Anselm Kiefer's show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was a revelation to those of us on the West Coast who had heard of the artist but never seen his works.
Born in Germany at the end of WW II, Kiefer choses to try to understand Germany's past - including the Holocaust - through art. His work is controversial, ambiguous and, once seen, impossible to forget.
Naturally this has occasioned copious amounts of art critic verbiage. One of the most astute comments came from an essay by Andreas Huyssen (from the journal October, 1989) in which he writes that Kiefer's work is about memory, not about forgetting and should be placed in the context of German culture after Auschwitz.
"For German critics," Huyssen wrote, "the issue was rather how Kiefer went about dealing with this past. To them Kiefer's deliberate strategy of opening a Pandora's box of fascist and nationalistic imagery amounted to a kind of original sin of the post-Auschwitz era."
The Romanian poet Paul Celan has been one of Kiefer's deepest inspirations. Celan was the only member of his family to survive incarceration in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but committed suicide in 1970, at the age of 49, after producing a body of work that included the searingly painful poem, "Death Fugue". In it he talks of the inhabitants of the camp drinking black milk and digging graves in the sky. Two figures are contrasted in the poem and act as the central metaphor: Margarete, with her cascade of blonde Aryan hair, and Shulamite, a Jewish woman whose black hair denotes her Semitic origins, but which is also ashen from burning. Both images figure in Kiefer's greatest work.
Kiefer's work is obsessively concerned with images of myth and history. His enormous canvases, layered with plaster, straw, grit and densely painted in grey, black and vermillion pigment evoke the suffering, death and destruction of the Nazi era.
He illuminates the myths around WW II and the era that preceded it by the titles of his works, by quotes from the poet Celan. He has been inescapably drawn to the symbols which were cynically used by the Nazis to create an imaginary past which justified their actions in the present. His work of the 80's which mocks, not glorifies the Nazi appropriation of German myth, broke the taboo of "that which will not be spoken of." He wants to work through a past that older Germans want to forget and that younger Germans never knew.
It's all part of his mission to confront the past. "In Germany, if something is finished, they like to flatten it, bring it down, make the grass grow over it. That's no good. You should keep these old buildings because they played a role and they can teach us something." (Interview, Manchester Guardian, 2011).
In "Osiris and Isis," part of SFMOMA's permanent collection, Kiefer illustrates humanity's quest for heaven through an immense, stepped temple that dominates the scene. By conflating contemporary elements with a mythological story, Kiefer connects the modern and ancient worlds, forging a new, universal image of reunification and synthesis with scars still intact.
The powerful imagery and ideas behind Kiefer's work could stand for any victims of injustice - for the refugees in today's world, for political prisoners, for all who suffer under the boot of tyranny.
In 1990, Kiefer was awarded the Wolf Prize. In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded him the Praemium Imperiale for his lifetime achievements. In the explanatory statement it reads:
"A complex critical engagement with history runs through Anselm Kiefer's work. His paintings as well as the sculptures of Georg Baselitz created an uproar at the 1980 Venice Biennale: the viewers had to decide whether the apparent Nazi motifs were meant ironically or whether the works were meant to convey actual fascist ideas. Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world. He created epic paintings on giant canvases that called up the history of German culture with the help of depictions of figures such as Richard Wagner or Goethe, thus continuing the historical tradition of painting as a medium of addressing the world. Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort."