On the 8th March 1945, the Black Forest town of Donaueschingen witnessed two events. The first, Anselm Kiefer was born; the second, his neighbour’s house was targeted by allied bombers, leaving nothing behind but a sewing machine. Such a scene – the birth of an artist at the end of a war; the symbol of creativity surrounded by debris – could scarcely be a more fitting introduction of an artist whose work presents a constant juxtaposition of life and death, beauty and horror, order and chaos.
At the heart of Kiefer’s aesthetic – and the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy – lies his idea that ‘creation and destruction are one and the same’. It is hard to avoid hearing the context of post-war Germany in these words, just as it impossible to avoid tracing its influence on his work. Needless to say, it was Kiefer’s generation that witnessed the dawn of a new society built on the dusk of atrocity.
You can see this burden in his ambiguous portrayal of nature and its recurring propensity for evil. In The Order of the Night, for instance, sunflowers do not rise tall to face to sun; instead, like soldiers, their blackened faces look down at the corpse on the ground from which they grow – an allegory of a country broken by war.
Indeed, Kiefer’s art depicts this dark history in ways that are often alarming, disturbing and even tasteless. This is very deliberate: he rose to attention in 1969 in photographs of him giving Nazi salutes in various spots across Europe, and expanded this pose to a series of paintings known as the Heroic Symbols. Naturally, this caused scandal among Germans trying to move forward from the days of the Third Reich.
But Kiefer’s intention was (and has ever since been) the opposite: to create art that confronts rather than suppresses the truths of history. ‘Germans want to forget the past and start a new thing all the time, but only by going into the past can you go into the future’, he says.
This preoccupation with re-evaluating the past extends to Kiefer’s use of allusion. He casts a sombre shade over previous traditions and familiar images – his now-dried sunflowers, for example, are long out of Van Gogh’s hopeful vase. He also distorts the 19th century German romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In Winter Landscape, he infects the beauty of the natural world with the horrors of human suffering, but does so ethereally. Blood drips over fields from a human head; in Ice and Blood, it stains the snow in footprints.
Kiefer’s dedication to revisiting history and memory is also embedded in the textures and processes of his work. Materials, and the recycling of them, are crucial to his aesthetic. ‘No atom is ever lost’, he says – neither in life, nor in his paintings. He uses ash, glitter, straw, earth and lead, materials which empower the scope of his art.
The famous Ash Flower illustrates this in particular: in this 7 x 4 canvas, Kiefer uses clay, acrylic, paint and ash to layer the image of a real, dried sunflower soaring through the ruins of the Reich Chancellory’s Mosaic Room. It’s a colossal artefact that takes on an overwhelming life of its own – it’s not hard to believe its creation took 14 years.
He also shuts his art away in the dark, leaves it out in the wind and rain, burns it – creation and destruction one and the same, indeed. ‘Towns that are really well done, like Paris, they are finished,’ Kiefer says. ‘There is nothing you can add. They need bombs, these towns, to be interesting, no? With ruins, you start again. Then they could become enigmatic.’
You’ll see few artists as peculiarly inspired by destruction as Kiefer. But he is not a straightforward artist, and if you think you’ve conquered him, look again. ‘Art really is something difficult,’ he says. ‘It is difficult to make, and it is sometimes difficult for the viewer to understand. A part of it should always include having to shake your head.’ Kiefer certainly succeeds in this, and I wonder if attendance to galleries would increase if these words were inscribed above their entrance.