Art Dictionary

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer
The Woodcuts

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ISBN 978-3-7757-4101-9
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Anselm Kiefer (*1945 in Donaueschingen) studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Freiburg im Breisgau and in Karlsruhe from 1966 to 1970 under Peter Dreher and Horst Antes. In 1970 he began working in a former schoolhouse near Buchen in the Odenwald; engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Joseph Beuys. Numerous exhibitions in Germany and abroad, including his first comprehensive solo show in 1984 at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, which was later seen at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; 1987–1989: traveling exhibition through the United States; 2014: Royal Academy of Arts, London; 2015/16: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Albertina, Vienna. 1991–1993: travels to Asia, Australia, and South America; moves his studio to the old La Ribaute silk factory in Barjac in the south of France. Adds studios in Paris and Croissy in 2007.

Woodcuts

 

“Of course, I freed the myths, I hope, from Nazi abuse. So I’ll say this: the myths are not instructions of any kind, but rather, an image of the world, an overall image, while history and science only ever give you parts of it. And the myths provide an overall picture.” (Anselm Kiefer)

 

“… subtle, miraculous works, both optically and technically. Incredible, the way that Kiefer has mastered his craft.” (Die Presse)

 

“The Germans are masters in filling empty spaces, in allowing traces of the past to disappear,” wrote Anselm Kiefer in 2013. Born at the end of the war, the German artist began pursuing the task of restoring memory in the 1970s, extensively exploring the history and mythologies of his homeland through his work.

Kiefer is mainly known for his sculptural landscapes and material-oriented paintings, but in his woodcut collages he also sought that which had been suppressed by the heavy weight of a traumatized nation’s history. In 1974 he began testing the high-pressure printing process’ specific modes of expression. Every day he produced a portrait ?of a different figure from German culture and history, each one taken from sources such as Nazi-era historical books, and then cut into lime wood. In 1976 he integrated some of these portraits into his monumental compositions, one of Kiefer’s usual processes. Often, the artist combined prints from different decades, blending them together like collages to create original works of art, which he then painted. He frequently used acrylics or shellac, giving the works a historical patina. Each print is unique; the individual woodcuts were always made by hand, never with a printing press. Occasionally, Kiefer incorporated the grain, the texture of the boards and planks into his prints, using weathered wooden slats or types of wood with particularly outstanding markings.

Anselm Kiefer’s incessant study of fatal German history and current ethical questions has made him one of the “great historical painters” of our time, as Werner Spies called him. Yet, he did not produce heroic, emotional paintings, but shifted focus to the dark spots in German history: “the tragedy Germany brought upon the world, the frailty of everything great,” as Klaus Albrecht Schröder wrote. Kiefer’s works, based on the history of the German nation, aim to raise consciousness without being accusatory. This ambiguous treatment of taboo content kindled controversy among German art critics for decades; one ignored the “porous ground,” as Kiefer called it, upon which emotion was built. At the 1980 Venice Biennial, for instance, his use of “German motifs” and his “apparently affirmative” approach to them caused such an uproar that Kiefer was labeled for years as an artist sympathetic to neo-fascist ideology, with an “overdose of the Germanic,” as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote. It was not until his work gradually gained positive recognition abroad—especially in Israel and the United States—that the artist found respect in his own country. As Kiefer was awarded numerous renowned prizes, including the World Prize (1990), the Praemium Imperiale (1999), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2008), and the Leo Baeck Medal (2011), the artist was gradually completely rehabilitated. Today, Anselm Kiefer is one of the most famous artists in the world, a “superstar on the international art scene,” as Der Spiegel called him.

Besides history and Germanic myths, Kiefer also finds inspiration in Christianity, Jewish mysticism, nature, literature, and music, blending motifs into a unique, “epic and physically compelling” world of images (quote from the jury’s declaration when he was awarded the Wolf Prize).

With the extensive series of woodcuts called Der Rhein (The Rhine), for instance, the artist began connecting Germany’s history to its myths in the early 1980s. The Rhine symbolizes German nationalism; it is surrounded by many myths and legends. Especially during the Romantic era, which was defined by a sense of nature, the Rhine was the subject of poetry and songs. Time and again, Kiefer used the medieval epic poem set on the Rhine, the Nibelungenlied, and Richard Wagner’s cycle of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (both of which were instrumentalized in Nazi propaganda) as the starting points for his works of art. Brünhilde and her horse, Grane, appear in the woodcuts, as do the Rhine Maidens Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde. At the same time, the Rhine is a border river, and for the artist, who grew up not far from the river and played amid bunkers and ruins, it became “a visible symbol that every border is an illusion,” as Antonia Hoerschelmann wrote—a very topical idea. In the speech that he gave when he received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Kiefer recalled events from his childhood: “The border, however, was fluid, not simply because a river flows, but because the river swelled in spring with the snow melt from the Alps, spreading out in all directions, moving into the old branches of the Rhine, flooding the land and filling the cellars of our houses. Where is the boundary then? Is it where the bed of the Rhine lies when it’s quiet, or is it in your basement? The border dropped by for a visit to your own home.” The artist’s subjective memories combined with Germany’s collective legacy: in Kiefer’s Rhine landscapes military installations crown two historical lines of defense, the Atlantic wall and the Maginot line. To the artist, these World War II ruins are symbols of transformation and “the most beautiful thing ever. That something new is always arising, that the old references have been eliminated, that something is in a particular interim situation.”

An early variation on his series of paintings, Wege der Weltweisheit: Die Hermannsschlacht (The Paths of World Wisdom: Hermann’s Battle), also triggered the above-mentioned debates at the 1980 Venice Biennial, as the artist circled the Nazis’ monopolization of historical figures. The large collages are based on two of Kiefer’s oversized artist’s books, which featured woodcut portraits of important characters in German cultural history. An early one, titled Wege der Weltweisheit (Paths of world wisdom), depicted personalities from the middle-class, republican circle around Gottfried Keller; and a second one, called Die Hermannsschlacht (The Battle of Teutoburg Forest), collected portraits of poets and philosophers such as Hölderlin, Eichendorff, Kant, and Heidegger. In this piece Kiefer gathered together great intellectual figures from the left- and right-wing bourgeois spectrum, ultimately pointing out how they were all misused by an inhuman ideology. “By depicting the myths within a cataclysmic political context that they themselves helped to create, he confronts his viewers with the continuing subliminal relicts of German faith in myths,” as Sabine Schütz writes.

Since the 1990s Anselm Kiefer has been expanding his sources and visual statements, supported by broad philosophical and literary references ranging from Johannes vom Kreuz to Immanuel Kant, from Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas and Pierre Corneille, all the way to Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. His study of the English Renaissance scholar Robert Fludd resulted in works that depict the artist himself in harmony with the universe, firmly convinced that “we are the membrane between the macro- and micro-cosmos.”

11.5.2016 Stefanie Gommel

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