1945, Donaueschingen, Germany
Anselm Kiefer grew up in postwar West Germany amid the rubble of World War II. His newly divided country was in a state of identity crisis, lacking foundational myths or symbols untainted by the Nazis' pathological nationalism. Kiefer initially studied law to learn about codes of human behavior, fully intending to become an artist. By the 1970s, he began to develop his best-known works: massive, heavily encrusted paintings of shattered landscapes devoid of people. His art draws upon a range of traditions —including ancient Egyptian mythology, biblical stories, Jewish mysticism, and modern astronomy — in the attempt to construct a new symbolic system with broad human relevance. Kiefer is currently active in the south of France, where he has lived since 1993.
What does Germany’s troubled history mean for Kiefer?
SFX: string music
Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, only months before the end of World War II. His vision rife with images of scorched earth, fallow fields, and decaying ruins confronted head-on the question of how Germans would come to terms with their history. Curator Michael Auping:
These paintings by Anselm Kiefer set the debate in action, of the role of God, the role of evil, the role of politics. You know, this is a post-war German artist, an artist who is really trying to deal with the legacy of Nazi Germany. And it’s a legacy that he inherited, but which no one of the generation before him wanted to talk about.
Kiefer’s earliest works directly invoked the ghost of Nazi Germany. In one provocative act, he photographed himself giving the sieg heil in a Nazi uniform.
And for that reason, it was considered, quote/unquote, “political art.” But prior to making certain political statements Kiefer was dealing with the idea of world religions.
Over time, Kiefer’s canvases have grown larger, and more ambitiously-scaled. Kiefer continues to explore the nature of good and evil, but against the expanded, almost mythic backdrop of primordial forests and ancient ruins. Look at the surface of Kiefer’s painting. He’s been known to embed straw, soil, ash, and other materials deep into the cracks and thick swaths of paint.
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