Anselm Kiefer: Peter Schjeldahl

Anselm Kiefer. Wayland's Song (with Wing), Wölundlied (mitFliigel), 1982.

Anselm Kiefer. Wayland's Song (with Wing), Wölundlied (mit Fliigel), 1982.

At the root of the scandals of this scandalous century is forgetfulness: on purpose, serving malign ideologies or naive dreams of progress, and as a habit of carelessness, a hole in the head through which the world leaks away. Great modern artists have been great forgetters, for the most part. Modernism was a culture of forgetting, of euphorically or elegiacally saying goodbye. Anselm Kiefer is a great rememberer. Like no one else, he shows us that modernism is over—by remembering it. Kiefer forgets almost nothing, least of all things that many want most to forget. Retrieving inconvenient truths from the modern oubliette, he hangs them on a Wall. He is our greatest artist not only for the matter of his work, its palimpsest of particular memories, but for its manner, which is the manner—the means, the protocol, the passion—of remembering.

Kiefer is a history painter, the first of consequence since Delacroix. His mode is public, rhetorical, even declamatory in a virtually pre-modern, early nineteenth-century way, and yet his sophisticated, ironic sensibility is exactly attuned to the post-modernist moment. By this seeming contradiction, Kiefer brackets—surrounds—the modern, considered as a zone of fissures and ruins. His great theme of German culture and its debacle in the Third Reich constitutes just a central fissure and ruined site, a master metaphor, of his vision. Its importance as an independent issue must not be denied, but Kiefer has been viciously misunderstood by those who have allowed it to blind them to the fullness of his art. For it is art as a civilising, redemptive force that is Kiefer's ultimate theme. In confronting the century's largest horror, he puts his hope and his ambition to the test. If, without evasion, art can deal with the Nazi catastrophe, he reasonably suggests, art can deal with anything.

Kiefer's work places unaccustomed demands on viewers. It is not enough simply to look at his pictures. One must read and take instruction from them. One must learn the historic and literary references, and if, like me, one has no German, it is necessary to seek translation of titles and texts. Such requirements have provoked lively resentment in some quarters; and certain other viewers, enthusiastic about Kiefer's visual splendours, have seemed to regard his allusions as pretentious nuisances, which thankfully can be ignored. But the critical element of Kiefer's greatness is not his aesthetic mastery, impressive as that is, but his interfolding of the aesthetic with other resources and capacities of the mind. His art is devised to assimilate and make available a maximum density of meaning: historical, poetic, and, in a fundamental sense, religious. Despite first appearances, little is hermetic or obscure in his enterprise. Properly informed, the viewer has ready access to the lyrical heights and cathartic depths of Kiefer's work, a total art-work which scorns the specialised pleasures of the museum to address humanity as a whole.

Kiefer's favoured motif is landscape: a ploughed or burned field with a high horizon, rendered in vertiginous perspective but smashed flat to the picture plane by an emphasis on materials and process. (The painterly topography is that of 'American', Abstract-Expressionist flatness and scale, given a 'French' spin of sensuous, nature-derived nuance: Kiefer forgets nothing of the modernist legacy.) The landscape often is a former battlefield which, to translate a Victor Hugo tag Kiefer has used, 'still quakes from the footsteps of fleeing giants': perhaps the forest where Hermann, in the first 'German victory', slaughtered Roman legions in AD 9 or much-bloodied Mark Brandenburg County (which gave its name to the marching song 'Mark Heath, Mark Sand') or the site of this or that Wehrmacht operation in World War II. But there is no precise depiction—no landscape that could not be a peaceful, though perhaps burned-off rural field—because Kiefer's real landscape is of the mind, a sedimentary region of haunted and haunting memories and associations.

Memory is made heart-shattering by a child's lullaby in the early masterpiece Maikäfer flieg ('Cockchafer, Fly’). What first appears to be a straggling line of soldiers or refugees on the horizon of a reeking field turns out to be a line of gently sorrowing words. 'Cockchafer, fly,' it reads. 'Father is in the war. Mother is in Pomerania. Pomerania is burned up.'Bilderstreit ('Iconoclastic Controversy')—a tank battle for a palette inscribed with names of eighth-century Byzantines who debated the permissibility of images—associates lethal power and intellectual terrorism. (More specific tanks roll in Noch ist Polen nicht verloren IV ('Poland Is Not Yet Lost'). The stunning, huge woodcuts about Hermann's battle, titled Wege der Weltweisheit ('Ways of Worldly Wisdom') convene generations of German politicians, creators, and thinkers who commented on that nationalistic symbol. (What would they make of it today?) The two paintings on blown-up photographs called Wege: märkischer Sand ('Ways: March Sand') respectively evoke, with place names, towns lost to Germany in the war and, with tongues of flame, a violent epiphany . The magnificent Ikarus= märkischer Sand (Icarus = Mark Sand) implicates painting (a winged palette) in aspiration's archetypal calamity.

Kiefer's symbology of the artist, especially his use of the palette form, has been termed sentimental, and it used to strike me that way; but sentimentality is a failure of feeling, and Kiefer's purposeful clichés have gradually constellated a universe of feelings. Clichés are drained receptacles of truth. Kiefer puts truth, both old and new, back into them. In Baum mit Palette ('Tree with Palette'), the tentacled leaden palette suggests art's source in a crude 'state of nature'. The Palette am Seil ('Palette on a Rope'), with its flames, identifies art with both revelation and danger. Later, in pictures called Dem unbekannten Maler ('Monument to the Unknown Painter'), the palette would become the public talisman of a lost—a murdered—spiritual entity. Kiefer's palette is indefinitely changeable, an instrument for probing for meanings in the dark.

Kiefer's most courageous and desperately moving works are those inspired by two recurring lines in Paul Celan's great poem of the Holocaust, 'Death Fugue': 'your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Sulamith'. Margarete is Goethe's Margarete, symbol of Aryan womanhood. Sulamith, the loved one in the Song of Solomon, represents Jewish womanhood. This theme has appeared usually in landscape formats, with Margarete evoked by golden straw and Sulamith by ashy encrustations— adding an invocation of cyclical nature to Celan's elegy: As grasses sprout from the ground and are burned back into it, perhaps, the Holocaust was a harvest and is now a constituent of the German soil. A recent painting, the devastating Sulamith, makes piercing use of one of the many motifs Kiefer has derived from Nazi architecture. In Sulamith, a mausoleum for German war heroes that was designed by Wilhelm Kreis is commandeered for a different rite: The torches on the walls, symbolic of the heroes, are blacked out, while on the distant altar burn the seven flames of the Biblical menorah.

To wrest creative energies from their terrible symbiosis with violence in German culture seems a task of Kiefer's works based on Wölundlied ('The Song of Wayland') and Die Meistersinger. The Edda tells the tale of Wayland, master blacksmith who, crippled by his king to keep him from straying, raped the king's daughter and killed his two sons (making drinking cups from their skulls), then forged wings for himself and flew away. Kiefer's visual association of this parable of evil with the 'scorched earth' of Germany sets up a troubling and profound reverberation. The Meistersinger is a symbol of the medieval flowering of Germanic culture at Nuremberg—the Nuremberg, later, of Hitler's rallies and of the war-crimes trials. Kiefer telescopes these meanings in paintings that may feature flares of colour, bright as clown motley, in collaged heaps of burned wood and straw. The effect is like an overlay of sounds: ancient song, Wagnerian anthem, screeching loudspeakers, the crash of war, the quiet telling of unbelievable horrors.

One of Kiefer's richest themes, advanced by him in a wide variety of forms and mediums, has been Unternehmen Seelöwe ('Operation Sea-lion'), Operation Sea-lion was Hitler's plan to invade England. Having little experience of amphibious warfare, the German command rigged a French gymnasium with tubs of water and had officers play with model boats to reckon how the thing was done. This episode—a petty rehearsal for a titanic battle that never occurred—may fascinate Kiefer for its resemblance to artistic creation, which invests humble objects with cosmic significance. Employing, as he often has, toy warships and an old, vaguely coffin-shaped zinc bathtub he owns, Kiefer here plunks the tub in dramatic but innocent terrain under a dark sky. The faintly comical disjunction in scale between the ships and the tub, and between the tub and the landscape, enacts a dream-like reversal, by which monstrous forces of history are miniaturised and a modest rural locale is correspondingly giganticised. This brilliant image typifies Kiefer's humour, for which he has never received sufficient credit— perhaps because, as a species of Shakespearean lyrical irony, it is unalloyed with the nervous hysteria that demands release in laughter.

Kiefer's art holds out mighty rewards to all viewers who, having taken the trouble to learn his lexicon, can see with their own eyes, think with their own heads, and feel with their own hearts. Somehow, it should be possible to say this of all art, but really it isn't. Much of even great art—and modern art almost entirely—secretes as much as it reveals and exacts a ritual of initiation. In a realm of common histories and myths and, yes, clichés, Kiefer acts not to express or manipulate but purely to empower sensation, thought, and feeling. He provides grist to the mill that is every responsive and truly civilised human being. In so doing, he fans the fire of yearnings that spill far beyond art, becoming the vision of a world redeemed by wisdom and pity. It may be possible to overestimate Kiefer's importance to world culture in the late twentieth century, but at this point I don't quite see how.