Born in Donaueschingen, a medieval town where a confluence between two points of the Danube meets in Southwest Germany, Anselm Kiefer was born into a world best by fear, silence and rubble. History often frames an individual’s development of artistic themes, and being born in a small German town almost completely destroyed during the year of his birth signals a narrative that Kiefer’s work has depicted since the 1970’s-what to make of living in a society that already been destroyed in your own lifetime? The treatment of the consequences Nazi Germany had on ordinary citizens during the Third Reich era and the subsequent silence and non-reaction in the aftermath of the war has lead Kiefer in his work to visually and viscerally recount images of totalitarianism, destruction and the myths that inspired these realities. In this sense, Kiefer engages with history by assuming a narrative in his work that confronts memories of the knowledge of the human catastrophe that engulfed Germany’s darkest modern period, a narrative that has won Kiefer considerable amounts of claim and controversy.
Kiefer originally trained with acclaimed German sculptor and theorist Joseph Beuys in the 1970’s, and his work first drew criticism for his self-portraits which featured him making the Nazi salute while surrounded by an otherwise pastoral German landscape. The thinking behind these paintings was that Kiefer was at least depicting a practice that was once mandatory, but by then written out of history because of its associations with the Holocaust. Kiefer then developed in his work a speculative narrative of the lack of depiction of the Holocaust in German society. Inspired by Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” and German mythology, Kiefer began painting with materials that included dead flowers, ash, metal and discarded children’s clothing to depict “afterimages” of the Holocaust, images that alluded to the memory of the genocide without explicitly depicting scenes of suffering or violence. When faced with Kiefer’s massive “Lilith At The Red Sea” (1990) at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof this summer I recognized the effect that Kiefer wishes to instill : his work powerfully reflects and repression inherent in Germany’s post-war silence over the Holocaust.
What I find the most interesting aspects of Kiefer’s work is that he creates a sense of renewal of imagery with work that can too quickly be described as deteriorating or iconoclastic, mere representations of the destructive outcomes of the past. As Kiefer states , he does not merely recreate ruins in his work , but points a way to the re-interpretation of his artworks as images that anticipate way forward, rather than as relics of a darker past : “A ruin is not a catastrophe. It is the moment when things can start again.” This renewal out of destruction recalls Kiefer’s own experience of coming of age in a ruined society, in a community that despite being haunted by a past it dared not face up to but also never stopped anticipating a way forward, out of the rubble.