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Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth Author(s): Andreas Huyssen Source: October, Vol.

48 (Spring, 1989), pp. 25-45 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/778947 . Accessed: 29/03/2014 09:30
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Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History,the Temptation of Myth

ANDREAS

HUYSSEN

More than any other recent painter's work, Anselm Kiefer's painterly Ameriruminations about nationalidentity. projecthas called forth postpainterly the in particularhave gone to greatlengthin praisinghis Germanness, can critics authenticwaysin whichhe deals in his paintingwiththe ghostsof the fatherland, especiallywiththe terrorof recent German history.The use of profoundallethe play withthe archetypalto Germanicmyth, gory,the multiplereferences and to be is held all of this German, yet,by the power of art, it is said typically and its to transcend somehow origins give expression to the spiritualplightof is great to dismisssuch in late twentieth the century.'The temptation humanity of the as a of national essence marketing strategy appreciations stereotype-driven it from benefit in. Even the Germans is in national Pride identity Reagan age. since Ronald Reagan's visitto the Bitburgcemeterygave its blessingto Helmut the fascist Kohl's politicalagenda of forgetting past and renewingnationalpride in the name of "normalization." In an internationalart market in which the the appeal boundariesbetween nationalculturesbecome increasingly irrelevant, a trademark.What has been like a sign of recognition, of the national functions the successionsof the fora long time(witness of the movie industry characteristic French cinema, the Italian cinema, the new German cinema, the Australian cinema, etc.) now seems to be catchingup with the art world as well: the new a briefpassage froma 1983 German painting.Let me quote, perhaps unfairly, article that addresses the Germannessin question: Kiefer's use of paint is like the use of fireto cremate the bodies of dead, however dubious, heroes, in the expectationof theirphoenixin anotherform.The new German paintersperform like resurrection serviceforthe German people. They lay to restthe an extraordinary ghosts- profoundas only the monstrouscan be -of German style,
See the foreword to the catalogue for Anselm Kiefer's American retrospective.Mark 1. Rosenthal,Anselm Kiefer, Chicago and Philadelphia, Art Instituteof Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987.

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culture, and history, so that the people can be authentically new. . . . They can be freedof a past identity reliving by artistically it.2 Rememberingthat it was in fact the Nazis who promised authentic national of the German Volkfromthe ashes of defeat,remembering renewal,resurrection but also thatit was the Nazis who practicedmass cremationnot forresurrection, and all, thiskindof rhetoricsimply of theirvictims, fortotalelimination memory makes my hair stand on end. To me, a German of Kiefer's generation, the referenceto laying to rest the ghosts of the past reads like a Bitburg of art the ifnot worse,and I would claim thatit fundamentally criticism, misrepresents its in Kiefer's work. Kiefer's of nationalidentity forms, painting-in problematic about memory,not about -is emphatically and its subject matter its materials, is one of its organizingpictorialmetaphors,it is not the and if flight forgetting, of Icarus and the melancholyflight but the doomed flight of the flight phoenix, of the mutilatedand murderouslyvengefulWayland, the master smithof the the Edda. Kiefer'swings,afterall, are made of lead. classicbook of Norse myth, The purpose of this essay, then, will be to free our understandingof of Germannessand workfromthe stereotypes Kiefer'scomplex and captivating into the fromthe cliche that names him Anselm Angst and worshipshis flight transcendenceof art and the universallyhuman. I propose to place Kiefer's aesthetic project in its specificcultural and political context, the context of German culture after Auschwitz out of which it grew and to which it gives and to aestheticform,whichenergized it duringlong yearsof littlerecognition, it which,I would argue against facile claims of transcendenceand universality, in most of all in and its -in its bound remains weaknesses, strengths, ultimately its ambiguities. and casual look at Kiefer'sworkwilltell us thatit is obsessively Even a first Immersedin the exploration(and and of history. concernedwithimagesof myth exploitation) of the power of mythicimages, this work has given rise to the thatit can redeem us from thatsomehow mythtranscendshistory, mystification the is and that art, especiallypainting, high road toward redemption. history, we hear his voice throughthe parathat to the extent himselfKiefer Indeed, Rosenthal's Mark criticism of art problematic attemptsat (including phrases exhibitionof Kiefer's American recent the of in the catalogue ventriloquism his work is But such in innocent not -is ultimately responses. work) provoking the of an awareness also informedby a gestureof self-questioning, questionby that belies and by a pictorialself-consciousness able nature of his undertaking, I take his work-and thiswillbe one of mybasic arguments such mystifications.
Donald B. Kuspit,"Flak fromthe 'Radicals': The AmericanCase AgainstGerman Painting," 2. New York, New Museum of Modernism: in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Representation, Rethinking Art, 1984, p. 141. Contemporary

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-to be about the ultimate inseparability of mythand history.Rather than or Kiefer's work can be read as a sustained merely illustrating myth history, reflection on how mythic function in how myth can never escape images history, and how in turn has to on history, history rely mythicimages. While much of Kiefer'smythic seems a of painting energizedby longingto transcendthe terrors recentGerman history, the point,drivenhome relentlessly matter and by subject aestheticexecution, is that this longingwill not, cannot be fulfilled. One way to discuss context (Kiefer's and our own) is to relate Kiefer to three West German cultural phenomena that have captured the attentionof Americanaudiences in recentyears. Firstthere was the international success of the new German cinema with the work of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, von Trotta, Ottingerand many others. Schloendorff, Kluge, Sanders-Brahms, Much of that work was driven by questions of German identity -personal, rooted in the acknowlpolitical,cultural,sexual. All of thiswork was ultimately edgmentthatthe fascist past and the postwardemocraticpresentare inescapably chained together(examples are Fassbinder'sfilms about the 1950s, Kluge's films from Yesterday Girl to The Patriot,and the various filmson German terrorism and its relationshipto the Nazi past). There are especially strikingparallels betweenKiefer'streatment of fascist and Syberberg'smajor films, and it imagery is no accident that both artistshave been accused of sympathizing withfascism. Then there was the rise to instantstardomof a group of painters,manyof them fromBerlin,who had been paintingforalmost twenty years-during the of late and abstraction, minimalism, heyday conceptualism, performanceartbut who were recognized and marketedas a group only in the early 1980s: die neuenWilden, the neoexpressionists, as theywere mostcommonlycalled because of theirreturnto the pictorialstrategiesof that pivotal movementof German modernism.Just as German expressionismhad given rise to one of the most debates about the aesthetics and politicsof modernism in the 1930s,3 far-ranging of a return neoexpressionism immediately sparkeda debate about the legitimacy to figuration afterabstraction,minimalism, and concept art.4 in GerThirdly and most recently,there was the so-called Historikerstreit for the holocaust, many,the historians'debate over the German responsibility the alleged need to "historicize"the fascistpast, and the problem of a German national identity. Habermas observed,the histoIndeed, as philosopherJtirgen rians' debate about the German past was in truth a debate about the selfof the Federal Republic today. In thatdebate of 1986, a number understanding of right-wing historians took it upon themselves to "normalize" German history,
3. Documented in ErnstBloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics: Debatesbetween Bloch,Lukdcs, Brecht, Benjamin,and Adorno,London, Verso, 1980. 4. See especially Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression," in Brian Wallis, ed., ArtAfter Modernism: New York, New Museum of ConRepresentation, Rethinking Art, 1984, pp. 107-136. temporary

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and one of them went so far as to put the blame for the holocaust, by some perverted logic of the priorityof the Soviet Gulag, on the Bolsheviks.5The Historikerstreit, outrageous as it was in this latteraspect, did make the pages of the New YorkTimes.What did not become clear fromthe reporting, however,is the whole debate was the conservative turn in German the factthat underlying politics since the early 1980s, the Bitburg syndrome,the public debate about museums in Bonn proposals to erect national monumentsand national history and in Berlin. All of this happened in a culturaland political climate in which had resurfacedfor the first time since the war. The issues of national identity are in search of a "usable past." Their various factionsof German conservatism and to freeGerman nationalismfromthe aim is to "normalize" German history -a kind of launderingof the German past forthe benefitof shadowsof fascism the conservativeideological agenda. All three phenomena-the new German cinema, neoexpressionist paintways how West German ing, and the historian'sdebate - show in different culture remains haunted by the past. It is haunted by images which in turn produce haunting images-in cinema as well as in painting. Anselm Kiefer, despite his seclusionin a remotevillageof the Odenwald, is verymuch a part of that culture.

WithinWest Germany,criticshave been much more skepticalof the idea thatKiefersucceeds in dealing withand exorcisingthe ghostsof the Germanpast first in hispainting.Criticism emergedpubliclyon a broad scale when Kieferand Baselitz representedthe Federal Republic at the 1980 Venice Biennale, and of flaunting his Germannesswithhis embarKieferwas accused in the feuilletons motifs. American nationalist Some commentators have dismissedsuch rassingly inferior.6 I believe that as bizarre,crudelycensorious,and cognitively criticisms thisis a serious mistakeborn of an ignoranceof Kiefer'scontextthatultimately disables the reading of the paintingsthemselves.The nationalism/fascism proband Kieferhimself would be lematicin Kiefer'sworkdeservesseriousattention, to have another major the firstto insiston that. The American desire finally contemporary painter,after Picasso and Jackson Pollock, may indeed be overbut we don't give Kieferthe recognitionhe deservesby avoiding the whelming, German aspects of his work and by making him into an "art problematically I do for the 21st century,"as one recent headline had it.7 Certainly, pathfinder witha by now international triumnot wantto see Kieferidentified postmodern phalism which has at least some of the criticsin ecstaticrapture. Consider the
For comprehensiveanalysisand documentationsee the special issue on the Historikerstreit 5. in New GermanCritique, no. 44 (Spring/Summer1988). For example, Peter Schjeldahl, "Our Kiefer,"Artin America, 6. no. 3 (March 1988), p. 124. 7. Christian ScienceMonitor, March 21, 1988, p. 23.

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followingpreposterousstatementby Rudi Fuchs, Dutch art historianand museum director and organizer of the 1982 postmodernart bonanza at Kassel, Documenta 7: "Paintingis salvation.It presentsfreedomof thoughtof whichit is the triumphant expression. . . . The painter is a guardian-angelcarryingthe palettein blessingover the world. Maybe the painteris the darlingof the gods."8 This is art theology,not art criticism.Kiefer has to be defended against such appropriations.He is not in the business of salvation regressiveand mystifying in guardian angels that has become nor in cultural the trafficking triumphant in the 1980s-witness the recent Wenders/Handke film increasingly popular is Kiefer into the German past, as Desire. Neither simply resurrecting Wingsof some of his German criticscomplain. But, in a countrylike West Germany, all too oftenhave led to the of national and culturalidentity where definitions the Third of Reich, any attemptby an artistto deal temptation relegitimizing will understandably cause public worries.Fortuwiththe major icons of fascism so. nately What is it,then,thathas Kiefer'scountrymen up in arms?Withwhatseems to be an incrediblenaivete and insouciance, Kiefer is drawn time and again to themesof the German culturaland politicaltraditionwhich, those icons, motifs, culturalsynthesis that resultedin a generationearlier,had energized the fascist reenacts the Hitler the worstdisasterof German history.Kiefer provocatively salute in one of his earliestphoto works;he turnsto the myth of the Nibelungen, whichin itsmedievaland Wagnerianversionshas alwaysfunctioned as a cultural he revivesthe tree and forestmythology so dear to prop of German militarism; the heart of German nationalism;he indulges in reverentialgestures toward Hitler's ultimateculture hero, Richard Wagner; and he suggestsa pantheon of German luminariesin philosophy,art, literature,and the military, including Fichte,Klopstock,Clausewitz,and Heidegger, mostof whom have been tainted withthe sins of German nationalismand certainly put to good use by the Nazi the he reenacts Nazi book burnings; he paints Albert propaganda machine; structures as and allegories of power; architectural ruins Speer's megalomaniac he conjures up historicalspaces loaded with the historyof German-Prussian such as Nuremberg,the Mairkische and fascist chauvinism nationalism Heide, or the Teuteburg forest, and he createsallegoriesof some of Hitler'smajor military ventures. Of course, one has to point out here that some of these icons are treated with subtle irony and multi-layered ambiguity,occasionally even with satiricalbite (e.g., Operation Seelion),but clearlythereare as manyothersthatare not. At any rate, the issue is not whetherKiefer intentionally identifies withor the fascisticonographyhe chooses for his paintings.I thinkit is clear glorifies that he does not. But that does not let him offthe hook. The problem is in the very usage of those icons, in the fact that Kiefer's images violate a taboo, a boundarythathad been carefully transgress guarded, and not forbad reasons,
8. R. H. Fuchs, Anselm Venice, Edizioni La Biennale di Venezia, 1980, p. 62. Kiefer,

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by the postwarculturalconsensusin West Germany:abstentionfromthe imageworld of fascism,condemnation of any cultural iconography even remotely reminiscent of thosebarbaricyears.This self-imposed afterall, was at abstention, stable democratic the heart of Germany'spostwarreemergenceas a relatively culture in a Westernmode. body of Why,then,does Kieferinsiston workingwithsuch a controversial icons? At stake in Kiefer's paintingsis not just the opening of wounds, as one between oftenhears,as iftheyhad ever been healed. Nor is it the confrontation his and whose paintingconjuresup uncomfortable the artist, truths, countrymen, it. They are the fascist who wantto forget past. The BitburgGermanswillforget - Kiefer or no Kiefer. Kiefer want to determinedto forget normalize; They or to remember, but does not. The issue,in otherwords,is not whetherto forget of the remembered ratherhow to rememberand how to handle representations yearsafterthe war,onlyknowthatpast past at a timewhen mostof us, over forty It is in the working films, through representations. photographs, throughimages, of this problem, aestheticallyand politically,that I see Kiefer's strength,a and and unavoidablymustmake him controversial thatsimultaneously strength deeplyproblematic.To say it in yetanotherway,Kiefer'shaunted images,burnt of those who refuseto and violatedas theyare, do not challenge the repressions of those who do face the terrorof the past; rathertheychallengethe repressions national burden of fascism on German do the remember and who accept identity. One of the reasons why Kiefer's work-and not only the fascismand but also the workfromthe mid-1980sthatfocuseson alchemy, history paintings, -is so ambiguof non-Germanmyths biblicaland Jewishthemes,and a variety to read is that it seems to lack any mooringsin contemporary ous and difficult reality.Despite thisostensiblelack of directreferenceto the presentin his work, embedded in the German protestculture of the Kiefer's beginningsare firmly or disingenuouswhen he recentlysaid, 1960s. He was simplywrong,forgetful, "In '69, when I began, no one dared talk about these things."9He mighthave been righthad he said "no one painted these things." But talk about fascism, German history, guilt,and the holocaustwas the order of the day at a timewhen -that of the extra-parliamentary a whole social movement oppositionand the New Left inside and outside the academy- had swept the countrywith its with the the coping or coming-to-terms agenda of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, past. Large-scale generational conflicterupted preciselyon the issue of what parents had done or not done between 1933 and 1945 and whetherformer membersof the Nazi partywere acceptable as high-level political leaders. The and the about fascism German theatersperformedscores of documentary plays
vol. 86 9. By account of Steven Henry Madoff,"Anselm Kiefer:A Call to Memory,"ARTnews, (October 1987), p. 127.

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holocaust (Rolf Hochhuth's Deputy [1963] and Peter Weiss's Investigation [1965] and scores of televisionprogramsaddressed the question being the best-known), of fascism. Afterall, 1969 was the yearin whichWillyBrandt,a refugeefromthe Nazis and an active member of the Norwegian underground during the war, a policyof detentewiththe East whichwas based became chancellorand initiated of "those things." on the public acknowledgment And yet,in a certain sense Kiefer is not entirelywrong. His approach to fromwhatI would and representing the past differed understanding significantly in liberal and social-democratic antifascist consensusof those the call, shorthand, us of series of one Kiefer's the Let take earlyworks, photographsentitled years. from as an discuss a central issue to 1969, (Occupations) Besetzungen example the 1970s. The workconsistsof whichgovernsmuch of his paintingthroughout a series of photographstaken at various locations all over Europe - historical citing, spaces, landscapes-all of which feature the artisthimselfperforming, embodyingthe Sieg Heil gesture. As the catalogue suggests,the artistseems to have assumed the identityof the conquering National Socialist who occupies reactionto thiskind of workmustbe shock and dismay,and Europe.10The first the workanticipatesthat. A taboo has been violated. But when one looks again, is multipleironiesbegin to appear. In almostall of the photosthe Sieg Heil figure dwarfedby the surroundings; the shotsare takenfromafar. In one of miniscule, the photos the figurestands in a bathtuband is seen against a backlitwindow. There are no jubilant masses, marching soldiers, nor any other emblems of thatwe know fromhistoricalfootage fromthe Nazi era. power and imperialism The artistdoes not identify withthe gestureof Nazi occupation,he ridiculesit, satirizesit. He is properlycritical.But even thisconsideration does not lay to rest our fundamentaluneasiness. Are ironyand satire really the appropriatemode fordealing withfascist terror? Doesn't thisseriesof photographsbelittlethe very real terrorwhich the Sieg Heil gesture conjures up for a historically informed memory?There just seems no way out of the deeply problematic nature of Kiefer's"occupations," thisone as well as those thatwere to followin the 1970s, thatoccupied the equally shunnedicons and spaces of Germannational paintings and history myth. There is another dimension,however, to this work, a dimension of selfconscious mise-en-scene that is at its conceptual core. Rather than seeing this seriesof photos onlyas representing the artistoccupyingEurope withthe fascist of we in another see the artistoccupyingvarious gesture conquest, may, register, framed image-spaces: landscapes, historical buildings, interiors,precisely the image-spacesof most of Kiefer's later paintings.But why then the Sieg Heil us that gesture?I would suggestthatit be read as a conceptualgesturereminding indeed Nazi culture had most effectively and abused the occupied, exploited,
10. Rosenthal,p. 7.

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and of a power of the visual, especiallythe power of massive monumentalism even disciplining, confining, central-point perspective.Fascismhad furthermore of a German image-world, perverted,abused, and sucked up whole territories nationaliconicand literary traditions into mere ornamentsof power and turning therebyleaving post-1945 culture witha tabula rasa that was bound to cause a Aftertwelveyearsof an image orgywithoutprecesmolderingcrisisof identity. dent in the modern world, which included everything from torch marches to from the of the mass mammoth 1936 Olympicsto the spectacles, staging political into the war years, from ceaseless productionsof the Nazi filmindustry deep in the to fireworks of antiaircraft the Albert Speer's floodlight nightsky operas need forimages seemed exhausted. Apart flakover burningcities,the country's from imported American filmsand the cult of foreign royaltyin illustrated magazines, postwar Germany was a country without images, a landscape of turned itselfinto the gray of conrubble and ruins that quicklyand efficiently the of commercialadvercrete reconstruction, lightenedup onlyby iconography of The that had produced the the the and fake Heimatfilm. country imagery tising Weimar cinema and a wealth of avant-gardeart in the 1920s and that would produce the new German cinema beginningin the late 1960s was by and large no paintyears:hardlyany new departuresin film, image-deadforabout twenty ground zero of a visual ing worthtalkingabout, a kind of enforcedminimalism, amnesia. I am reminded here of somethingWerner Herzog once stated in a somecontext. In an interviewabout his filmshe said, "We live in a what different societythat has no adequate images anymore,and, if we do not findadequate withwhichto expressthem, imagesand an adequate language forour civilization we will die out like the dinosaurs. It's as simple as that!"" The absence of adequate imagesin postwarGermanyand the need to invent,to create images to go on livingalso seems to propel Kiefer'sproject. He insiststhat the burden of fascismon images has to be reflectedand worked through by any postwar German artistworthhis or her salt. From thatperspectiveindeed most postwar German art had to be seen as so much evasion. During the 1950s, it mainly and other offeredderivationsfrom abstract expressionism,tachism, informel, and media As to literature movements. sanctioned film, opposed internationally withthe fascistpast had become an overridingconin whichthe confrontation cern duringthe 1960s, the '60s art scene in West Germanywas dominatedby the fluxusmovement, of the Gruppe Zero, the situationist-related lightexperiments in the work of Sigmar Polke and and a number of experimentswithfiguration whetheror not theywanted Gerhard Richter.The focusof mostof theseartists, consumer was the present: theirart to be sociallycritical, capitalismin the age of Kiefer's In this context America and television. imageoccupationsof the fascist
11. Imagesat theHorizon,Workshop with Werner Herzog conducted by Roger Ebert, Chicago, Facets Multimedia,1979, p. 21.

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space and of other nationalisticonographywere as much a new departure for German art as they were a political provocation, except, of course, that this provocationwas not widelyrecognized during the 1970s. In that decade, Kiefer's work on myth,especiallyGerman mythand the national tradition, could stillbe seen as an art of individualmythology, as it was called at Documenta V in 1972. It was onlyduringthe conservative1980s, when the issue of national identity had become a major obsession in West Germany, that Kiefer'schoice of medium and the politicalcontentof his paintinggot the criticsbuzzing. Anselm Kiefer-painter of the new Right! But it would be a mistake to collapse Kiefer's development as an artist with the political turn in the 1980s. Afterall, the whole issue of national identity toward conservatism first in the 1970s on the intellectualLeft and withinthe orbit of the emerged and movements before it became gristfor the mills of the new ecology peace Kiefer's focus on Germanic Right. iconographyin the 1970s stillhad a critical to articulate what the liberal and social democratic cultural edge, attempting consensus had sealed behind a cordonsanitaireof proper coping with the past. And his choice of medium, his experimentationson the threshold between and the sculptural, also had a criticaledge in the refusal painting,photography, to bow to the pieties of a teleologicallyconstructedmodernismthat saw even remotelyrepresentational paintingonly as a formof regression.Representation in Kiefer is, afterall, not just a facile returnto a premodernisttradition.It is ratherthe attemptto make certain traditions (high-horizon landscape painting, romanticpainting)productivefor a kind of paintingthat represents,without, a kind of painting however,being grounded in the ideology of representation, thatplaces itselfquite self-consciously afterconceptualismand minimalism. The often-heardreproach against Kiefer's being figurativeand representational misseshis extraordinary to materialssuch as straw,sand, lead, ashes, sensitivity burnt logs, ferns,and copper wire,all of whichare incorporatedimaginatively into his canvases and more oftenthan not work against the grain of figuration and representation. While Kiefer's material and aestheticemploymentof figuration does not me give ideological headaches, I think it is legitimateto ask whether Kiefer fascination withfascism, withterror, and withdeath. indulgesthe contemporary as Susan called in it her discussion of Leni fascism, Fascinating Sontag has been partof the international culturallandscape since the 1970s. Riefenstahl, In his book Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitschand Death (1984), the historianSaul Friedlander has analyzed it in scores of cinematic and literary worksfromthe 1970s, rangingfromSyberberg'sOur Hitlerto Liliana Cavani's TheNight Porter and Fassbinder'sLili Marleen,fromAlain Tournier's TheOgreto George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobalof A H. In addition, we have witnessedthe rediscovery,often celebratory,of right-wing modernistwriters such as C6line and ErnstJiinger.How does Kiefer fitinto this phenomenon, whichis by no means only German?To what extentmightit explain his success

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Painter. 1980. To theUnknown Anselm Kiefer. outside his native Germany?Such questionsare all the more urgentbecause, I of fascist icons seems to go fromsatireand would argue, Kiefer'sown treatment in the early 1980s. devoid of in the 1970s to irony melancholy irony fascismin Kieferare three series of Central fora discussionof fascinating the March architecture; paintingsfromthe early 1980s: the paintingsof fascist and an Heath works,whichhover between landscape painting, history painting, in the art and artist German and of history; Margarete/Shulamite allegorization of the series, which contains Kiefer's highlyabstractand mediated treatment holocaust. Together with the Meistersinger/Nuremberg series, this trilogyof worksbest embodies those aspects of his art that I am addressingin thisessay.

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theTemptation Anselm ofMyth Kiefer:The TerrorofHistory,

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1981. Interior. Anselm Kiefer. and oil paintings Let me first turnto the watercolors of fascist architectural To the watercolors theUnknown two entitled Painter(1980, 1982) and structures: architectural structures the two large oil paintingsof fascist entitledThe Stairs Interior and These works exude an a statism, (1981). (1982-83) overwhelming and an intenseaestheticappeal of color, texture,and monumentalmelancholy, materialsthat can induce a deeply meditative, if not paralayeringof painterly I in viewer. like state the would to describe own lyzing my very conflicting reactionsto them,withthe caveat thatwhat I willsketchas a sequence of three was muchmore blurredin mymindwhen I first stagesof responseand reflection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. saw the Kieferretrospective

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-fascination with the visual pleasure Kiefer Stage one was fascination If seen in photographs, architecture. such bringsto the subject matterof fascist buildingswill most likelyprovoke only the Pavlovian reactionof condemnation: is and what it represents.Being conarchitecture everybodyknowswhat fascist frontedwithKiefer'srenderingof the interiorof Albert Speer's Reichschancellery was thereforelike seeing it for the firsttime, preciselybecause "it" was neitherSpeer's famousbuildingnor a "realistic"representation of it. And whatI saw was ruins,images of ruins,the ruinsof fascismin the mode of allegorythat seemed to hold the promise of a beyond, to suggestan as yetabsent reconciliaof size and subject tion. True, there is the almost overbearingmonumentalism matter of these paintings,with central point perspective driven to its most of central perspectiveitself insidious extreme. But then this monumentalism seems to be underminedby the claimsthe multiply layeredsurfacesmake on the and transitoriness of the materials Kiefer uses in his viewer, by the fragility he achieves in his use of photography overlaid compositions, by the eerie effects and straw. as oil Dark and somber thick emulsion, shellac, theyare, paint, by and immateriality thatbelies their these paintingsassume a ghostlikeluminosity monumentality. They appear like dream images, architecturalstructuresthat ruinof made to appear as ruins:the resurrected seem intact,but are intriguingly state of fascismas simulacrum,as the painterlyrealization of a contemporary mind. reaction. Stage two was a At thispoint I became skepticalof my own first pervasive feelingof having been had, having been lured into that fascinating of fascism whichtodaycomplements fascism, havingfallenforan aestheticization so eloquentlyanalyzed by Walter Benjamin some fifty fascism'sown strategies, politicsintoaestheticspectacle.I rememberedthe romantic yearsago, of turning appeal of ruins and the inherentambivalence of the ruin as celebrationof the of loss. And I recalled the real ruinsleftby fascism, past,of nostalgiaand feelings cities and the destructionleft in the wake of fascist the ruins of bombed-out I do these paintingsreflecton this asked and retreat. invasion Where, myself, fascist as of Even historical ruins,theyare stillmonumentsto the images reality? in their overwhelming of and they affirm, demagogic representation power, and relentlessuse of central-point monumentalism perspective,the power of so much to has done modernism that question and to reflect representation one remove?And ifit is, at Is this fascist became: The painting question critically. frombeing sucked into these giganticspacial voids, from how do I save myself frombecoming complicitin a visionthat seems being paralyzed by melancholy, to preventmourningand stiflepoliticalreflection? Finally,my initial thoughtsabout Kiefer's "occupations" asserted themselves again. What if Kiefer, here too, intended to confrontus with our own repressionsof the fascistimage-sphere?Perhaps his project was precisely to counter the by now often hallow litany about the fascistaestheticizationof politics,to counterthe merelyrationalexplanationsof fascistterrorby recreat-

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Anselm theTemptation Kiefer:The TerrorofHistory, ofMyth

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ing the aestheticlure of fascismfor the presentand thus forcingus to confront that we ourselves are not immune to what we so rationallyconthe possibility demn and dismiss.Steeped in a melancholyfascinationwith the past, Kiefer's work makes visiblea psychicdispositiondominantin postwarGermanythathas to mourn. If mourningimpliesan active working been describedas the inability of then a to overcome loss, through melancholyis characterizedby an inability that loss and in some instances even a continuingidentification with the lost object of love. This is the cultural context in which Kiefer's reworkingof a even reactionary and aesregressive, painterly vocabularyassumes its politically dimension. How else but obsessive meaningful through thetically quotationcould he conjure up the lure of what once enthralled Germany and has not been acknowledged, let alone properly worked through? How else but through and nightmarish evocationcould he confront the blockages painterly melancholy in the contemporary German psyche?At the same time,the riskof confronting German culturewithrepresentations of a collectivelost object of contemporary love is equally evident: it may strengthen the staticand melancholydisposition toward fascismratherthan overcome it. as a melancholy Here, then,is the dilemma:whetherto read thesepaintings fixationon the dreamlikeruinsof fascismthat locks the viewerinto complicity, or, instead,as a critiqueof the spectator,who is caught up in a complex web of and repression. melancholy,fascination, Even the two elementscommon to several of the paintings and watercolors in this series-the inscription "to the unknownpainter" and the dead center positioningof a palette on a black pole -will not help us out of this dilemma. Surely,as a double referenceto the unknownsoldier and to art, these linguistic in the midstof these fascist and conceptualinscriptions architectural monuments tend to break the spell of the image as pure and unmediatedand to produce an effect. Here as elsewhereKieferrelieson linguistic and estrangement inscription as of undermining methods the false immediacyof visual representaencoding tion. His images have to be both seen and read. But how estranging are these inscriptions If one remembersthe ultimately? classical topos of parallelingthe heroismof the warriorwiththe heroismof the genial artist,then Kiefer's recourse to the trivialromanticmotifof the monumentto the unknownsoldier could be read as a slightly displaced critiqueof the of artistic Such a seems a bit forced.Afterall, however, myth genius.2 reading, the notions of the unknownsoldier and of the unknown,unrecognized genius are themselves of warriorheroismand aestheticgeniusthat integralto the myths have been major props of middle-classculture since romanticism. A potentially criticalstrategyof breaking visual immediacythrough linguisticmarkersand
12. Thus Jorgen Harten in the catalogue of the 1984 Kieferexhibitionin DOsseldorf,Paris, and Dusseldorf,StadtischeKunsthalle, 1984, pp. 41ff. Jerusalem,Anselm Kiefer,

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serves only to conceptuallyestrangingsigns on the work's surface ultimately reinforcethe mythit ostensiblyundermines.Furthermore, the undocumented heroismof the unknownsoldier is displaced here into the heroismof that very well-known have fallenforthe lure he had painterAnselm K., who may himself set out to combat. Much the same, by the way, can be said of Kiefer's earlier Spiriattemptsto constructGerman genealogies in paintingssuch as Germany's tual Heroes (1973), Icarus (1976), and Ways of WorldlyWisdom(1976-77). Kiefer'sneed to positionhimself at the end of a genealogyof German effectively art and thoughtgetsin the wayof whatevercriticalintentions he mighthave had. PainterKieferdoes not celebratethe linkbetween To be sure, in To theUnknown or the right-wing aestheticsand war as the Italian futurists modernistsof the Weimar Republic did. Instead of an aestheticsof terror,one mightsay, we get the narcissism of a postfascist and narcissism, German painterwhose melancholy frozengaze is directedat two imaginary lost objects: the ruinsof fascism (buildings, landscapes,mindscapes)and the ruins,as it were, of the house of painting itself.These two sets of ruinsare pictorially equated. Kieferends up collapsing of the end of paintingand the defeatof fascism. the difference betweenthe myth This is a conceit that seems to draw in highlyproblematicwayson the phantasrequiringa worldmagoria that fascismitselfis the ultimateGesamtkunstwerk, at its end: Berlin 1945 as the last act of Hitler's historicalGotterdammerung withRichard Wagner and Kiefer's workas a memorialto that fatal infatuation linkage between art and violence. Nero Paints-indeed. But such a negativereadingof the architecture is contradicted paintings by the Margarete/Shulamiteseries, a series of paintingsbased on Paul Celan's famous "Death Fugue," a poem that captures the horror of Auschwitz in a sequence of highlystructuredmythicimages. In these paintings,where Kiefer turnsto the victims of fascism, the melancholygaze at the past, dominantin the architecturepaintings,is transformed into a genuine sense of mourning.And Kiefer'sseemingly and narcissistic obsessionwiththe fateof paintself-indulgent in its reveals itself here broader historical and ing political dimension. In the German context,Kiefer'sturningto Paul Celan, theJewishpoet who surviveda Nazi concentration camp, has deep resonance. In the 1950s, Theodor Adorno had claimed that afterAuschwitzlyricpoetrywas no longer possible. The unimaginable horrorsof the holocaust had irretrievably pushed poetic language, especially that writtenin German, to the edges of silence. But Celan demonstratedthatthisultimatecrisisof poetic language could stillbe articulatedwithin language itselfwhen he confrontedthe ultimatechallenge of writinga poem about the veryeventthatseemed to have made all language incommensurate.3s I would suggest that in the Margarete/Shulamiteseries, especially with Your GoldenHair, Margarete (1981) and Shulamite (1983), Kiefersucceeds in doing for paintingwhat Celan did for poetrymore than thirty yearsago. In thiscontext,
13. The poem's fulltext is given in Rosenthal,pp. 95ff.

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theTemptation The TerrorofHistory, Anselm ofMyth Kiefer:

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withthe end of paintingtakeson a different Kiefer'sequation of fascism connotation. For him, too, as for Celan and Adorno, it is indeed fascismthat has brought about the ultimatecrisisof art in this century.Fascism has not only revealed the extentto whichpoetryand paintingcan never be commensurate to the world of historical violence. It has also demonstrated how politicscan ruthlesslyexploitthe aestheticdimensionand harnessit in the serviceof violenceand destruction. The Margarete/Shulamite whichdraw on the refrain of Celan's paintings, hair ashen hair Shulamith poem "your golden [Shulamite]," Margarete,your avoid figuration or any otherdirectrepresentation of fascist violence. In conceptualistfashion,Your GoldenHair, Margareteconjures up the curvatureof the German woman's hair witha bow of strawimposed on the center of a barren, landscape. A paintedblack curve echoingthe shape of Margarete's high-horizon hair evokes Shulamite,and the titleof the paintingis inscribedin black above both. In thispainting,the black of Shulamite'shair becomes one withthe black

1981. Anselm Your GoldenHair,Margarete. Kiefer.

......................

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Ilk

"Al
Funeral Hallforthe Wilhelm Kreis. Great German in the Hall ofSoldiers. c. 1939. Soldiers,

fV"",

of the land-again an indication thatKiefer'sdarkgroundcolorsrefer markings in to death rather than to renewal,as is so oftenclaimed. primarily history mythic And the combinationof real strawwithblack paint furthermore pointsto the and from the thatuse 1980s, Nuremberg Meistersinger paintings early paintings in order to evoke the conjunction the same colorsand materials of Nurembergas site of Wagner's Meistersinger and of the spectacular Nazi party conventions in Triumph filmedby Leni Riefenstahl oftheWill. But perhapsthe mostpowerful paintingin the seriesinspired by Paul Celan in whichKiefertransforms WilhelmKreis's fascist is the one entitledShulamite, design forthe Funeral Hall forthe Great German Soldiers in the Berlin Hall of Soldiers (c. 1939) intoa hauntingmemorialto the victims of the holocaust.The cavernous space, blackened by the firesof cremation,clearly remindsus of a in its veryproportions, whichare exacerbated giganticbrickoven, threatening an low-level Kiefer's use of No crude of representation extremely by perspective. or the residues of human are shown. Almost cremation, only suffering gassing

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Anselm theTemptation Kiefer:The TerrorofHistory, ofMyth

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Anselm Shulamite. 1983. Kiefer.

hidden in the depth of thishuge emptyspace we see the seven tinyflamesof a memorial candelabra dwarfed by the horror of this murderousspace. Kiefer that haunted his other paintingsof succeeds here in avoiding all the ambiguity fascistarchitecture.And he is successfulbecause he evokes the terrorperpetrated by Germans on their victims,thus opening a space for mourning,a I discussedearlier.By transforming dimensionthatis absentfromthe paintings a fascist architectural dedicated to the cult of death the into a memoNazis, space, he creates an effect rial for Nazism's victims, of genuine criticalUmfunktionieran as Brecht would have called effect that revealsfascism's it, ung, genocidaltelos in its own celebratory memorialspaces. on Kieferby comingback to mythemeof Let me conclude thesereflections in one of Kiefer's mostpowerful and as it articulated is history myth, painting, Icarus-March Sand (1981). This paintingexpresses works,the paintingentitled how Kiefer's best work derives its strength fromthe at times paradigmatically unbearable tensionbetween the terrorof German history and the intenselong-

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44

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Anselm Icarus-March Sand. 1981. Kiefer.

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Icarus-March Sand combinesGreek ing to get beyondit withthe help of myth. a now East with the of Prussian, German,landscape that,to a West image myth the is and as as German, storyof Icarus's fall. The painting legendary mythic that we might does not articulatea passionate scream of horrorand suffering associate with expressionism.Instead we get the voiceless crashingof the two charredwingsof Icarus in the mythic Heide, the landscapeof the Brandenburger Kiefer's Icarus March Heath, siteof so manybattlesin Prussianmilitary history. is not the Icarus of classical antiquity,son of an engineer whose hubris was chastized by the gods when the sun melted his wings as he soared upward. Kiefer's Icarus is the modern painter,the palette withits thumbholereplacing anotherversionof Kiefer's the head. Icarus has become an allegoryof painting, he not of and crashes because the sun's heat above, but palettes, many flying because of the firesburning beneath him in the Prussian landscape. Only a luminousglow on the high plane of the paintingsuggeststhe presence distantly seems imminent. Icarus is not soaring of the sun. It is a setting sun, and nightfall

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theTemptation Anselm Kiefer:The TerrorofHistory, ofMyth

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toward the infinite;he is, as it were, being pulled down to the ground. It is German history, that stuntsthe painterlyflight toward transcendence. history, Painting crashes, redemption through painting is no longer possible, mythic vision itselfis fundamentally contaminated,polluted, violated by history.The the more intense the impossibledesire to strongerthe strangleholdof history, revealsitself as chained to history ratherthanas escape intomyth.But thenmyth other. The desire for transcendent and reconciliation renewal,rebirth, history's that speaks to us fromthese paintingsmaybe overwhelming. But Kiefer'swork also knows that this desire will not be fulfilled, is beyond human grasp. The potentialfor rebirthand renewal that fire,mythicfire,may hold for the earth does not extend to human life. Kiefer's firesare the firesof history, and they a vision that is indeed but one that raises the of apocalyptic, light hope redemption only to forecloseit.

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