Six recurring themes in the work of Anselm Kiefer

We decode some of the mighty German artist's recurring materials and themes

© Charles Duprat


German artist Anselm Kiefer is known for portentous panoramas packed with allusions to conflict, history, poetry and religion. With the help of exhibition curator Kathleen Soriano, we unpick some of his recurring materials and themes


'Heroic Symbol V', 1970

'Heroic Symbol V', 1970 © Anselm Kiefer

War

Since the early 1970s, when he put on his father’s military uniform, jumped in his car and toured Europe, Sieg Heil-ing with abandon at major war monuments, Kiefer has unflinchingly examined the less savoury aspects of his country’s past. ‘When he was at school, they barely touched on this period in German history,’ explains Soriano. ‘He couldn’t understand why it was so ignored. But being a German artist was so tainted with everything that had gone before, he felt that unless he stood up and challenged this he would never get beyond it, so that’s what the “Heroic Symbols” paintings are all about.’ Both the Nazi salute and the German uniform were made illegal in 1945, the year Kiefer was born. ‘Heroic Symbols’ and his ‘Occupations’ books led to controversy, particularly following the 1981 Venice Biennale, where he represented West Germany.

'The Rhine (Melancholia)', 1982-2013

'The Rhine (Melancholia)', 1982-2013 © Anselm Kiefer

The Forest

Central to his work is the forest, or rather, the winterwald (winter forest). ‘It’s partly a place of refuge,’ says Soriano. ‘He was born at the very end of the war and traditionally in German towns and villages when the bombers came over people would go to the woods for safety, but at the same time it’s a place that’s loaded with threat and danger, if you think about Brothers Grimm fairytales.’ Kiefer the history buff also enjoys the resonances of ancient history in his vast paintings and prints of dense woodland. Many refer to the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in which the Roman leader Varus was defeated by a coalition of Germanic tribes.

'Black Flakes', 2006

'Black Flakes', 2006 © Anselm Kiefer

Lead

As well as the plaster, resin, oil and acrylic paint with which he creates his encrusted landscapes and roiling seascapes, Kiefer has an arsenal of materials up his sleeve, including gold, silver, wood, steel, diamonds, straw and ash. Most prominent among them is lead. ‘He uses lead because it’s the only material that’s heavy enough to carry the burden of human history,’ explains Soriano. ‘Alchemy is another thing that fascinates him and lead is the ultimate base material. He also talks about how lead is the material that’s most like us as humans – it’s constantly in flux.’ Kiefer is famous for mammoth lead books, and attaching lead models of ships, submarines and propellors to his paintings. Luckily for him, he has a stockpile of the stuff: in 1981 he bought the entire roof of Cologne cathedral when it was being replaced.

'Interior', 1981

'Interior', 1981 © Anselm Kiefer

The artist’s palette

Kiefer doesn’t use a traditional artist’s palette himself (it would need replenishing every two minuted) but it appears – painted or as an object – in his paintings and sculptures. ‘Often you’ll see a winged palette,’ says Soriano. ‘It’s a reference to the artist being present but also a reference to Icarus, who wanted to soar to another realm but, of course, because he got too close to the sun the wax melted his wings and he crashed.’

'The Orders of the Night', 1996

'The Orders of the Night', 1996 © Anselm Kiefer

Sunflowers

Kiefer is often associated with the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich but, says Soriano, ‘the one who underlies everything is Van Gogh.’ There are echoes of Vincent’s bedroom in Kiefer’s woodgrained attic studio, which features prominently in work from the mid-1970s. While Van Gogh’s crows can be seen in later landscapes, his sunflowers motif is picked up in paintings such as ‘The Orders of the Night’ (1996), in which Kiefer paints himself gazing up at a constellation of bowing sunflower heads.

'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night', 1998-2013

'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night', 1998-2013 © Anselm Kiefer

Religion

‘Kiefer was born a Catholic but has this tremendous interest in other faiths,’ says Soriano. In the Royal Academy show you’ll find a slew of religious references, including the Burning Bush, the Tree of Jesse, the Holy Trinity and Lilith from Jewish folklore. But, according to Soriano, ‘Kiefer’s an atheist, basically. He’s not exploring religion for religion’s sake. It goes back to that business of “Why am I here?” Art is the vehicle that helps him to answer those big questions. But he’s sort of resigned to the fact that he will never know.’


See more images from the show

  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Winter Landscape', 1970

    Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund. © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer
  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Nothung', 1973

    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer
  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Under the Linden, on the Heath', 2013

    © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer
  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Parsifal I', 1973

    © Tate, London 2014 / © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer
  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Parsifal II', 1973

    © Tate, London 2014 / © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer
  • Anselm Kiefer

    'Parsifal III', 1973

    © Tate, London 2014 / © Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

'Winter Landscape', 1970

Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund. © Anselm Kiefer



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