. In Winter Landscape we can perhaps get an understanding
of this. The image speaks of martyrdom, of death, and possibly of resurrection.
It’s the personification of the land and war time suffering. A wasteland. It seems a response to Celan’s poem: black milk of daybreak, a grave in the clouds. It seems to allude to the mass killings of Jewish people in the concentration camps.
The poem also talks of Shulamith, and her ashen hair – the ash of the victims.
There can be no doubt of Kiefer’s condemnation of the Third Reich in this work.
In ‘Operation Sea Lion’ his criticism is acerbic. In the 1940s the Germans planned to invade Britain by sea. Even Hitler’s own naval leaders thought the plan misconceived.
We see a bathtub filled with toy boats. At one time the Nazis introduced bathtubs into many households. Beuys, Dieter Roth and others also quote zinc bathtubs in their work. Toy boats are often used in military planning. Here Kiefer is mocking the whole idea in a humorous way. But the bath also looks like a tomb and the red chairs in the background probably reference the Holy Trinity.
The Nazis always believed that they had divine support. The chairs also cast unrealistic shadows, shadows that in fact shouldn’t be there. I believe Kiefer wanted to point out how ridiculous whole the plan was.
And yet, despite being critical of the past, there is a side to Kiefer that somewhat revels in it. Perhaps it’s some kind of Stockholm Syndrome where a victim if exposed long enough to the enemy develops a psychological alliance to him. Or pehaps he is visually captivated by the grandeur of Speer’s architecture. He admits to being seduced by aspects of Nazi culture. The architecture, operas (Wagner), films (Leni Riefenstahl), torchlight parades,, the staging of the 1936 Olympics, the mass spectacles. He felt the visual had been colonised by the Nazis, an image fest of power. Perhaps it was difficult to rebel against this fascination.
Perhaps this explains the monumentality of his work, his enormous canvasses.
Here is ‘ To the Unknown Painter’, 1980 (Oil, acrylic, emulsion, aquatec, latex, straw, and shellac on canvass).
The monumental architecture clearly shows his admiration for Albert Speer’s work. And it is replicated by the monumentality of the canvass. So here we have, as at the beginning, a level of ambiguity. However, in the centre of the painting is a staff holding up a palette. Perhaps, the palette stands in the place of the persecuted artist, hounded as a degenerate. Perhaps, it’s a reference of the revolutionary practice from the middle ages of placing heads on spikes (Cromwell was). The artist as martyr.
Kiefer has come in for much criticism himself on account of these ideas. Is he airbrushing the real victims of the Nazis? Replacing the harm done to people by the harm done to art?
In his 1985 ‘Palette with Wings’, one wonders if he is hoping for the redemptive power of art?
Can the wings help us escape the history? But the wings are made of lead.
Art can’t bring redemption after all.