Two current exhibits in Paris are celebrating the German artist, Anselm Kiefer. One exhibit being at Beaubourg where, among others, quite moving canvases from his youth are exhibited and those which—in my opinion—are more poetic are shown at the BNF.
Anselm Keifer was born in 1945, the year of the Third Reich’s fall after a war which one can never forget, omnipresent as it was, a dreadful war which profoundly affected Kiefer and a war which he now wears as an indelible mark. As a child, he discovered the war through a disk produced by the Americans. It was on that disk that he had heard Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels—he learned this disk by heart.
Kiefer’s discovery of the Holocaust was a terrible shock. He did not plan to be a German artist and thus asked himself this existential question: how can one paint after the Shoah? The artist set himself to the task of reinventing everything, such as did the poet Paul Celan who would reinvent a whole language Anselm Kiefer realized the importance of his responsibility as an artist and would undertake the work of remembrance as well as taking head-on the “German history” as he had interpreted it by thinking outside of the constraints of German academic thought. “My idea of time is that the more we turn back toward the past, the more we move toward the future. It’s a doubly contradictory movement which stretches time…”
A student of Fine Arts, Keifer took the stage, slipping on his father’s officer’s boots and photographing himself throughout Europe doing the Nazi salute. Obviously his gesture was very poorly perceived, and yet it was through this attitude that he wanted to show that from then on he would take hold of his own history. He wanted to break Germany of its silence and repression of its past. And so, as a young artist, Keifer decided that what had been erased must resurface—he thus launched into combat against oblivion. A complex, and quite difficult, German word translated this work on memory and connections to the immediate history: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” This German word designates the ways in which the past is managed: it is formed by the words Vergangenheit (past) and Bewältigung (the action of overcoming something). For this task, Anselm Kiefer became an alchemist and invented specific techniques, using lead, ash, clay, straw, and sand—these works are simultaneously paintings as well as sculptures of poetry. “There is already spirit in the material”
–Anselm Kiefer >>Image<< Anselm Kiefer – Centre Pompidou ©Thegazeofaparisienne
Anselm Kiefer rewrites the myths: one of which I discovered in his works where the palette was held by fiery ropes, evoking his fragile position as a painter, the stairs being the connection between earth and sky, the forest with a central, yet very distant vanishing point, the snake as a possible symbol for an angel—the “seraph”—trying to move towards the sky on the stairway leading to a closed door. Albert Speer’s architecture, revived from its ashes, the Third Reich’s Chancellery room shining anew at least from a distance, though close up it is no more than tears, destruction, and ruins which can be seen by the viewer upon approaching the work.
Destruction and reconstruction, life and death, assembly and disassembly, heaven and earth–all are recurring themes in the artist’s work. Keifer himself seems to me to be at the same time so strong yet also so fragile. I was impressed by this titanic work that he undertook, the innumerable rolls of film that he unwound under our eyes in this two-story lead building installed at the Centre Pompidou. From the top of the building we could spot some stagnant water on the ground. I didn’t know what to think, these works have the power to chill us yet at the same time fill us with wonder. “Steigend, steigend, sinke nieder. (“Rise, rise, descend.”). This title comes from a citation of Goethe’s Faust, while he was descending from the mothers’ homes. I pasted all of the photos I took since I had taken photos on lead strips. Like in the movies, but it’s paradoxical because a film’s raison d’être is to be transparent, to let the light pass so as to be projected. Pasted on the lead, these images are no longer viewable, visible. It’s the exhibition of my life because these are photos that I took throughout my entire life, thousands of photos. And yet I hide them, it’s hide-and-seek.”
Photography has become more and more important to Kiefer; he has comprised an enormous amount of archives which he has put into context by creating works of art. Anselm Kiefer falls into the category of archivist artists, a theme broached by Phillippe Dagen. Hungry for knowledge, Kiefer would go on to read the sacred texts of Judaism, the religion of the Book par excellence, of the Talmud, of the Kabbale. These themes of Jewish mysticism would ultimately come into the foreground, like Adam’s first wife Lilith, a murderous and domineering woman who appears as a black shadow above a town. In this way, books provide both chemistry as well as therapy. During the 1990s, Kiefer traveled from ancient Babylon to the land of Palestine and Israel, which he photographed. These places also inspired the painting called “Osiris und Isis.”
And then, color returns: in flowers which make one think of Van Gogh’s fields, but also of Baudelaire’s poetry, the “Fleurs du mal.” Kiefer declared that he would have liked to be a poet and by default had become a painter. Anselm Kiefer is a big romantic, and he proves it in his homage to Madame de Stael, a woman of brilliant words who, while on a journey with Benjamin Constant, wrote De l’Allemagne which enunciated romanticism. With this she painted a portrait of the German soul, candid and sentimental, opposed to cold rationalism and the conquering of the French spirit. Anselm Kiefer, who lives and creates in France, thus chose a mythical figure. Her story is an original, famous Franco-German misunderstanding which lives on with the well-known Louvre exhibit, “De l’Allemagne.” In the last room which is specially dedicated to the artist, he imagined a three-dimensional installation of headstone mushrooms with the names of German romantics (mushrooms because these intellectuals had had a taste for artificial paradise). Yet as always Kiefer directs us, as would an orchestra conductor, where he wants, and I imagine to Madame de Stael’s appeasement. I found myself in front of a bed with a machine gun and a cover made from lead with, for a name, weike meinhoff!
“However, when I am stretched in this yoga position, it is in connection with Buddhism with the feeling of being engulfed into nature which reshapes itself. You die, your corpse degrades into nature and nourishes the trees. It’s more linked to the question of biological cycles, to the history of the stars, yes that’s it, the history of the stars.”
Books are essential for Kiefer and, as with his photos, he has comprised an enormous amount of archives which he has put into position by creating works of art. The BNF (National Library of France) is displaying his book sculptures, which he produced and staged himself. It is an ideal library where documents, paintings, and writings all combine. The gigantic pages sprawl out in front of us, and the bookshelves present their lead bindings, burned sunflowers leave the page and settle in bouquets, and the forest in the background becomes a showcase for the book. But it is also the book all in ashes whose content has disappeared and which sustains this mystery with the idea that, in Jewish tradition, knowledge is reserved to certain insiders and is only accessible through hermeneutics. The book symbolizes the knowledge and the memory that is presented such as a god in his temple. It is also the book in ashes, which is reminiscent of the Nazi authorities’ actions as soon as Hitler had taken power, burning synagogues on the Night of Broken Glass (November 9th, 1938). It is above all reminiscent of the Shoah, the genocide and the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis. Anselm Kiefer is an artist of the Book.
Florence Briat Soulie
Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College ’16
Centre Pompidou : L’évènement Anselm Kiefer – 16 décembre 2015 – 18 avril 2016
BNF : L’alchimie du livre – 20 octobre 2015 – 7 février 2016