Kiefer, Anselm (b. 1945)

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KIEFER, ANSELM (b. 1945)


German painter, sculptor, engraver, and watercolorist.

Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, Germany. He first studied law but soon turned to the visual arts and attended the Art Academy of Karlsruhe and, from 1970 to 1972, the Academy of Düsseldorf, where he worked under Josef Beuys. His large-scale paintings develop historical themes and allude to the Kabbalah and Nordic mythology, including the Song of the Nibelungen and the legends of Edda, Kyffhäuser, and Alaric. His influences are as diverse as Richard Wagner—in his Grane (1980–1993), for example—the architect Albert Speer, the poet Paul Celan, the seventeenth-century alchemist Robert Fludd, the writer Jean Genet, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the eighteenth-century poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Kiefer's paintings, sculptures, and installations are inseparable from his "books"—a form of freestanding sculpture—since Kiefer brings his subjects and representations to life by using one art form to expand on another. The repetition of themes and iconic motifs, the use of citations, and, in fact, any manner of varying or twisting the meaning, the medium, or the writing, are characteristic of Kiefer's heuristic method.

His first one-person show was at the Gallery am Kaiserplatz in Karlsruhe in 1969. The exhibition Bilder und Bücher (Pictures and books) at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1978 and his participation in the Venice Bienniale two years later won Kiefer international renown. Alongside Georg Baselitz, he exhibited a collection of books at the German pavilion under the title Verbrennen, Verholzen, Versenken, Versanden (Burn, carbonize, dump, cover with sand), as well as Deutschlands Geisteshelden (1972; Germany's spiritual heroes), Parsifal (1973), and four versions of Wege der Weltweisheit—die Hermannsschlacht (1977–1978; Ways of worldly wisdom—Arminius's battle). These works were harshly criticized because of their overly Germanic character, but such attacks demonstrate only a superficial understanding. When in 1969 Kiefer presented the series Besetzungen (Occupations) and the book Für Genet (For Genet), in which he represents himself (in a photograph, a painting, and a watercolor) in civilian and military dress, standing at attention and giving the Hitler salute, his aim was to chastise the generation of postwar Germans that was struggling to forget the Nazi period. With this transgression Kiefer was not just reminding viewers of the past but was expressing a will to mourn as a means of self-reinvention. His works undeniably link art and politics.

Kiefer is neither a Romantic, nostalgic for Germany's glorious past, nor a mystic, as some of his creations, such as Der Weltweisheit, might suggest. In fact, that work is quite the opposite. In the very conception of the work and in its realization, he presents a geological vision of the past and an archaeological view of the present. His art operates on two levels, that of the perception of the canvas and that of its comprehension, moving from the macro to the micro level, from the representation to the message. In such landscapes as Märkische Heide (1974; March heath) and such architectural representations as Dem Unbekannten Maler (1982; To the unknown painter), he unravels historical events, and, by focusing on historical sites in Nürnberg (1982; Nuremburg) and Jerusalem (1986), he sutures Germany's wounds.

In 1975 Kiefer's work underwent a technical and iconographic upheaval. He produced eight works on painted canvas, which he burned and bound together under the title Ausbrennen des landkreises Buchen (Cauterization of the rural district of Buchen). Fire, a tool of destruction, generated to a new way of painting. In confronting German cultural traditions, Kiefer developed a singularly plastic means of expression in the art world of the 1970s to 1990s.

In 1980 his technique evolved still further. He began to create assemblages and collages, introducing various materials such as ashes, tar, seeds, toys, sand, sunflowers, and sheets of lead. Paul Celan's poems, for example, provided him with an opportunity to use straw on the canvas (Margarethe, 1981). Such materials began as iconographic motifs and then gradually became components of his work serving to call representation into question. According to Daniel Arasse, a change in iconography accounts for the transformations of his palette. Indeed, Kiefer created several works using lead—Schwarze Galle (Black bile) in 1989 and Melancholia in 1991 are two examples—at a time when he had decided to distance himself from German themes to focus on alchemy (Athanor, 1988–1991) and on the Old Testament, especially Exodus (Auszug aus Ägypten; 1984, Departure from Egypt). Lead became his preferred material for creating books and bookshelves such as Zweistromland (1990; The high priestess). In 1991 Kiefer finished his 20 Jahre Einsamkeit (20 years of solitude), made up of white books and ledgers stained with sperm and etched with words written by the artist. This work looks like a summing up, with a series of reflections on the creative process inscribed on the white pages. Beginning in 1985, Kiefer produced a variety of subjects based on the Kabbalah, which find their apotheosis in the installation entitled The Breaking of the Vessels (2000), figuring a burnt library in opposition to the Kabbalistic approach to the problem of theodicy. This work represents a synthesis of the many themes and materials developed during the previous thirty years of his career.

See alsoCelan, Paul; Germany; Heidegger, Martin; Speer, Albert .


Arasse, Daniel. Anselm Kiefer. Edited by Harry N. Abrams; translated by Mary Whittall. New York, 2001.

Beeren, Wim. Anselm Kiefer: Bilder 1986–1980. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, 1986.

Rosenthal, Mark. Anselm Kiefer. Exh. cat. Chicago, 1987.

Saltzman, Lisa. Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Schütz, Sabine. Anselm Kiefer: Geschichte als Material, Arbeiten 1969–1983. Cologne, Germany, 1999.

Strasser, Catherine. Chevirat Ha-Kelim, le bris des vases: Anselm Kiefer. Paris, 2000.

Cyril Thomas