Anselm Kiefer: A Monograph
by dominique baqué
thames & hudson, 300 pages, $70
In 2009 I visited the old Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, formerly one of the main train terminals, converted some years prior into a museum of contemporary art. At that time the museum’s collection was divided into two major exhibits, one dominated by the sculptures and film work of Joseph Beuys (best known, perhaps, for his performance Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt—worth looking up), the other dominated by the monumental lead and paint constructions of Anselm Kiefer. The contrast between Beuys and Kiefer, no doubt unintended by the curators, holds up as a way of capturing the distinctive genius of the latter.
Beuys’s work is dominated by suggestions of injury, uncleanness, alienation, and trauma. He casts himself as a prophet or shaman shouting curses and oracles at an unreceptive society. With Beuys the act of artistic communication is generally violent and pragmatic—the artist as activist. Beuys strikes out against the contemporary world, protests bad politicians, lives out in performative allegories the distortions of modern life.
Kiefer’s work, by contrast, exemplifies the post-War German therapy of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “coming to terms with the past.” Haunting references to the Holocaust are paired with ragged images of German landscapes. In one cycle of paintings, Kiefer uses woodcut-like portraits of German philosophers as a frame encircling a bonfire, with the caption “The Paths of Worldly Wisdom.” But while Kiefer’s work is saturated with such images and allusions, the context and texture always transcend the reminders of guilt and suffering. The stars that signify the millions killed also seem to draw us into contemplation. They speak just as much of the unending value of the human soul, the vastness of time, and the permanence of the heavens.
Kiefer’s settings often lead us to think about transience and the infinite. Most of his landscapes draw the eye toward a shadowy but luminous vanishing point. The thick paint tends to crumble from the canvas over time, and is sometimes mixed with thistles, hay, or mud. Using symbolic figures and sparse quotations, Kiefer invokes Scripture, themes from German literature, and Kabbalistic symbolism, drawing the mind into an awareness that the full meaning of what we see has not yet been revealed.
It’s a kind of beautiful apocalypticism that I most enjoy about Kiefer’s work. His megalithic sculptures (the tower built for his Grand Palais exhibition, the giant palm tree at the Tate Modern) are mostly boring, because they lack this effect. But if one takes an afternoon to see one of his paintings (say, Böhmen liegt am Meer at New York’s Met), one can have a rare experience of awe. In the best of his work, Kiefer combines desolation, beauty, sadness, and nostalgia—it’s something like the visual equivalent of a Bruckner symphony. It’s an experience worth having, not just for the edifying opportunity to behold something lovely, but because—like the best sorts of beauty—Kiefer’s art draws us into an awareness of the more which lingers behind all material forms.
In any case, if one cannot visit a Kiefer painting at one’s local art museum, this monograph is a reasonably good substitute for the experience. It includes a variety of good prints, three four-panel fold-outs, and a survey of the major points of his career to date. Consider buying the book, but also keep an eye out for his work the next time you visit a museum.
Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.
Photo by Justin Brendel.