I was introduced to the work of German painter, sculptor and installation artist, Anselm Kiefer in college, but when I first saw Burning Rods several years later at the St. Louis Art Museum, I was completely and utterly awestruck. Awestruck and enamored. Kiefer instantly became my favorite artist, and I spent the rest of my time there grinning stupidly at it. In fact, the nice guard had to ask me, firmly, to leave at closing time. Since then, I’ve come to see him as one of the most innovative artists of our time. It’s difficult to comprehend Kiefer’s work without standing before it. Even film fails to capture the full scope of it. First of all, there is the sheer monolithic scale, but it also has a quality of such visceral earthiness that resonates with our most primal attributes.Kiefer’s use of materials like ash, straw, lead, sand, hair, cement and sunflowers are not arbitrary. Nor is his imagery. Each landscape, every visual element in every work carries meaning for him. There are volumes written about his work by authors much more knowledgable and qualified than me, and many more will be written, I’m sure, but I’ll venture to throw in my two cents. What I love most about Kiefer’s work—conceptually—is that he is unafraid to plunge headlong into the taboo waters of the past to tell us about who we are now. Drawing on the same history, geography, and mythology that was misappropriated by Hitler’s Nazi regime, Kiefer has created monumental works that supersede culture and nationality to confront us all with our nationalistic tendencies toward xenophobia and jingoism. At the same time, he somehow manages to reclaim and redeem these bits of German culture, showing us the beauty of the symbols. Really, looking at Kiefer’s work alongside history is a study of that part of human nature that bends and twists what is good into something evil.
Born in 1945, Kiefer was inspired and tutored by postwar German sculptor and performance artist, Joseph Beuys. While he stands alongside other postwar German artists in terms of stature, he is differentiated in his relationship to Germany’s past. Michael Prodger sums it up nicely in his excellent article in The Guardian:
Kiefer’s Germanness is different from Richter, Baselitz and Polke’s; they are of a slightly older generation and from the Protestant east of Germany rather than Kiefer’s Catholic west. Unlike his peers, Kiefer has no personal memories of the war but only of its aftermath. He is a child of the rubble and of the national silence about Hitler’s atrocities that settled on Germany after 1945. It was here that he formulated his idea that “creation and destruction are one and the same”. Whatever else is going on in his pictures and sculptures, history is always present.
It was this “national silence” that Kiefer sought to confront in his photographic performance, Occupations. In these carefully staged photographs, published in 1975, Kiefer is seen wearing his father’s army uniform and standing in various landscapes and famous buildings. What is shocking and confronting about these photos is that he is giving the Nazi salute—which consequently was made illegal in 1945. As Prodger says, “It was his way of forcing his fellow Germans to confront the past rather than ignore it.” Many of his fellow Germans denounced Kiefer along with his work, heaping accusations of Neo-Nazism and fascism on him.
The question this raises for me is this: What if I were as bold as that? What if the art I created was so confronting that people reacted that way? What if “making art that sells” were not the main concern? Not that it is, honestly. But when I see hastily made art with little thought behind it being sold for thousands of dollars, well . . . . Let’s just say I’m guilty of wanting a little of that kind of recognition. But at what cost? There is much in society and in my own national history that I cannot reconcile with my faith in Christ. Will I take that bold step, and forget about recognition and money and be completely, 100% honest about what I believe? Can I truly sing the words to Be Thou My Vision:
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise! Thou mine Inheritance, now and always: Thou and Thou only, first in my heart. High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
Please, God, show me how.
For more on Kiefer, I would highly recommend the articles linked above as a good starting point.