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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Anselm Kiefer (born 1945)

Anselm Kiefer was born on March 8, 1945, in Donaueschingen, Baden-Württembürg, Germany, and raised near the east bank of the Rhine in the region of the Black Forest. Kiefer was named after the nineteenth-century classical painter Anselm Feuerbach and planned from childhood to become an artist. After studies at the university in Freiburg and the academy in Karlsruhe, he studied informally in the early 1970s with the artist Joseph Beuys on occasional visits to Düsseldorf. Before moving to Barjac, in the Languedoc region in the south of France, in 1992, Kiefer made art at home in Hornbach and then in a large converted brick factory in Buchen. He recently moved from the south of France to Paris.

The great majority of Kiefer’s works since his emergence in the late 1960s through the 1990s refer to subjects drawn from Germany and its culture: German history, myth, literature, art history, music, philosophy, topography, architecture, and folk customs, even going so far as to exploit clichés or commonplace icons—for example, Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, Goethe’s poetry, or the mythical mountain resting place of Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa, ca. 1125–1190). Either directly or by strong implication, many of these references to German culture and history also evoke the uses and misuses to which the visual and verbal propaganda of the Third Reich subjected them. As Kiefer has said in reference to this national legacy of World War II, “[A]fter the ‘misfortune,’ as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again. . . . . It’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.”

Cultural critic Andreas Huyssen, in a 1992 essay, commented on the reception of Kiefer’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, noting that the artist’s Germanness functioned very differently in the United States and Germany. While Americans have often understood Kiefer to be a sole struggler against the repression of Germany’s fascist past, Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”) has been the dominant theme in German intellectual life since the early 1960s. Kiefer’s work, begun toward the end of the decade, developed in that context. “For German critics,” Huyssen wrote, “the issue was rather how Kiefer went about dealing with this past. To them Kiefer’s deliberate strategy of opening a Pandora’s box of fascist and nationalistic imagery amounted to a kind of original sin of the post-Auschwitz era.”

In 1969, during a trip through Switzerland, France, and Italy, Kiefer staged a series of photographic self-portraits called Occupations, in which he dressed in paramilitary clothes and struck a pose that imitated Hitler in various natural and monumental settings. It was a provocative gesture that Kiefer layered with additional meanings—in one image, he is photographed from the back against the backdrop of the sea, much like a Romantic wanderer in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Three histories converge in a single photograph: the early nineteenth century, the 1930s, and the time of the work’s making in the late 1960s. For Kiefer, understanding history begins with its invocation, restaging, or excavation.

Layers of multiple histories and media are hallmarks of Kiefer’s work. He is best known for his paintings (1997.4ab), which have grown increasingly large in scale with additions of lead, broken glass, and dried flowers or plants. Their encrusted surfaces and thick layers of impasto are physical evocations of the sediments of time and meaning they convey. The subjects and themes of these large-scale pictures are developed by the artist in associated works on paper—series of sketches, watercolors, and altered or collaged photographs. These drawings develop the artist’s themes through experimentation—as preliminary or intermediary studies—and result in beautifully finished, stand-alone works of art.

Kiefer is an avid reader and deeply interested in how literature and philosophy are produced and disseminated. Since the late 1960s, in addition to paintings, drawings, and photographs, he has made a number of large-scale, unique artist books. He regards the medium of these books as something fluid, somewhat like cinema. Early examples are typically worked-over photographs; his more recent books consist of sheets of lead layered with the artist’s characteristic materials of paint, minerals, or dried plant matter. Heavy but pliant, lead has been used by Kiefer throughout his career for its various alchemical or deleterious connotations (1995.14.41). Indeed, touching and turning the pages of these later leaden volumes would expose the reader to the books’ toxic substance.

Kiefer’s interest in exploring the possibility of coming to terms with the Nazi past by transgressing postwar taboos against visual and verbal icons of the Third Reich is replete with irony. In his large-scale paintings or recent sculptures, the weight of history is viscerally palpable. The drawings, on the other hand, can appear delicately lyrical or caricatural. The photographic works in particular suggest to what extent Kiefer’s work is linked to conceptual art of the time and his interest in mockery and humor as tools of expression. They also suggest how this post-Duchampian art insists on its own built-in contradictions, which requires, by way of interpretation, the participation of the viewer.