Anselm Kiefer. Works on Paper in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Nan Rosenthal

Anselm Kiefer. Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven (Jeder Mensch steht unter seiner Himmelskugel), 1970.

Anselm Kiefer. Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven (Jeder Mensch steht unter seiner Himmelskugel), 1970.

In summer and fall of 1969, toward the end of his studies at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe, Kiefer—coiffed in the longish, rather unruly hair of a student of the 1960s—staged photographs of himself in paramilitary costumes. Wearing either a dark green coat or boots, jodhpurs, and shirt. he posed before historical monuments in cityscapes or in romantic, Caspar-David-Friedrich-like landscapes and seascapes in southern France, Switzerland, and Italy. His right arm extended and his palm open, he stands in an authentic yet sometimes slightly skewed and occasionally limp-wristed version of the official Hitler salute of the Third Reich.

Kiefer also posed in the Hitler salute in drag, in his Karlsruhe studio, wearing a patterned crocheted dress or white shift, garments borrowed from a friend. In other “Heil Hitler" photographs he stands in boots on the surface of his water-filled bathtub, a pose he captioned “attempt to walk on water in my bathtub in the studio”.[1] Faintly visible through the clear tub water are blocks for Kiefer's feet, belying his allusion to Christ's miraculous stride across the sea of Galilee (John 6:191. Although the Sieg Heil gesture strangely echoes Renaissance paintings of Christ hailing his disciples as he walks on the sea, the presence of a wine bottle on Kiefer's windowsill near his bathtub proposes a delusional rather than sacramental source for the homemade miracle; it reinforces Kiefer's satire of the Third Reich official greeting that he enacts.

Kiefer incorporated many of the photographs of himself in the "Heil Hitler" pose in two unique two-foot-tall books of 1969, composed of bound, scrapbook-like pages of juxtaposed images, titled Heroic Symbols and For Genet. In both books the photographic self-portraits are interspersed with watercolors of himself also in the Hitler salute, as well as many photographs—of his cluttered studio, domestic interiors with women in the earnest backswept hairdos of the Third Reich, church and castle interiors and city exteriors seen in deep perspective. and military scenes. There are also other watercolors, of flowers and of the sky punctured by wounds. While the books must be read page by page, which hints at the possibility in them of conventional narrative, the bricolage of images on a given page, across two-page spreads, or on successive pages, tacks from thought to thought, raising many different voices and points of view.

Several years after staging the “Heil Hitler” photographs at various European sites, Kiefer arranged them in a captioned sequence, which was published in 1975 in a Cologne art journal, interfunktionen, under the title Occupations 1969 (Besetzungen 1969). The word in German, as in English, often connotes military occupations (although none of the territories Kiefer depicted in his photographs was in fact occupied by the German military). Besetzung is also Freud's word for the psychoanalytic concept that his translators termed cathexis; it refers to the investment of psychic energy (often libidinous or erotic energy) in some object, idea, or person; Freud also used the term to theorize the psychological condition of mourning.[2]

In 1969, when Kiefer reenacted the Hitler salute, it was, if not still illegal in West Germany, clearly taboo, and Kiefer's gesture—presented in visual form as part of his thesis at the Art Academy—was a highly provocative one. However, after the relative silence In Germany during the 1950s concerning the fascist past, German playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, and television producers of the 1960s increasingly addressed issues of the Nazi era. Toward the end of that decade, the German student movement arose, in part to protest the widespread silence of its parents about the Third Reich. The movement also addressed more concrete issues, such as whether it was acceptable that the man elected chancellor in 1966, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, had been a member of the Nazi party and whether a properly democratic government should be formed from a coalition of the country's two largest political parties, leaving little opposition—as was the case between 1966 and 1969. Kiefer's provocative photographs and watercolors may be understood in the context of the wider social and cultural movements that were attempting to come to terms with the past.[3]

Kiefer's Occupations photographs, as well as his watercolors related to them in books and in independent drawings, and several larger paintings of 1970, were also made in an art historical context; the beginning of an interest among several German artists of Kiefer's generation in figurative art with German subjects, as opposed to the prevailing gestural or cool abstraction; the wake of the revival of interest in the 1960s in Marcel Duchamp's photographic self-portraits in various guises, including that of a female alter ego; the proto-Conceptual photographic self-portraits of the Parisian Yves Klein (1928-1962); and various manifestations during the 1960s of performance art and the beginnings of Conceptual art.[4]

Kiefer had been making watercolors since childhood. He chose to conduct his form of Conceptual art not only in the mediums of photography and language but also in watercolors that stress the luminosity and fluidity of the medium, as if to evoke the Alpine landscapes of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). The contrast between Kiefer's lyrical handling of the watercolor medium and the deeply problematic subject he was depicting inaugurated irony as a critical form of expression in his work.

In Untitled (Heroic Symbols) the figure of Kiefer saluting stands centered at the top of a puddle in a receding road in the countryside near Karlsruhe. The vertical figure of the artist links the sky, beginning at the horizon line beyond his head, to territory, underneath the plane of the earth, indicated by the mirror image of his legs and coat hem in the puddle. Kiefer has described the image as a kind of madness (“Wahsinn") or hubris.[5] A similar minor image of Kiefer saluting appears in his book Heroic Symbols. In Heroic Symbols the proportions of the figure giving the Nazi salute are condensed and made slightly comical. This small self-portrait is mounted on one matted sheet with a separate watercolor of the sky, which, according to the artist, has been wounded by shots.[6] A similar juxtaposition occurs in a two-page spread in the artist's book Heroic Symbols.

Kiefer's ironic title for both the book and these independent drawings derives from an article titled 'Heroic Symbols' in the February 1943 issue of a propaganda journal, Die Kunst im Deutschen Reich (Art in the German Reich),[7] published by the National Socialist party between 1937 and 1944. Kiefer's father owned copies of this magazine, which was one of the artist's sources for fascist imagery. The article extols the usefulness and spiritual power of the fine arts for transmitting German heroism of the past to the German people, as an incentive to the nation during “the most powerful battle of its history.”[8]

The even tinier figure in the same green military coat in Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven salutes under a transparent hemisphere set in a vast ploughed field dusted with snow. According to the artist, the pose here has “nothing to do with fascism….It was supposed to be like a lightning rod," and the watercolor was inspired by his reading of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) by the Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880-1942).[9] Kiefer's title and image refer to his view that there is no single teleological system of belief, such as Christianity or Marxism, appropriate for all human beings: Each man has his own dome, his own perceptions, his own theories. There is no one god for all. Each man has his own, and sometimes (one person's worldview) overlaps with or intersects another’s.”[10] He associates this view with the discovery that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system, which may explain the presence of his penciled inscription Erde/Welt (Earth/World).


1   Translation of Kiefer's French, "essai de marcher sur l'eau de mon beignoir [sic) dans l'atelier," inscribed on page 6 in his book, For Genet. 1969, illustrated in The Books of Anselm Kiefer: 1969–1990, ed. Gotz Adrian (New York: George Braziller, 1990), p.100.

2   The Freudian term Besetzung in relation to Kiefer's Occupations is discussed In Lisa R. Saltzmann, ‘Art after Auschwitz: Anselm Kiefer and the Possibilities of Representation" (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1994), pp. 144-45.

3   Kiefer's roots in the German protest culture of the 1960s and the complex issue of whether ridicule and satire are appropriate modes for coming to terms with fascist terror are analysed in Andreas Huryssen ‘Anselm Kiefer. The Terror of History, the Temptation Myth’ October, no. 48 (Spring 1989), pp. 25-45.

4   In a handwritten list of mythical, historical, literary, and artistic personages on a page of Kiefer’s 1969 book For Genet, the only contemporary artist included is Joseph Beuys (1921–1986).

5   Interview with the author, July 1997.

6   Ibid.

7   Saltzmann, 1994. p. 137.

8   Robert Scholz "Heroische Sinnbilder," Die Kunst im Deutschen Reich (Munich), 7, no 2 (February 1943), p. 28. Between 1937 and 1939 the journal was titled Die Kunst im Dritten Reich.

9   Interview, July 1997. Musil’s long unfinished novel of pre-World War Vienna is often compared to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

10   Interview, July 1997.