In 1969, a former law student exhibited a series of photographs of himself called "Occupations." By "occupations," he did not mean trade or vocation, but something that his intended German audience would find very provocative and loaded with associations as radioactive as Plutonium.
Anselm Kiefer photographed himself at a number of locations around Europe wearing riding pants, boots, and making the notorious Hitlergruss. A lot of these locations had associations in German history and national identity. The picture above shows the artist with his back to us saluting the sea, alluding to any number of German Romantic images.
Audiences were shocked and outraged by these photos. These were only the opening salvo in a long artistic career dedicated to reclaiming German history and mythic identity after almost 3 decades of denial. This was a project Kiefer inherited from his mentor, the performance artist, Joseph Beuys. Beuys presented himself as a kind of shaman and exorcist, conjuring and banishing the ghosts of Germany's past. Kiefer would take this project much further, and make it even more provocative by calling into question much of the legacy of artistic modernism.
In the early 60s, Germans commonly referred to 1945 as "ground zero," a fundamental break in their history, and that everything since was a new beginning. It was common in those days to describe Nazism and its exploitation of German national myth as an aberration never to be repeated. In all fairness, I'm not sure Germany could have been rebuilt without such a concept, in its own way that view was as self-serving and false, and yet as necessary, as DeGaulle persuading the French that they were "victors" in the Second World War. Neither France nor Germany could have rebuilt without those constructed historical narratives. And yet, those narratives complicated life so much for the generations that came along after post war reconstruction was complete.
Artists like Beuys and Kiefer wanted to reclaim the authentic German national history complete with all of its tragedy and crime. That history was something to be faced and to be claimed. Both wanted to do so by resurrecting German national mythology exploited and contaminated by the Nazis: "blood and soil," Hermann and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the Nibelungen, the great primeval German forest, pioneers of German national identity in the Enlightenment and in the Romantic movement. All of that found itself tragically bound up with Jewish history, self identity, and mysticism in Kiefer's historical vision.
Anselm Kiefer, Inneraum (Inner Space), 1981
This painting is based on photographs of the Mosaic Hall of the Reichs Chancellry designed and built by Albert Speer for Hitler. Kiefer reconstructs it as a dark blasted interior. In the center of the floor is something which resembles traditional images of the Burning Bush. The actual room was close to the center of power in Nazi Germany and designed to recall something like a temple sanctuary with the door to Hitler's offices and personal quarters designed to deliberately recall a kind of entrance to a holy of holies. Kiefer recalls the former power of Speer's deliberate blasphemy, and turns it inside out. The room becomes no longer the proximity to the seat of power, but to the seat of guilt and complicity in a massive crime.
The painting also radically rejects modern form. Since the work of Cezanne, the floor plane in painting turned ever upward until it became parallel with the picture frame. The reality of the flat surface of the picture always asserts itself in modern painting, always subverting whatever imagery appears upon it, always reminding us of the fiction of painting. Kiefer knocks out the picture plane and lays it flat on a floor once again. Here, linear perspective unapologetically returns. The intellectual distancing of form and irony that characterizes modern painting is replaced by passionate engagement. Kiefer suggests (as did another predecessor Max Beckmann) that there are aspects of life, and especially modern life, for which the intellectual distancing of modern art is inadequate.
Anselm Kiefer, Varus, 1976
This painting from the mid 1970s announced Kiefer's engagement with German mythic identity in ways that made his German audience extremely uncomfortable. This painting is named after a Roman general defeated by the German tribes in the Teutoburg Forest in a military disaster described by Tacitus in his Germania. A deserter from the Roman Army, a former general named Arminius (Hermann), a German who returned to his people, led the German forces that destroyed the Roman legions in the forest. Varus fell on his sword after seeing most of his men massacred. For the Romans, this was a terrible humiliation that had to be avenged. They would spend 3 centuries of very bloody and frustrating military campaigns trying to turn that defeat into victory.
Since this text by Tacitus was rediscovered by German scholars in the 15th century, the battle played a central role in how the Germans have understood themselves, as an indigenous people tied to a specific landscape, with a kind of mystical bond to their part of the earth, of superior martial and moral virtue, assaulted by the forces of corrupt cosmopolitanism. German national leaders from Ulrich Von Hutten to Luther to Bismarck to Hitler saw themselves made into incarnations of the ancient Hermann (Heinrich Himmler's SS troops scoured libraries throughout occupied Italy looking for ancient copies of Tacitus' Germania).
Kiefer based his picture on a famous painting of German nationalism by Caspar David Friedrich recalling the recent war against Napoleon's occupation of Germany, The Chasseur in the Forest. In that painting, a lost French soldier wanders ever deeper into the winter woods, along a path to his doom. Kiefer gets rid of the soldier and concentrates on the winter forest. Like Inneraum, this painting uses linear perspective with a deep recession into space, taking us all down to that forest path of doom and defeat rather than the French soldier. The name "Varus" is written in black across the snow. Barely visible on the white snow, Kiefer writes the name of Herman and his wife Imelda on the snow. Kiefer inscribes in the branches the names of major figures in the creation of German national identity; the poets Hölderlin and Klopstock, the philosopher Fichte, the theologian Schleiermacher, and an architect of German military power, General Von Schliessen. Their names appear in the branches transforming the forest into a kind of doomed hall of fame. Red points with running paint, recalling bullet wounds, punctuate the snow. These call to mind not only the massacred Romans but a lot of other massacres perpetrated by the Germans in forests. The path at the end leads to a dead end in the trees.
Anselm Kiefer, Shulamith, 1983
This is another painting based on Nazi architecture, in this case for a proposed memorial for the war dead that remained unbuilt. Kiefer transforms this imagined monument to Germany's war dead into a massive painted monument to those who died at German hands, in particular the Jewish people. The title comes from the Song of Solomon, the traditional name of the Beloved in that poem. The title may also refer to the group of German religious painters in the early 19th century called The Nazarenes. Two of their members, Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck created the story of Shulamith and Maria as an allegory of the harmony between Old and New Testaments, between German and Classical cultures, and their own friendship. Kiefer turns that quaint allegorical friendship into a tragic historical entanglement of two peoples each with an embattled national identity. Kiefer turns a memorial into a vast painted indictment of a massive criminal act. The huge vaults are blackened by fire. We seem to be inside a giant furnace. In the distance at the end of the hall burn seven flames, a reference to the Menorah and to the Seven Spirits of God in Jewish mysticism.
Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis, 1985 - 1987
And there is this painting which is not from German mythology, but from Egypt, from history's oldest surviving death and resurrection myth. If you look closely, the huge pyramid dominating the painting is made up, not of stone blocks, but of massive books. Pieces of broken ceramic are scattered across the face of the painting, each piece connected to a copper wire which joins them all to a circuit panel at the top of the picture. Kiefer incorporates the actual debris of modernity into his work, but he is much closer in spirit to the haunted evocations of Kurt Schwitters than to the disengaged cool of Robert Rauschenberg. This is a very modern technological interpretation of an ancient story, not just of death and resurrection, but dismemberment and reintegration that certainly has national, but also transnational implications.
Anselm Kiefer remains a deeply divisive and controversial figure in Germany. Some accuse him of embracing the very fascism he excoriates in his work. More right wing critics accuse him of wallowing in a paralyzing national guilt. Both his admirers and his detractors describe his work as "Wagnerian," and indeed it is. His paintings are large and their imagery is deliberately stagey and theatrical, "epic."
Anselm Kiefer makes paintings about myth for a very literal-minded age that is not so much opposed to myth as just very bad at it. We make myths all the time, just as much as in ancient times. Except our myths are so very shallow and manipulative, intended to direct human action to a desired result (higher profits) and nothing more. Public relations consultants, advertising agents, and politicos are our myth-makers, the direct descendants of ancient bards singing epics to warriors gathered around campfires. Every new product must be made into something as wondrous and desirable as The Holy Grail. Every candidate for public office has to be made into someone heroic or even messianic. The problem with myth in our time is that ours is an age that doesn't really believe in anything beyond what's written on a price tag. We dismiss the very possibility of meaning. Despite the gods we all declare that we believe in (or not), Mammon is the jealous god who commands our true allegiance, the one that really makes the miracles and works the magic. Myth is certainly possible in such a culture, but it's not going to satisfy much except the most basic needs and childish wishes.
The USA certainly has its own very problematic national mythology, which its inhabitants are deeply reluctant to face. What makes things worse is that our country is caught between two warring fanaticisms, the God crazy and the God hating. Both of those battling camps have a lot in common. For example, both are very literal-minded. Both are completely stone deaf to the language of metaphor and symbol. Both are implacably opposed to the very idea of myth. And yet, both of those very myth-hating camps, the religious and anti-religious, are the most vulnerable to the dangerous enchantments of myth, precisely because they are both so literal minded, and cannot distinguish between the meaning and the symbol. The God crazy certainly have their mythology; the Santa Claus God, American Jeezus, and America, God's Own Country. But the God haters have theirs, everything from the Marxist Leninist Apocalypse to John Galt.
Kiefer is abundantly aware of the power and peril of myth. Its power resides in its poetry, its ability to make the quotidian seem filled with wonder and magic, the poetic power of myth to engage the passions and the imagination as well as the intellect. The brew is always intoxicating and sometimes can be poison.
Anselm Kiefer, Nero Paints, 1974
In this painting, Kiefer paints a burnt out landscape dominated by a torched field. A forest and village burn in the background. In the center of the painting is bright fiery red and yellow outline of an artist's palette and brushes. Both Nero and Hitler had ambitions as artists. They both attempted to realize their visions in the flesh and blood of actual human beings, and upon the earth itself, and very nearly destroyed both. The artist as tyrant, fortunately over worlds of paint and canvas. Myth is at its most dangerous when it is set over and opposite the quotidian world we inhabit. So many mythographers have come to grief down through time. Controversies and accusations of antisemitism continue to haunt the posthumous reputations of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade.
Perhaps myth is like love, an inexplicable madness that can lead us to crime and destruction, and yet without it, creation would be impossible and life would be unbearable. It is something that may well be integral to our nature as human beings. We don't need myth to explain life to us, but maybe we do need it to make it bearable. Myths are the stories people live by. In that light, their literal reality is simply beside the point. Did the average ancient Egyptian believe that a giant scarab beetle literally pushed the sun up over the eastern horizon every morning? I seriously doubt it. But the daily resurrection that image describes certainly commanded her deepest belief.
Perhaps my favorite insight about myth comes not from any great mythographer, but from from the decidedly prosaic political philosopher and historian Hannah Arrendt: "The best live by legend, the average live by ideology, and the worst live by conspiracy theories."
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is described in Tacitus' Annales, not in the Germania. German nationalists since the 15th century prized the Germania because it is a geographic and ethnographic study of ancient Germany. Tacitus was a senator during the reigns of the Flavian emperors into the reign of Trajan. He probably had republican sympathies. He pointedly contrasts the martial virtue and moral simplicity of people he considered to be wild barbarians with the sophisticated corruption of imperial Rome.
Thanks to Robert for pointing this out.