Anselm’s alchemy

Published 22 September 2014

Throughout his career, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has confronted the weight of the past and the power of myth on a monumental scale. As the RA stages a major retrospective, Martin Gayford chronicles the extraordinary vision and transformative force of this colossus of contemporary art.

  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Walking down a hillside in the foothills of the Cévennes, we come across a group of massive towers. Multi-storeyed, irregular, almost tottering, these look at once old and new. The material they are made from – cast concrete – gives them the appearance of a contemporary shanty town or some haphazard industrial structure. Their form and presence, silhouetted against the clear southern French sky, suggest the architecture of Dante’s Italy or medieval Greece.

    These extraordinary objects – it is hard to know whether to call them sculpture, architecture or installation – are among the landmarks of La Ribaute, the estate near the town of Barjac on which the German artist Anselm Kiefer Hon RA has created perhaps the most ambitious and complex work of art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At La Ribaute’s centre is a disused silk factory, a rambling building in vernacular stone architecture containing a house and workshop. Around this, however, has accreted what can only be described as a Mediterranean landscape strewn with contemporary art spaces. The long, winding drive is lined with some 50 individual pavilions, each containing a group of paintings, sculptures or installations. Other works are housed in a maze of underground tunnels, and in glass structures of Kiefer’s own invention – part greenhouses, part vitrines.

    Just in scale, what Kiefer has done at Barjac is daunting. A day is scarcely sufficient to see everything. Asked how his retrospective at the RA would relate to this gesamtkunstwerk – this total work of art – at Barjac, Kiefer replied, “It will be a concentration of all this.”

  • Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012

    Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Charles Duprat

  • When Kathleen Soriano, curator of the RA’s exhibition, first visited Kiefer’s studio, she found the experience overwhelming, but by her third visit she felt more reassured, because she had grasped that all of Kiefer’s works were connected.

    All of Kiefer’s art, she says, is concerned with “a handful of issues, themes, stories that he is constantly revisiting; at the heart of it are ideas about cosmology, the connection between heaven and earth”. Thus everything Kiefer makes is part of a whole that is always in the process of evolving. “He isn’t someone who thinks about time being linear,” as Soriano puts it. “He thinks about it being cyclical and everything being connected.” On the May morning when I saw those towers, Kiefer told me he had woken up with the idea for a new building in his mind, and an intuitive feeling – on which he did not elaborate – about what he would put inside it.

    Change and decay are built into his art, in the way that planned obsolescence was a feature of American cars. His paintings often contain materials that are bound to mutate: straw, lead that once flowed like a sluggish liquid. Some of his recent works were given a final touch by electrolysis – they were placed in a chemical bath with a cathode and an anode so that copper was deposited on its lead, which in turn became part of the surface of the painting. The copper turned green, but – and this was the point that delighted Kiefer – alterations carried on occurring. People who bought these works, he told me with glee, would have to be told that in six months they would have a different picture.

    Two of Kiefer’s towers, entitled Jericho, were exhibited in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in 2007. Around the towers at Barjac is strewn the wreckage of similar mini-Babels that have come tumbling down. I asked his studio manager, Waltraud Forelli, whether Kiefer minded when his works collapsed in this way. “Oh no,” she replied, “Anselm loves it when they do that!” Rubble, indeed, is one of his favoured materials. In a glass gallery space nearby lies a lead battleship, perhaps 12 feet long, having foundered on the waves of a sea of smashed concrete.

  • Detail from Kiefer’s book work 'For Jean Genet', 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute

    Detail from Kiefer’s book work 'For Jean Genet', 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute

    Hall Collection. Photo Hall Collection. © Anselm Kiefer

  • Ruins, as a matter of fact, were exactly where Kiefer started. He was born on 8 March 1945, just two months before V.E day. His arrival in the world therefore corresponded with the beginning of the postwar era; and – equally relevant to his development as an artist – he grew up among the debris of saturation bombing. A few years ago, he told me how he had been powerfully affected by that beginning. “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.”

    This is Kiefer’s fundamental beginning, aesthetically and emotionally: his life started after a cataclysm. Unlike a German artist of a slightly older generation, Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who has memories of growing up in the Nazi era, Kiefer knew only the aftermath: a world which had been shattered by high explosives, and a society in which the immediate past was mentioned as little as possible because it held terrible secrets.

    Unearthing that hidden past was one of his first undertakings as an artist. In the ‘Occupations’ series of 1968-69, he was photographed in various places in France, Italy and Switzerland performing the Nazi salute, as seen in his book work For Jean Genet. At the time – and for some people still – it was an outrageous (and illegal) thing to do. When work, including these images, was submitted for his degree at Freiburg School of Fine Arts, some on the jury were appalled. But the point of this extreme gesture was, of course, not to extol Nazism, but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it. Only by doing so, he felt, would it be possible to reclaim the past – to start building again from the ruins. This was no doubt why the young Kiefer was supported by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a leading figure in German art of the 1960s whose works, which took forms including sculpture and painting but centred around performances, often examined ideas of rebirth.

    Beuys was an occasional mentor of Kiefer’s, though not a formal teacher. Kiefer remembers how, as a young artist, he would take work to show to the older man. “I was working in the forest and I would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my VW Beetle and drive to Du?sseldorf to show him.” Of all the major postwar German artists, including Richter, Georg Baselitz Hon RA and Sigmar Polke, it is Beuys to whom Kiefer is closest. A profound interest in ritual and metaphysics is something Kiefer has in common with Beuys, as well as a deep sense of German Romantic heritage, in literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. There is also a stylistic similarity between Beuys’s works on paper and Kiefer’s delicate and intimate watercolours, such as Winter Landscape (1970) – a counterpart to his massive paintings, sculptures and installations.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape

    Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970.

    © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • The artists also shared a ritualistic feeling for materials. Again and again in his art Beuys used felt and fat, both materials that are connected with a personal myth about his healing after being injured in an air crash during the war. In Kiefer’s case the signature substances, as well as lead and straw, include concrete and sunflowers. In his case, too, there are probably biographical associations. His affinity with concrete, for example, is perhaps the result not only of the pulverised townscapes of postwar Germany but also of a formative stay at the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, outside Lyon, designed by Le Corbusier during the 1950s in starkly moulded concrete. There, Soriano notes, he was affected by “the combination of spirituality and scholarship that he saw in the monks”.

    Kiefer is both spiritual and extremely well read, as well as unexpectedly jolly. A conversation with him might begin with medieval philosophy, and progress, via alchemy, to architecture. In origin, he is a Catholic, from Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, near the border with France and Switzerland (in contrast to Richter and Baselitz, who come from the Protestant north-east, almost another country from southern Germany). You could not, he told me, “imagine anywhere more Catholic” as Donaueschingen. He was an altar boy: “I’ve forgotten a lot of the poems I learned by heart but I still know the mass in Latin.”

    As befits someone who once assisted at the mystery of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine become the body of Christ, Kiefer has a metaphysical approach to materials. No doubt he relishes lead for its physical attributes: its enormous weight and sombre matt-grey surface. But he likes it as much for its metaphorical qualities. As Soriano explains: “Lead is the basest of materials but also it is changeable. If you heat it up, it bubbles, it is constantly in flux. Above all, to Kiefer’s mind, there’s its weight: he considers it the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.”

    Kiefer uses lead paradoxically. He makes it into the kinds of objects you would least employ it for from a practical point of view: aeroplanes too heavy to fly, boats that would immediately sink, books whose pages would require huge effort to turn. At the entrance to the Royal Academy exhibition will stand a new sculpture, incarnating this paradox: lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013).

  • Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds

    Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013.

    Lead, metal, wood and plaster. 325 x 474 x 150 cm. Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • In alchemy, lead was to be transmuted into gold, and Kiefer is intensely interested in alchemy – he admires the writings of the Jacobean English astrologer, cosmologist, cabbalist and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). His work, especially in the last two decades, has been fed by deep interests in many esoteric traditions, such as the Jewish Cabbala and ancient Egyptian religion. Just as Soriano felt overwhelmed by the volume of art in his studios, one can feel as if one is drowning in references and allusions when one reads about Kiefer’s work. But – this is a crucial point – it is not necessary to decode all those layers of meaning in order to appreciate his art. They are all compressed into a visual experience; you can just look, and sense the complexities.

    Kiefer also has a deep interest in poetry. He has said that when he “looks inside himself he finds poetry”, yet he thinks in images. Indeed, he is haunted by the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-70), whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. Celan’s poem Death Fugue (1948) gives the titles and themes to Kiefer’s paintings Margarethe (1981) and Sulamith (1983). They refer, respectively, to a German guard and a Jewish prisoner in a death camp. Celan wrote of “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”. Each painting has their name inscribed onto the canvas. Kiefer’s works often contain words in this way and, as in these paintings, they affect the meaning of the work. Sulamith depicts the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by the architect Wilhelm Kreis. It was a grim expression of the Nazi cult of the dead transformed by Kiefer into a memorial to the victims of Nazism, as art historian Daniel Arasse put it in his 2001 monograph on the artist.

    If one wanted to find a stylistic description for the earlier phase of Kiefer’s art, in the 1970s and early ’80s, far better than Neo-expressionism – which was tried, but doesn’t fit – would be postcataclysmic romanticism. The principle theme of Kiefer’s work at this time was, Arasse concluded: “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?”

  • Anselm Kiefer, Nothung

    Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973.

    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer depicted, for example, a path through a forest merging with a railway line leading to the concentration camps. He painted the forests that had been a place of refuge and also fear for his family during the final stages of the war. He also painted primitive halls of wood, often based on his own studio in the upper storey of an old school house in the town of Buchen. In one, Nothung (1973), the magical sword of the mythical hero Siegfried sprouts from the floorboards. Others in the series were executed in a sinister, shamanistic combination of oil paint and blood. This attic, as Soriano says, was “a theatre, a space in which he could act out history”.

    A number of works took as their settings the starkly severe neoclassical monuments of Nazi architecture. Interior (1981) depicts the mosaic room in the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, and virtually destroyed in 1945. In the foreground, flames flicker. Such paintings have the melancholy grandeur of the masters of 19th century German art and architecture – painter of northern landscapes Caspar David Friedrich, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect of Berlin – but are overlaid with a much darker mood. The vanished Nazi buildings, destroyed in or after the war, reappear like sombre ghosts, witnesses to a terrible history. Such paintings have a spectral, sinister magnificence.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis

    Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis, 1985-87.

    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Fire, destructive and transformative, was a presence in Kiefer’s work at this time. The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975), one of his many book works, documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.

    The ultimate purpose of Kiefer’s art in the 1970s and ’80s, Arasse argued, was “to perform an act of mourning for the whole of German culture and all of its finest and most ancient works”. But, he continued, the changes that took place in Kiefer’s work during the 1990s “seem to imply that the time of mourning is over”.

    In 1992, Kiefer moved to France and began to work at Barjac. From being an artist preoccupied by German history, he became, in the words of critic Matthew Biro, “a global artist”. He travelled the world and his art took on an international sweep. A series of works, including the earlier Osiris and Isis (1985-87), take as their central subject huge ruined pyramids of sand-coloured brick. These are based on structures he had seen in Egypt, Israel, Central America, southern India and the China of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Studio Anselm Kiefer, Croissy, 2014

    Studio Anselm Kiefer, Croissy, 2014

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer

  • Kiefer’s preoccupation with starry skies and sunflowers is both cosmographical and a response to his new environment in the south of France. Barjac, after all, is not far from Arles, where Van Gogh painted both the flowers and the sky at night. When Kiefer depicts wheat fields, however, as he has in his new series of paintings, ‘Morgenthau’, some of which go on show for the first time at the RA, he has in mind not only the cycle of life and death evoked by Van Gogh’s harvests with their yellow corn and black funereal crows. He is also thinking of the Morgenthau Plan, named after the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr, and proposed late in 1944 (around the time when Kiefer was conceived). Morgenthau’s idea was that after the war Germany should not just be demilitarised, but also deindustrialised, transformed into a peaceful bread basket: the European equivalent of the Prairies.

    This quixotic, historical might-have-been both amuses and inspires Kiefer. It also demonstrates that, no matter how far he ranges in time and space, in some way he remains rooted in his beginnings: the end of the Second World War and the start of the new era in which we are still living. A large space at Barjac is also devoted to work based on this scheme. It is an installation: a plantation of grain in the centre of the room, the ears gilded with gold-leaf and – nestling in the middle – a serpent.

  • Anselm Kiefer is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.

    Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.



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