Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Anselm KIEFER, Resurrexit, 1973, 290 X 180, collection particulière

Anselm KIEFER, Sulamith, 1983, 290 X 375, collection particulière.

Anselm KIEFER, Tes cheveux d'or Margarethe, 1981, 130 X 170

Lait noir du petit matin nous le buvons au soir
Nous le buvons au midi et au matin nous le buvons à la nuit
Nous buvons et buvons
À la pelle nous creusons une tombe dans les airs là on gît non serré
Un homme habite dans la maison celui-ci joue avec les serpents celui-ci écrit
Celui-ci écrit quand vers l'Allemagne le noir tombe tes cheveux d'or Margarete
Il écrit cela et marche au-dehors et les étoiles fulgurent
Il siffle ses molosses
Il siffle pour faire sortir ses juifs les laissant à la pelle creuser une tombe dans la terre
Il nous commande jouez jusqu'à la danse
Lait noir du petit matin nous te buvons à la nuit
Nous te buvons au matin au midi nous te buvons au soir
Et buvons et buvons
Un homme habite dans la maison celui-ci joue avec les serpents celui-ci écrit
Celui-ci écrit quand vers l'Allemagne le noir tombe tes cheveux d'or Margarete
Tes cheveux de cendre Sulamit à la pelle nous creusons une tombe dans les airs là on gît non serré
Il crie enfoncez vos pelles plus profond dans la croûte de la terre vous autres chantez et jouez
Il se saisit du fer à sa ceinture il l'agite ses yeux sont bleus
Vous là enfoncez plus les bêches vous autres jouez encore jusqu'à la danse
Lait noir du petit matin nous te buvons à la nuit
Nous te buvons au midi et au matin nous te buvons au soir
Nous buvons et buvonsUn homme habite la maison tes cheveux d'or Margarete
tes cheveux de cendre Sulamit il joue avec les serpents
il crie jouez plus douce la mort la mort est un maître venu d'Allemagne
il crie plus sombres les violons et alors vous monterez en fumée dans l'air
alors vous aurez une tombe dans les nuages où l'on gît non serré
Lait noir du petit matin nous te buvons à la nuit
Nous te buvons au midi la mort est un maître venu d'Allemagne
Nous te buvons au soir et au matin nous buvons et buvons
Il t'atteint avec une balle de plomb il ne te rate pas
Un homme habite la maison tes cheveux d'or Margarete
Il jette ses molosses contre nous il nous offre une tombe dans l'air
Il joue avec les serpents et rêve la mort est un maître venu d'Allemagne
Tes cheveux d'or Margarete
Tes cheveux de cendre Sulamit

Paul CELAN, Fugue de mort


Donald KUSPIT au sujet d'Anselm KIEFER,

Extrait du chapitre 8 (« Conflicting and Conflicted Identities: The Confusion of Self and Society: The Eighth Decade ») de A CRITICAL HISTORY OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

Adorno once wrote that "Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death," adding that "absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone." The basic form of this negativity is "the indifference of each individual life that is the direction of history": "the individual has nothing but this self that has become indifferent." Nonetheless, "perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems."(4) Adorno had previously written, with a certain bitter irony: "Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."(5) This is like saying that to make love because there is death in the world is unethical. It also unwittingly implies that poetry must become a barbaric scream -- Whitman’s "barbaric yawp?" -- to be authentic. Only suffering is authentically human, and only its expression -- as intense and unsettling as suffering itself -- is artistically valid. In 1895, writing Strindberg, Gauguin noted "the conflict between your civilization and my barbarism. Civilization from which you suffer; barbarism which is for me a rejuvenation."(6) It seems that after the barbarism of Auschwitz became public in 1945 poetry had to become barbaric again -- as barbaric as civilization had shown itself to be -- to rejuvenate itself. Art had to deal with annihilation to be genuinely creative. Paradoxically, the enemy of creativity became its only source. Adorno seems to be calling for the revival of Expressionism, with its "screaming images,"(7) as the only authentic art. Kiefer’s expressionistic pictures answer the call, illustrating Adorno’s ironical dialectic of poetry and barbarism: their black surface is the indifference -- and seductiveness -- of absolute negativity in plain sight, and his imagery, much of it dealing, however obliquely, with the barbarism of the Holocaust (Kiefer tends to associate the destruction of the Jews with the self-destruction of Germany, as though their fates were inseparable) -- is nonetheless poetry: tragic poetry.

It is epic poetry with many bizarrely lyric passages of raw texture. Kiefer’s works are at once sweeping and intimate, theatrical and passionate, melancholy and sardonic, visionary and ironic, excruciating and ecstatic, ruthless and perverse. They are secular altarpieces -- mystical and social allegories, indeed, plays about the German mystery -- dealing with heaven and hell, juxtaposed in uneasy balance, suggesting their perverse relationship. Thus the wooden staircase to the closed door of heaven rises from the dead German forest in the ironical Resurrexit (1973). Similarly, the wood of the sacred space of Father, Son, Holy Ghost (also 1973) is cut from the leafless trees of the forest beneath it. Raw wood’s vivid grain, with its gestural complexity and evocative power -- it suggests the unconscious energy of self-reflexive automatism -- has been a staple of Expressionism since the woodcuts of Munch and Nolde. Kiefer is a modernist historical painter -- a critical commentator on modern Germany nationalism, using the field painting as a battlefield, a mock sublime space in which death alone triumphs. It is the battlefield after the battle is over, its barrenness -- more gruesome than the twisted bodies in Otto Dix’s trenches -- emblematic of inhumanity. Absence haunts Kiefer’s paintings, stalking the field in search of human presence. But there is none. The few figures that appear in Kiefer’s pictures are scarecrows in all but name, for they represent ideas rather than suffering. With the victims of history dead and buried in the morbid German soil, only the gleanings of thought remain.

Blackness is the absence of light, and while there is light in Kiefer’s paintings -- he is the holy Man in the Forest (1971), holding a dead branch miraculously unconsumed by the fire that envelops it, flames rise from the ghostly wooden chairs in Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and rows of torches line the walls of the great wooden hall in Germany’s Spiritual Heroes (1973) -- it is not exactly the light that brings life. Indeed, the green of organic life rarely makes an appearance in Kiefer’s works. The best that we can hope for are the dried leaves that symbolize the Women of the Revolution (1986). Each pathetic leaf, on its twig, is in a memorial frame, and each frame is, implicitly, a page of the book in which the leaves are pressed. There are more frames than leaves, suggesting that the memory of the women has faded. They have become the ash of oblivion, as the gloomy grayness -- sometimes haunted by ghostly light, indeed, the ghostly afterglow of vanished light -- suggests. As everlasting as blackness, this archetypal German grayness appears again and again in Kiefer’s art, especially in his brutally charred books. They allude to the burning of books by the Nazis, symbolizing their anti-intellectualism and ruthless censorship. Indeed, the burning of the books was a prelude to the burning of the bodies of the people of the book, the Jews. It signaled the systematic slaughter -- organized murder -- of anyone whose existence contradicted the Nazi myth of Aryan purity. Anyone deemed alien was exterminated as though to deny that they had ever existed. Individuality was automatically alien -- nonconformist -- in the Nazi world of mass conformity and emotional homogeneity. Kiefer’s works enact Nazi nihilism, and, more subtly, connect it with Germany’s vision of the nothingness of individual existence implicit in its philosophical infatuation with the vast empty spaces of the sublime. His art conveys the sublime scale of Nazi inhumanity, ironically revealing its metaphysical import, that is, the metaphysical grandeur of mass extermination.

Clearly Kiefer’s smoky light is not the light of reason -- of liberating enlightenment -- nor is it the eternal flame, however much it sanctifies the dead, suggesting their immortality by lighting the way to the underworld. For Kiefer’s light is deeply informed by darkness, suggesting its inherent ambiguity, and uncertainty about whether darkness or light will prevail. It is never a pure, convincing light, but a light contaminated by demiurgic forces that are as eternal as it is. It is a light whose flaming up may be a flickering out -- the last efflorescence of a fading ideal. Faith, Hope, Love (1976) makes the point clearly: the cardinal virtues grow in shadowy soil, their luminous appearance tainted by it. It is not clear whether they are crawling with black expressionistic snakes or glowing with fresh life. They are stuck on the boundary between life and death. Similarly the dry yellow straw that represents the luminous figures of the Meistersinger and the golden hair of the German Margarete (both series 1981) is an ironical breath of life in a field of black death. The point is decisively clear in Nuremberg (1982), where the mass of dead straw represents the ghosts of all those who paraded in the Nazi rallies that were held there. Ironically resurrected as so much chaff, they are part of the dance of death. They have realized their destiny: the rallies were a feudal spectacle of death -- a pledge of homage and fealty to death. Death was the real Nazi ideology -- death for the enemies of Nazi Germany, which unexpectedly ended with its own death, along with the loss of many good Germans. Did Kiefer realize that he was illustrating the Allied battle cry in World War II: "the only good German is a dead German?"

Kiefer is a gnostic. Germany’s life and death struggle, and its conscious commitment to death -- epitomized by the "Scorched Earth" paintings, in memory of Hitler’s scorched earth policy, the ultimate symbol of the Nazis’ devotion to death, their relentless drive towards death (declared in the skull and bones insignia on the SS officer cap and the deliberate murder of millions of Jews and Russians and other Untermenschen) -- becomes emblematic of the eternal existential struggle between spiritual illumination and blinding darkness. It is the absolute darkness in which there is no light to see, which is the state of damnation. But darkness is never complete in Kiefer’s pictures, if only because they must be seen by their own subtle light. Nonetheless, it seems clear that darkness is more likely to be victorious than light in the conflict between them, although it will never end. The tends to be tantalizing -- out of reach in the surrounding darkness -- suggesting that Kiefer is not in purgatory, however hard he tries to purge himself of his German heritage by acknowledging its horrors, but rather in a hell of history’s making.

It is worth noting that the scorched earth policy, a masculine effort to uproot life itself -- annihilate the life-giving power of Mother Earth -- extended Nazi ethnic cleansing to an absurd extreme, but ironically backfired, for cauterizing the earth rids it of dead old growth, thus preparing the way for its regeneration. For Kiefer the dialectic of degeneration and regeneration -- the wasting away and rebirth of life -- is a Gordian knot which not even the Alexandrian sword of his ambitious art can cut, however hard it tries to. It is the basic alchemical problem of his art, indeed, for Kiefer the mystery of art in general: how can -- does? -- art transform the prima materia of death (lead, impenetrable darkness, catastrophe, guilt) into the ultima materia of everlasting life (gold, pure light, resurrection, absolution), indicating that death is reversible however inevitable? Kiefer does not solve the problem, but re-thinks it in work after work, each at once manic and depressive, dynamic and deadened. With relentless curiosity, he digs up its tangled roots, only to have them disintegrate when they are exposed by art -- represented. The representation of the dialectic is itself informed by the dialectic. That is, art seems to degenerate -- exhaust itself -- in the process of regenerating life by representing it, and regenerate -- become freshly intense and imaginative -- when it represents life at its most degenerate, namely, as the living death the Nazis made it for those they conquered. Nonetheless, Kiefer shows that the confusing dialectic informs everything -- not only German history and eternal art, but the perennial conflict between nature and society, the collective and individual, civilization and barbarism (society at its best and worst, cherishing life or indifferent to it). In Kiefer’s art it is especially visible in the tension between formless, primitive expression, strangely articulate in raw texture -- a kind of absurd hieroglyph, at once oracular and perplexing, beyond interpretation yet utterly convincing -- and the abstract forms and mythic images that contain it. They brings it under the control of civilization and afford the measure of esthetic security necessary to meditate on the annihilation Kiefer represents. The spectator of Kiefer’s pictures becomes a participant observer in their tragic space, an enigmatic presence witnessing the death of Germany, apparently as enigmatic as that of Christ.

Kiefer’s Sick Art and North Cape (both 1975), picture the opposites of degeneration and regeneration. The former shows a blemished Norwegian landscape. The northern lights are misshapen pink pustules, with a sickly yellow nucleus, suggesting that the sky is diseased, perhaps even "plagued." The latter shows the same landscape with freshly bright lights -- radiant, full-bodied red corpuscles, with clear rather than distorted boundaries, self-contained rather spreading like cancer cells -- and inscribed with the handwritten words "die Kunst geht knapp nicht unter." That is, art doesn’t just disappear: the sacred lights of the aurora borealis continue to glow over the sickly black earth. (No Northern forest, dead or alive, in either picture -- we are above the timberline.) Kiefer seems to be addressing the Nazi view that avant-garde art is degenerate -- an unhealthy symptom of social as well as artistic decadence. Sick Art shows degenerate art, North Cape shows healthy, regenerated art. And a healthy Northern landscape: it was a favorite theme of Northern Romantic art (including German Expressionism) as well as German ideology, and Kiefer restores it to artistic credibility, suggesting that Romantic Germany can be rehabilitated. There is something healthy and existential in Northern nature worship, especially when it involves worshipping raw nature -- nature in which the conflicting forces of life are vivid and self-evident, and thus nature which is a revelation of the inner self. Nonetheless, Kiefer suggests that regeneration -- the revitalization of nature and art (another ironical expression of the dialectic) -- is difficult, for signs of degeneration abound in his art, as though to suggest the futility of regeneration. It is never sustained.

There is a paucity of images of unequivocal regeneration in Kiefer’s oeuvre and innumerable images of unregenerate degeneration. There are many more unhealthy art landscapes than healthy ones. One of the many paradoxes and ambivalences of Kiefer’s art is his unconscious identification with such degenerate artists as Hitler and Nero in the act of despising and mocking them. It is as though, despite himself, he envies their imperial power -- an imperious power that they perversely used for destructive purposes and that the imperious artist in Kiefer tries to put to constructive, soul-searching use. The abuse of power, squandered on delusions of grandeur, is as much a theme as fascination with its grandeur, indeed, awe at its intimidating absoluteness. Thus, in a 1969 conceptual series of photographs, Kiefer shows himself making the Hitler salute at various places the Nazis occupied. It is a mocking but also triumphant gesture, suggesting a certain pride in Hitler’s military accomplishments in the act of turning them into farce. It was in fact Hitler who was a degenerate artist, not the avant-garde artists who revealed the degeneration of humanness in modernism. The degenerate traditionality of Hitler’s youthful paintings -- they did not even get him admitted to the conservative Vienna Academy -- as well as the degenerate classicism that became the Nazi ideal makes this clear. Nonetheless, Hitler made art history as well as social history by remaking the map of Europe, as several of Kiefer’s works suggest. Nero Paints (1974) indicates that Nero, like Hitler -- the artist-emperor is symbolized by the blood-red outline of a palette that seems to map the entire field of blackened earth on which it is superimposed, becoming an ironical abstract picture within the larger realistic picture (the field has lightning-like furrows, suggestive of the Nazi Blitzkrieg; the palette’s four brushes are also ironically tipped with "spiritual" flames) -- had an artistic temperament that made destructive history, as the burning houses of imperial Germany-Rome in the background indicate.

Hitler wanted Germany to be a new thousand-year empire, like ancient Rome, and Hitler made art while Germany burned, as Nero made art while Rome burned. Indeed, both perversely regarded destructive burning as creative art, a point clearly made by Kiefer’s Painting=Burning (1974). A ghostly palette encompasses the entire terrain of a charred Germany, burned completely to death except for a lone tree. It is a more consummate image of death than Nero Paints, where a row of green trees remains on the horizon next to the burning homes. Again and again Kiefer dismantles Nazi fantasies, showing their pathology but also their real effect on history. However much Kiefer’s landscape remains diseased or dead -- however emblematic it is of the misery and nightmare of German history, writ large as an existential paradigm of world-historical trauma -- he breathes imaginative dialectical life into avant-garde as well as traditional ideas and styles that have become reified, particularly avant-garde process art as well as conceptual art and traditional history painting as well as landscape painting. Again he shows his postmodernist attempt to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. Neither sense and intellect nor history and nature are mortal enemies for him, although they are not always on the best terms. Their parallel lines meet in the infinity of Kiefer’s sublime space -- the space in which being dialectically emerges from nothingness. A masterful postmodernist, Kiefer has encyclopedic knowledge of art history, mourning for the historical art he uses while suggesting that it still has expressive potential, especially when it is put to trenchant contemporary use. Art does not commit suicide in Kiefer -- formal as well as expressive suicide -- as it does in Minimalism, but reveals the suicide that is German history, less protracted than Rome’s suicide, and more dialectical, for the Nazis committed suicide with open-eyed self-deception.

The dialectic of degeneration and regeneration -- usually unresolved -- takes many forms in Kiefer’s art, perhaps most obviously the mythic conflict, cosmic in scale (like Kiefer’s works), between the serpent Nidhoff, who appears in Resurrexit, and Yggdrasil, the tree of life with roots in hell and the kingdom of the giants -- they rule the underworld, punishing those who never repented their guilt -- exist. Both serpent and tree appear in many pictures. They are featured in the Norwegian Eddas -- a Nordic saga -- but the battle between them occurs in every cosmic myth. Before the Eddas there was the biblical tree of life around which the snake of temptation twisted, spoiling paradise. There was also the struggle between the Titans and the Olympians. The latter are victorious, but the former, imprisoned deep in the earth, threaten to rebel -- erupt in instinctive violence. Both Hebrew and Greek mythologies convey the same universal psycho-ethical conflict. It is also evident in the battle between the Christian St. George and the devilish Dragon, which Albrecht Altdorfer placed deep in the German forest. Kiefer is replaying -- restaging -- the age old, archetypal drama: a destructive dragon always gnaws at the roots of the tree of life, and Kiefer -- an artist warrior, as it were, wise to the ways of the bizarre snake and aware of the existential stakes of the battle -- tries to slay it. But the snake has already won the battle of the German forest, for all the trees are dead. This is clearly the case in the very black Varus (1976), Ways of Worldly Wisdom (1976-77) and Ways of Worldly Wisdom -- Arminius’ Battle (1977-78). All deal with the German chieftain Hermann’s famous slaughter of the legions of Varus, stopping the Roman advance into Germany. In the 19th century the mythologized event became a symbol of German nationalist pride. Like all pride it comes before the fall, as Kiefer shows, especially when it becomes brutal arrogance -- the Nazis’ will to absolute power and total dominance.

Kiefer is a latter-day Symbolist. The objects and images in his pictures are emblems of enigmatic states of mind as well as relics of historical reality. That is, like a Symbolist, he uses outer reality to express inner reality. Social history is the objective correlative of emotional truth, to use T. S. Eliot’s term. Like dreams, Kiefer’s pictures call for interpretation, and like dreams they offer cultural clues to deeply personal meanings. Perhaps nowhere is Kiefer more the symbolist than in his approach to Auschwitz. The railroad tracks that brought the Jews to Auschwitz -- I don’t know whether Kiefer has visited Auschwitz, but he probably knows the famous photograph of the tracks that lead to its entrance -- begin to appear in his work as early as 1977, where they are associated with Siberia, another huge concentration camp. Iron Road (1986) is the climactic picture: the tracks unmistakably lead into oblivion -- the negativity of death. At Auschwitz it was an everyday event -- the abnormal was normalized -- and railroad tracks are an everyday means of transportation. Again and again Kiefer shows that everyday roads lead nowhere. They disappear on the horizon, where all is lost in the unknown -- the unforeseen. All of his roads lead to the reality of Auschwitz, final proof of profound indifference to life. Even the furrows are roads to oblivion and ignorance. They march in order, obedient even in death, like good German soldiers. A road appears on the deserted Mark Heath (1974), as though there was a way out of its history -- a way to recover the Mark Brandenberg, lost to Germany forever as punishment for the sins of the Nazis. Each of the many roads in Ways: March Sand (1980) is an illusory Appian Way in a German empire that no longer exists. They disappear in the sand of time, which has run out for Germany. Each is the same road of destiny -- of futile, lonely destiny. For Germany lost credibility for all time at Auschwitz -- lost its soul. It will always be haunted and tainted by Auschwitz -- the dirty fly in its ointment, the fatal flaw in its identity, suggesting that its great music and philosophy were all in vain, glorified expressions of hubris -- even when the Nazis have faded into the past. But they will never be forgotten. They will survive as symbols of absolute darkness, which is what they have become in Kiefer’s art.

The New German Expressionism revives figuration and painting at a time they were discredited by the American version of abstraction and language art, otherwise known as conceptual art. (It begins with Duchamp, whose work incorporated language and lived in an aura of theoretical language, especially his own. He was the puppeteer of his own works, which needed to be pulled by the strings of theory to come to life.) Kiefer’s paintings contain few figures, although figures are suggested -- ghostly figures appear in a number of works, their insubstantiality confirming that the figure is more a morbid memory than a living presence -- but the figure is front and center in the works of other German artists. It is always in sharp focus, however distorted its appearance. Sometimes it is schematic and obviously symbolic, as in Penck’s so-called Standart works, at other times it is rendered with a kind of social realism, as in Immendorf’s Café Deutschland paintings, and at still other times it is weirdly and violently visceral, as in Baselitz’s pictures. From the beginning of his career, in his so-called pandemonium paintings (1961-62), his troubled, often grotesque figures, wounded yet virile, set the vigorous pace of the New German Expressionistic figuration. Baselitz revitalized the Old German Expressionistic figure by conceiving it in abstract expressionistic terms. But in his hands gestural energy conveys the pressure of history as well as emotional intensity. His figure seems to disintegrate under both inner and social pressure, even as it remains stable, solid, and intact -- a symbol of integrity as well as suffering, heroism as well as defeat. However much it is defeated by powers greater than Germany, it also suffers from German self-defeat. Baselitz’s figure is a strange mix of splendor and pathos, grandeur and ruin -- a triumphant victim, as it were, at once arrogant and self-pitying. His figures have a certain affinity with those of Francis Bacon, as well as Lucas Samaras’s Autopolaroids (1971). All are inwardly disturbed and outwardly distorted: the distortion makes the disturbance explicit. Angry and emasculated at once, they seem to tear themselves apart in the act of asserting themselves.


(4) Theodore W. Adorno, Negative Dialectic (New York: Seabury, 1973), p. 362

(5) Thedore W. Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), p. 34

(6) Quoted in Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, p. 82

(7) H. I. Schvey, Oscar Kokoschka: The Painter as Playwright (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1982), p. 7


Anselm KIEFER, Osiris et Isis, 1987, 376 X 554 X 15, San Francico, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art