There are some people out there who feel that art has a healing quality, whether it be for the artist or the audience, this can be through a series of techniques working from art therapy to the exploration of taboo subjects. Anselm Kiefer definitely works to the latter. His art uses a series of combined themes and images which explore some very tragic historical events.
Born in 1945 Kiefer was bought up in the devastation that World War II left his birth place of Donaueschingen. The city had been heavily bombed and this would have had an impact to his very early formative years as well as how those around him reacted to the end of the war and their rebuilding efforts. In 1951 the family moved to Ottersdorf and Kiefer attending a public school.
In 1965, he started studies in pre-law, but eventually switched to studying art under Peter Dreher. Kiefer received a degree in art in 1969.
Kiefer’s style falls under the classification of neo-expressionism. This was a direct reaction to the minimalistic movement and conceptual artworks of the 1970s. This movement displays recognisable objects, such as the human body, but in violently emotional way. It can often be abstract and can use vivid or conflicting colours, which helps to display the emotions felt by the artist.
Kiefer’s work explores German history and guilt. It is well-known for being heavy in subject and created on large, imposing canvases or spaces which make it feel that it is the elephant in the room. It is hard to explain Kiefer’s work in a nutshell because it uses spiritual influences drawn from mythology and theology, as well as exploring a culture’s dark past, and incorporating names of either influential historical people or places as sigils within his work. With this in mind, I am going to give you a whistle-stop tour of a few pieces so that you can get a feel for his work, as this is simply the best way to understand this deeply complex artist.
This is a piece which easily leads the audience on a spiritual journey. The canvas for this piece stands nearly 3 metres high, but approx. 1.5 metres wide, making the journey overwhelming and almost confrontational. The materials that have been used are clay, ash, chalk, iron, cotton and linen dresses. It should be noted here that a lot of Kiefer’s work uses multimedia to create a sculptured look, often using iron, which requires walls to be reinforced for his work to be displayed.
What the audience sees here is 9 dresses moving in a cyclical motion, representing the 9 orders of angels, which is referred to in writing by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite which date back to around 650 – 725. The texts refer to a “celestial hierarchy” and describes the orders, each layer a protective barrier between Earth and the Heavens. The text can be found in both early Jewish and Christian traditions.
Initially, it does look as though the angels within the piece are fleeing away from the Earth, and something beneath them, looks almost volcanic, making the land looked scorched and barren, as though some great catastrophe has happened. Look closer and you will note that two of the angels appear to be heading back downwards, although it isn’t clear if this is a wilful action or something they have been directed to do. It also isn’t clear what the devastating event could have been, but this could potentially be the casting out of the garden of Eden to the barren lands after man’s original sin, or a battlefield, or perhaps the fire-stricken lands of German as they burned the lands towards the end of World War II.
The canvas feels desolate and ominous, yet there is an undeniable beauty from the burned and ashen view. Audiences can see liberation as the angels travel through the landscape of the artwork, giving a sense of hope and that renewal is possible after tragedy. Kiefer interweaves a sense of space and time into the piece, with what can be viewed as the past, present and future moving simultaneously through the angels. They are moving in one direction and different directions all at once, the build-up of the different materials representing multiple histories being created at one time, an idea which is relevant in the destruction that was seen across Europe during World War II. The feeling that places and buildings could contain multiple events during the war each leading different sides to their own conclusions on the histories written, the layers of mediums representing the simultaneous actions happening at once, and the breaks within the medium showing the passage of time and the scars of the events.
This piece to me, presents an ethereal and spiritual piece, laid over a tragic past, which stirs emotions of joy that there is a chance of rebirth, yet sadness and fear of what has passed.
Kiefer feels that art should be difficult to digest, presenting its viewers with a conundrum to decipher as through questioning the art will assist with healing and finding your own answers to the horror which have been before.
The Order of the Night is no exception, created from emulsion, shellac and acrylic on canvas, this piece stands over 3.5 metres tall and 4.5 metres wide. While tipping his cap to Van Gogh’s sunflowers, these are much less inviting and colourful as they loom over a body lay on the ground. The heads of the flowers feel intimidating in their massive dimensions, and the plants look withered and charred, coming from a dry and cracked ground. It is not clear if the man is dead or just laying on the ground in this picture, but to me I am more inclined to feel that the man has died, reflecting the dry and cracked land. This plays to a mythology of creation happening from suffering (Aphrodite was created from the mutilation of Uranus), the man’s body will feed the land to create fields of flowers for the future. This thought echoes the fallen men during war and how the field has recovered, but the memories remain.
The artwork itself has again been layered with thick paint, which has cracked and flaked adding to the atmosphere of the painting, and continuing the ongoing theme of layers of material creating a passage of time in the story of the paintings.
There is an abundance of Kiefer’s work that I could write about, all with deep and powerful meanings, as he works in the mediums of painting, photography and sculpture, but what can’t be ignored is his work with lead. Kiefer sees himself as an alchemist, and lead is one of the elements alchemists use to act as the base metal that can achieve a higher state adding a depth of flux to his work.
The Language of the Birds is an exceptionally symbolic and mesmerising piece. It is a pile of books made from lead, inlaid with other metals, and wings spreading behind them. There is so much here that this sculpture could portray to the viewer. My initial reaction was to think of the book burnings that happened during World War II, thousands of books were burned for their information never to be seen, much like these lead books which can never be opened, the wings feel like the symbol of the Third Reich Eagle looming over the knowledge that shall never be known.
On a second look, I felt that this was more like a phoenix rising from the tragic history, but had feelings of history only ever being written by the victors, therefore these books were the ones recorded by the losing side, set aside, baring their wrong-doings but never to be delved into for fear of opening up old wounds. This sculpture for me is one that is so heavy with meaning that I would need to write a book on it just to fully investigate and appreciate it, which is exactly Kiefer’s intention, as he wants his audiences to find something new and challenging in his work on every viewing.
Kiefer has been dubbed as one of the most inventive, serious and thought-provoking artists alive, and it is not hard to see why. His body of works spans over many different eras, yet manages to keep an ongoing theme from his own roots growing up in the ashes of World War II. He has almost a childlike approach to his work, as he pours, burns and batters his canvases, not really knowing exactly how the end result will look, but like the alchemist he claims to be experiments to present something which combines numerous elements to present an image which is ethereal on a scientific level.