“There are some people whose creativity verges on the demonic. And he is one of those.”-Simon Schama on Anselm Kiefer
Encountering Anselm Kiefer’s work for the first time is like stumbling upon a massive hidden archeological treasure trove. Something catches your eye. Some visual element of the work attracts you. As you dig further, you uncover layers of paint, straw, earth, ash, and objects encrusted in the paint. You unearth layers of ideas, references to historical, mythological and cosmological stories, events, and concepts. Kiefer’s work descends, opening into subterranean caverns of meaning, but it also expands outward, creating a global network of connections and references across many pieces; themes recur, grow, and resonate amongst his various creations.
Born into the rubble of post-war, catholic West Germany, Kiefer grew up playing amidst the ruins of damaged cities. He seems to have made ruins a permanent home. He continues to embrace the damaged, to seek a destructive quality in his work, sometimes leaving canvases outside, exposed to sun and rain. Such exposure may improve them, he says. Kiefer often uses natural elements—dried sunflowers, straw, earth and ash are among his favorites—causing many of his paintings to be in a perpetual state of disintegration.
“I like things in movement,” he explains in a recent documentary from the BBC directed by Jack Cocker and presented by Alan Yentob. “I don’t like them static. I like that they surprise me. If it would collapse,” he says of one of the many buildings he created around his studio near Barjac, France, “it would be a wonderful surprise.”
Part of Kiefer’s ability to embrace and even encourage the destruction of his own work comes from his understanding that construction and destruction are part of the same inevitable cycle, giving rise to one another in succession. Rubble and ruin are the birthplace of the new.
“In the cosmos, it’s always construction, demolition, reconstruction.”-Anselm Kiefer
Kiefer even keeps the scraps and refuse created during the production of his work because, he explains in the documentary, “when a star explodes, the material is later recomposed into something else, perhaps another star.”
Often described as a kind of modern history painter, Kiefer applies this creative potential of destruction to history itself, using history as a kind of “clay” which he (or anyone for that matter) can mold and manipulate. Kiefer challenges our relationship to and understanding of past events and stories, paying particular attention to the Holocaust. His work is a kind of forced reckoning with a dark past.
Sometimes this forced reckoning can cause Kiefer’s work to seem confrontational. Early in his career, he created a series of self-portraits in which he was shown giving the Nazi salute in various locations throughout western Europe. The project later prompted accusations of Neo-Naizism.
Even when he is not directly addressing Germany’s sordid past, the sheer scale of Kiefer’s paintings and sculptures make his work imposing and often overwhelming. There is a kind of temerity in the way Kiefer spreads his imagination and intellect over the landscape, especially at Barjac, the location of an old silk factory which he purchased along with the surrounding land in order to turn it into a kind of studio/exhibition space/laboratory/massive art piece.
The sheer size and expansiveness of not only Barjac but most of Kiefer’s work makes it imposing, intellectually confrontational, and unavoidable. And yet it does not hold its own ground. It crumbles, it disintegrates; his paintings run off into the distance where all assertions they might make dwindle down to a suggestion.
His work is an imposition, itself imposed upon by the greater and inescapable forces of time and change.
Time paints inevitable changes onto any artist’s work. Kiefer understands this and uses it to his advantage. Recently, he has begun using lead and other base metals on his canvases, submerging them into electrical baths in order to, “accelerate the time”. “This is what the alchemists do,” he explains, “what happens in nature, they accelerate. My paintings go on very often to change. They get green or red over time.”
Just as dried out giant sunflowers appear over and over again as kind of motif, lead appears in much of Kiefer’s work.
“Lead is such a charged material. It’s poisonous. It’s base material. It’s alchemical. And Kiefer loves all of that. I think he likes the fact that it’s contaminated. You know, the contamination of history by various regimes is something he has explored. I think the fact that a lot of the books are made of lead; the literal interpretation of the weight of history, that still reverberates.”-Tim Marlow, art historian.
Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future is a good introduction to Kiefer’s work. Once you have a feel for him as an artist, I suggest taking the time to watch Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, (also available now on Netflix) by director Sophie Fiennes. It is an artistic and fitting response to Kiefer’s work, but it may be harder to follow unless you already know and appreciate Kiefer. And if you don’t already, you should.
“You could be seduced to think that art could redeem the world. It cannot.”-Anselm Kiefer.
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