Anselm Kiefer is one of the most prominent painters and sculptors associated with late 20th century Neo-Expressionism. His work unflinchingly confronts dark moments in history, particularly those of Nazism, using enormous formats, thick layers of multimedia materials in his paintings, and a vocabulary of symbols and quotations.
Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany, near the Swiss and French borders and just prior to the end of World War II. The son of an art teacher, he and his family were surrounded by signs of devastation from the war, yet it was seldom ever mentioned. As a boy, his favorite pastimes were digging tunnels in the garden to bury drawings and building small houses out of bricks from bombed buildings. These early experiences transforming ruin into something new still mark his work. He has said, “People think of ruins as the end of something, but for me they were the beginning. When you have ruins you can start again."
Despite making art throughout his early years, he chose to attend law school while pursuing painting on his own. After a time, he grew frustrated with the quality of his creative work and decided to focus on it exclusively, leaving law to attend the nearby art school in Freiburg. While the freedom was exhilarating, he didn’t begin to hit his stride until someone shared with him a record of Nazi speeches created by the U.S. military to politically re-educate Germans in the wake of the war. Shocked and horrified by what was still a taboo subject in 1960s Germany, Kiefer had found the interest that would drive his art for the next 50 years. “As an artist…it’s not enough to make art that is about art… You have to be obsessed by something that can’t come out in any other way, then the other things – the skill and technique – will follow."
Kiefer’s breakthrough work came while he was still a student. His Occupations (1969) series showed him in a sequence of black and white photo collages, dressed in his father’s army uniform in various locations around Europe, giving the Nazi salute. His professors were stunned when he presented the series as his final graduation work.
Another turning point came when Kiefer reached out to influential German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. He informally became Beuys’ student in 1970 and the two shared an affinity for seeing metaphysical qualities in materials – using them as symbols to address social and political issues. For Kiefer, lead, for example, symbolizes the quality of transience and flux, constantly changing as do people.
During the 1970s, Kiefer looked to Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas for inspiration, creating numerous paintings, watercolors, woodcuts, and books on its mythical themes, which he explored in context with Germany’s recent past. In his Siegfried vergisst Brunnhilde (Siegfried Forgets Brunnhilde) (1975), we see a bleak wintry landscape in a dense, painterly style, flecked with blood. The image of Siegfried's endless journey takes on new significance, the field nearly razed with violent, deep furrows. Through Kiefer’s lens the notion of Siegfried’s long road has lost any innocence or romance, rather recalling the railway tracks that led to Jewish death camps.
In the early 1980s, Kiefer looked to Romanian Jewish writer Paul Celan for inspiration, particularly his poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue). Celan was a survivor of the Holocaust camps who later committed suicide in 1970. In the poem, he tells of the camp prisoners drinking black milk and digging graves in the sky. Two figures are contrasted in the poem: Margarete, with her blonde Aryan hair, and Shulamite, whose dark hair denotes her Jewish origin, but which is also ash-colored from burning. Kiefer referenced the poem in more than 30 paintings, painted photographs, and watercolors, often depicting the two female characters through symbols. In Margarete (1981) the character is symbolized by yellow straw embedded in dense gray paint. Tangled areas of black paint symbolize Shulamite’s silenced presence. In other works primarily depicting Shulamite, we see the inclusion of the yellow straw as well. Keifer seems to imply that the fates of the two women are intertwined, and that Germany had essentially mutilated its own history and culture through the acts of the Holocaust.
During the 1980s, Kiefer also began depicting massive stone buildings, referencing National Socialist architecture. His painting of a huge, ravaged plaza in To the Unknown Painter (1983) refers to the outdoor courtyard of Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, designed by the Nazis in 1938 to honor the Unknown Soldier.
Kiefer’s themes progressively broadened through the decade to include more universal subjects using occult symbols, theology, and mysticism. The continuous thread is collective trauma and rebirth, with the paintings becoming more enormous, physical, and textured. By the late 1980s, he began to reference ancient Hebrew and Egyptian history, as in the large painting Osiris and Isis (1985–87) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Since 2002, Kiefer has often worked with concrete on a massive scale, while revisiting former themes in his own cyclical way. A series of precariously stacked towers made from casts of shipping containers dot the landscape around his enormous studio complex in Barjac, France. A group of paintings featuring symbol motifs (2004–6) returns to the inspiration of Paul Celan. His 2006 exhibition Velimir Chlebnikov took from the eccentric theories of the Russian futurist philosopher and poet who hypothesized that epic sea battles shift the course of history once every 317 years. In 30 paintings, Kiefer depicts dilapidated, toy-like battleships in black, white, gray, and rust orange paint, plaster, mud, and clay. The works are installed on huge corrugated steel structures that mimic the artist’s studio.
Since 2008, Kiefer has lived and worked primarily in Paris and also in Alcácer do Sal, Portugal.
Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004
oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas
75 x 130 inches
Deutschlands Geisteshelden, 1973
oil and charcoal on burlap mounted on canvas
120 1/2 x 267 3/4 inches
The Orders of the Night, 1996
Emulsion, acrylic and shellac on canvas
140.2 x 182.3 inches
Morgenthau Plan (detail), 2013
Acrylic, emulsion, oil, shellac, metal, fragments of paint, plaster, gold leaf, and sediment of electrolysis on photograph mounted on canvas
130 x 220 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches