Encounters: New Art from Old. Anselm Kiefer: Keith Hartley

Anselm Kiefer. Lichtfalle (Light Trap), 1999.

Anselm Kiefer. Lichtfalle (Light Trap), 1999.

Anselm Kiefer studied art in Freiburg and Karlsruhe in the late 1960s, at a time when figurative painting was beginning to reassert itself in Germany. But the artistic scene was still dominated by conceptual art and by Joseph Beuys, with whom Kiefer studied from 1971 to 1972. These two strains in German art are mirrored in Kiefer's work. From the very beginning one of his main concerns was to try to come to terms with Germany's Nazi past and the Nordic myths that helped sustain it. Another concern was the possibility of painting at a time when its viability was in doubt. Kiefer's paintings took these subjects head-on and were often very large and dramatic; they were figurative and yet used words, collage and other devices to pose questions and evoke an expanding set of associations. From the mid-1980s Kiefer's imagery has broadened to include the Bible and the history and myths of other parts of the world such as the Middle East and Latin America. The materials that he uses have also expanded to include lead, copper and glass — often to form sculptures. Since 1995 Kiefer has lived in the South of France, where he has continued to add to the richness of esoteric references in his work.

Anselm Kiefer’s Light Trap presents us with a view of part of the night sky which is more diagrammatic than observed. The individual stars are indicated by narrow labels made of thick, emulsified paint attached to the canvas — not the Arabic names that have come down to us over the centuries but those given to them by modern astronomers to describe their spectral type, luminosity and any other peculiarities. The stars are linked by white lines in the traditional manner to form constellations, not because there is any scientific connection between them but rather as an aid to identification. The heavens contain millions of more or less visible stars and so, since the earliest of times, humans all over the globe have read recognisable patterns and schematic images into their complex clusterings.The names they have given these constellations have varied according to different cultures, but most of those that we use today derive from the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, who in turn drew upon Mesopotamian and Greek sources.

According to Kiefer the constellation that he has depicted is Draco or the Dragon, an extended and not easily distinguishable pattern of stars that runs around the Pole Star, embracing in its coils Ursa Minor. One can make out a large reverse S-shape from top left to bottom right that corresponds to this constellation, but overlaying it are a number of other lines that do not seem to denote any constellations.

Underneath the star names and constellation lines is a thickly encrusted surface of paint, mainly black but peppered with white stars towards the edges of the canvas and covered with a white fog in the centre. At first sight this looks like a galaxy, a star cluster or nebula, but after a while one begins to make out a ghostly pyramidal structure with doors to a chamber on the top. If one knows Kiefer's work, one realises that it is a Meso-American pyramidal temple, probably Mayan. In the past few years Kiefer has painted a number of works on this theme. In fact Light Trap was painted over an earlier picture of a Mayan pyramid, but instead of obliterating the image Kiefer chose to retain a palimpsest of it. Running down the facing side of the pyramid is a line of golden paint, which, just below the centre of the canvas, meets a rusty-looking rat-trap. Thrust into in funnel-shaped heart are several shards of glass bearing the numbers of stars.

What are we to make of this extraordinary conjunction of stellar map, geometrical lines, Mayan temple and metal rat-trap? And what relationship is there with the National Gallery's Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way? The first thing to say is that, beyond its initial and considerable impact upon the senses, Kiefer's painting works by association. Images, signs, objects and colours suggest a range of meanings. It helps if one knows other works by the artist, since they feed off, and refer to, each other. The full significance of the starry sky and of a trap catching stars rather than rats is only revealed if one is aware of Kiefer's interest in the cosmologies of different ages and cultures and in the related esoteric areas of astrology, alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the Cabala.

Kiefer is attracted to the stars and to the firmament in general because of their awe-inspiring vastness; quintessentially, they possess the chief characteristic that Immanuel Kant ascribed to the Sublime, namely the power to overwhelm our understanding. Initially this fills us with fear. As our minds struggle to make sense of it, creating new intellectual structures to try and explain what may be unfathomable, we experience pleasure at our apparent omniscience. It is precisely this mixture of awed fear and the pleasure of the initiate that we find in Kiefer's work.

This is not the first time that Kiefer has made reference to stars in his work. As early as 1979-81 he painted a starry night in his Midsummer Night. He has even referred to the Milky Way in several works, including a huge painting of 1985-7, The Milky Way. What is new about Light Trap, though, and a series of paintings done since 1998, is that they seem to depict the stars in a scientific way, noting down their exact classification and showing the constellations in the traditional manner by linking them together by lines.This is the case, for example, with the two recent paintings entitled Constellation included in the National Gallery exhibition. Here, however, Kiefer shows the heavens as seen through a number of large sunflowers, thus making a connection between the earthbound plants, their sun-like flowers and myriad star-like seeds, and the network of heavenly bodies in the sky. In previous works it had been clear that Kiefer had drawn on a wide range of religious and mystical ideas about the nature of the universe and our place in it to create richly associative images. For example, in Stars of 1995, he had pictured himself lying flat on the earth in the yogic position of shavasana with lines linking him to the stars above, while in Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (The rose gives honey for the bees;) of 1996 he showed himself in a similar posture floating in the night sky at the centre of a series of concentric circles. Both these and other works are clearly about the relationship between human beings and the universe, between the microcosm and the macrocosm.What occurs within us is reflected in the heavens and vice versa.The paintings are also about our search for enlightenment and spiritual refinement. The yogic position of shavasana, if successfully performed, is supposed to place the body in a deathlike state and release the spirit to roam free.

Turning back to Light Trap, we seem to have entered a more scientific world. This makes the presence of the rat-trap and the ghostly Mayan temple all the more incongruous and inexplicable. So we begin to ask questions. What is the significance of Kiefer's choice of the Dragon for his constellation? Is the rat-trap the Light Trap of the title and, if so, what could it represent? Were not Mayan pyramids built to line up with heavenly bodies and were not human sacrifices performed on them to guarantee the continuing rise and fall of the sun and movement of the stars?

Draco or the Dragon has been the name of a constellation at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Its mythical origins are various. The most commonly cited myth is that of the dragon, Loden, who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, the Eden-like garden set at the end of the world where earth and heaven met. The gods Zeus and Hera had chosen the Hesperides as a fitting place to celebrate the union of their marriage, and the golden apples that subsequently grew there became symbols of love and fruitfulness and very dear to Hera. This was the same Hera (or Juno to the Romans) that Zeus (Jupiter) tricked into suckling his bastard son Herakles (Hercules), in order to give him immortality. Herakles sucked so vigorously at her breasts that milk spurted upwards into the sky to form the Milky Way. Angered by this trickery Hera set Herakles twelve labours in the hope of his being killed. One of these was to slay the dragon, Lodon, and steal the golden apples. When Herakles accomplished this labour Hera rewarded the dead, faithful dragon by setting him in the stars.These mythical associations suggest links with Tintoretto's Origin of the Milky Way, but they also help to inform Kiefer's picture and will feed into the interpretation of other elements, notably the rat-trap.

The dragon, however, has another significance in the lore of alchemy, of which the complex symbolism has fascinated Kiefer since the early part of his career and continues to resonate in his work. According to Carl Jung, in his monumental book Psychology and Alchemy (1944), the dragon lies at the very heart of the alchemist's vision. It symbolises the chthonic, earthbound principle of the serpent and the airy principle of the bird. It was used as a symbol for mercury, which alchemists believed was able to turn base metal to gold or spirit. As Jung put it, `Mercury stands at the beginning and end of the opus .... As a dragon it consumes itself and as a dragon it dies and is resurrected as the [Philosopher's] Stone.[1] Thus, in alchemy, the dragon stands for a system of thought that seeks to refine and purify, to bring human consciousness to a higher plane, leaving behind base and materialist thoughts. The alchemists even interpreted the myth of the Hesperides in this light. 'Metaphysically, the dragon is the lower, earthly self which the soul must learn to subdue and train, to that the higher self (the golden apples) may at last reign’[2]

Having identified an alchemical connection in the constellation, it is possible to attempt an interpretation of the rat-trap.The title of the painting, Light Trap, or Lichtfalle to give it its German title, gives us our first clue. The trap is drawing light into itself and preventing it from leaving. The shards of glass are marked by letters and numbers indicating that they represent stars. Thus, the rat-trap becomes a black hole, ‘a region of space-time from which nothing, not even light, can escape, because its gravity is so strong’[3] Any objects or light falling into a black hole disappear from sight swallowed up in blackness. The existence of black holes had been predicted theoretically many years ago, but only recently have any actually been discovered. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time has done more than any other book to explain black holes to a broad audience. In it he writes: 'The number of black holes may well be even greater than the number of visible stars ....We also have some evidence that there is a much larger black hole, with a mass of about a hundred thousand times that of the sun, at the centre of our galaxy. Stars in the galaxy that come too near this black hole will be torn apart by the difference in the gravitational forces on their near and far sides. Their remains and gas that is thrown off other stars will fall toward the black hole, In his painting Kiefer is not referring to any specific black hole but rather to their general nature and to their tremendous potential to destroy matter, even light. His interest in cosmology extends not only to the creation of the universe but also to its possible destruction. As Hawking explains, black holes may play a role in that end. 'According to the general theory of relativity, there must have been a state of infinite density in the past, the big bang, which would have been an effective beginning of time. Similarly, if the whole universe recollapsed, there must be another state of infinite density in the future, the big crunch, which would be an end of time.[5]

Kiefer's painting thus takes on a distinctly apocalyptic symbolism.This is not surprising considering that the work was made in 1999. Kiefer has made other works recently with titles that make these millennial visions plain. In 1996 he painted an enormous canvas called The Sixth Trump. Kiefer does not depict the sixth angel of the biblical Apocalypse whose blowing of the trumpet issues in the killing of a third of humankind; rather he suggests the empty land after this slaughter.The German title of our painting, Lichtfalle, can also suggest a forthcoming Apocalypse, as a pun on 'Lichtfall', or 'light fall'. In this way it could refer to the stars falling from the skies as foretold in Revelation 6:12-14. One should be careful, however, not to interpret apocalyptic imagery in Kiefer's work as meaning the end of all things. In fact Christian belief as expressed in Revelation sees the Apocalypse as the prelude to the coming of Heaven.[6]

This progression from matter to spirit is also central to the alchemist's belief. Kiefer has a profound interest in and knowledge of alchemy and has acknowledged[7] that it also plays an important role in Light Trap. An alchemical reading of the rat-trap would see it as the alembic, or vessel, used by the alchemists to turn base matter into gold. In the first part of this process base matter was supposed to turn black and enter the stage known as nigredo, ’in which the body of the impure metal, the matter of the Stone, or the old outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form’.[8] In a similar way the stars disappear into the black hole and are condensed into the very stuff of creation. It is perhaps not accidental (Kiefer is very widely read) that another word for the alembic is glass house, glass prison or glass, Likewise the alchemists used the image of the black sun or sol niger, to symbolise the death of base matter.[10]

As well as the alchemical readings of the trap, there are two mythical associations that should be emphasised, one of which has already been mentioned in connection with the constellation of the Dragon.This concerns the myth explaining the origin of the Milky Way. Hera was entrapped by Zeus into suckling Herakles. This trap is given visual form in Tintoretto's painting in the form of a net held by one of the flying putti. Another famous entrapment was perpetrated on the companions of Odysseus (Ulysses) by the sorceress Circe, who gave them a potion that turned them into swine. During the time that Kiefer was working on Light Trap he was also engaged in making a series of sculptural works on the theme of the Women of Antiquity.[11] One of these female figures was Circe. As for the other figures in this group, for the body he used a contemporary wedding dress (stiffened with plaster and fitted with an internal support so that it could stand on its own); for the head he used a rat-trap similar to that fixed to Light Trap, into which he placed small plastic models of pigs.

Around the same time that he painted Light Trap Kiefer made a closely related work called Light Compulsion (Lichtzwang). The word 'Lichtzwang' comes from the title of a book of poems by Paul Celan (1920-1970) published in 1970.[12] Celan was one of the most powerful poets of the post-war period to write in German. His experiences as a Jew brought up in Bukovina (in what is now Romania), whose parents died in a Nazi internment camp and who himself spent several years in Nazi labour service, had a profound effect on all his poetry. As well as providing the title for the book the word Lichtzwang occurs in one of the poems:

deep in the macchia [bushes], by the time
you crept up at last.
But we could not
darken over to you:
light compulsion

The poem looks back to the time when Celan was in labour service and the word light compulsion' refers to the enforced lighting around the camps to ensure no-one could escape under cover of darkness. The poem evokes an image of strong contrasts between light and dark, which is due in no small part to the composite word 'Lichtzwarte'. The English translation fails to convey the range of overtones the German word has. As well as the official jargon which means, All lights have to be kept switched on', the word can also be read as 'forcing light in, together, preventing it from escaping'. There is also a word cognate to `Zwang' (force), ‘Zwinger', which means a place to keep animals, a fort or donjon. Kiefer has long been a great admirer of Celan's poetry and has frequently used some of his most moving images in his paintings.[14] He was particularly struck by the power and richness of the word 'Lichtzwang'. It may have been one of the factors in his decision to use a rat-trap into which light is forced. A rat-trap is, after all, a sort of cage for animals or `Zwinger'.

This connection with Celan's poetry, steeped as it is in the horrors of the war and of the Holocaust, inevitably introduces a further association into our painting. According to this reading the rat-trap assumes the terrible connotations of the extermination camp, the gas chamber, and the ovens into which the bodies of the Jews were forced. Even the numbering on the shards of glass can be read as the numbers tattooed on to the victims' bodies. The shards themselves are also reminiscent of Kristallnacht (night of crystal) when the windows of Jewish shops, homes and synagogues were broken throughout Germany in 1938, and shattered glass became the symbol of the emerging Holocaust.[15]

This further layer of meaning, both horrific and tragic, sits uneasily with the essentially spiritual reading of the alchemist's opus. However, it is precisely the ability to hold two or more contradictory ideas in one image, without their cancelling each other out, that makes art so precious. The world is complex and contradictory and art mirrors this in some way. One of the salient features of Kiefer's art, right from its beginnings in the late 1960s, has been his determination to face up to the reality of recent German history, his history, and central to that was the catastrophe of the Holocaust. For much of the post-war period many Germans preferred to ignore it, to block it out and not to come to terms with the feelings of guilt. For Kiefer, who was born in 1945, it was not so much a sense of guilt, as incomprehension. How could a highly cultured, modern nation, his fellow countrymen, commit such an atrocity? Was it something in the German character, in his character? Kiefer felt the need to explore the myths, the historical events and the culture that fed into Nazism so as to try to understand it. He also set it within a wider, transnational, trans-temporal context, layering other myths and ideas over and beneath it, not in any way to sanction it but so as the better to understand the psychological and cultural mechanisms that might lead to such madness. If the references to Nazism and the Holocaust have become less insistent in Kiefer's work in the 1980s and 1990s, as he has grown increasingly interested in general cosmological and religious ideas, they have not disappeared altogether and remain as a base note.

The last image to be discussed is that of the Mayan temple. These huge pyramidal structures, surmounted by a temple, astounded Western travellers and archaeologists when they first saw them rising out of the dense jungles of central America.[16] Since the Maya conceived of a close interrelation-ship between heaven and earth they needed to be able to calculate the movement of the planets and stars with great accuracy At certain crucial junctures blood-letting and human sacrifices were carried out to propitiate the gods so as to ensure future fruitfulness and prosperity. They were carried out mainly in the temples which were situated on top of the pyramids. The pyramids themselves were in part observatories, aligned to catch the rising and setting sun, moon and Venus at certain times of the year. In Kiefer's painting carefully drawn lines emanating from stars situated in the lower portion of the heavenly map converge at the two rectangular openings at the top of the pyramid. These portals led into the temple where the sacrifices took place. Descending from the top centre of the pyramid can be seen a gold-coloured trail where the main stairway would be. It was down this stairway that the bodies of the sacrificial victims would have been thrown. But the trail of red blood left behind has since metamorphosed into gold, symbolising the spiritual elevation of those sacrificed.

Kiefer's choice of gold for this bloody stairway is significant. Nor only is gold the colour of the sun, the chief god of Mayan cosmology, but it was also the goal of the alchemical opus and symbolised the highest degree of spiritual awareness to which humans could aspire.The death of the sacrificial body in the Mayan religion and the putrefaction of matter in the nigrodo of the alchemists are closely analogous, because they both lead on to this golden plane of existence.

Kiefer's work has often been linked to the wave of neo-expressionist painting that marked the international art scene in the 1980s, but this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of it. Kiefer has never been interested in the emotionalism of spontaneous gesture and exaggerated colour. Although much of his artistic output has been in the form of painting, his work is actually closer in its aims and strategies to conceptual art and to the expanded notion of art espoused by such artists as Joseph Beuys from the late 1960s onwards. This art was more concerned with ideas than form, with getting people to think about issues beyond the purely aesthetic, about life in its broadest sense. This is the background against which Kiefer's Light Trap should be seen. It is associative rather than formalist, intellectually suggestive rather than emotionally direct (although it does not lack a sensuous impact). It presents us with what at first seems to be a scientific world view of the universe, only to undermine it with a whole range of pre-modern, pre-scientific cosmologies: ancient myths, alchemy, Mayan religion. Kiefer is sceptical of science, because, according to him, it provides no answers. It may uncover the mechanical workings of the universe but it fails to answer the ultimate questions about meaning, about how we as conscious beings can relate to things. This is where myths, beliefs and religions come into their own. They focus on the human personality, on our perception and relationship with things. Their cosmologies may not tell scientific truth, but they do tell human truths, and over the centuries and in different cultures they have proved remarkably similar and consistent in their stories and exegesis.

Tintoretto's Origin of the Milky Way was probably painted in the late 1570s in the early years of the modern, scientific era. What attracted Kiefer to this painting was the linking of the creation of stars, of our universe, with human procreation, the mirroring of the macrocosm in the microcosm. Kiefer's painting Light Trap links the universe to human concerns. In fact, uncovering one further layer of meaning, it is possible to see the rat-trap as the embodiment of the female principle, sucking the male (the glass shards) down a funnel into its womb-like interior, where all the elements are fused together — perhaps to give birth to a new universe. Kiefer has been interested in the universality of the male—female relationship, the interlocking of the yin and yang principles, since at least 1970. In a watercolour entitled Julia of 1971, Kiefer had depicted his first wife holding a marble heart with an inverted funnel-shape behind her. This funnel-shape is repeated in a number of landscapes linking together the female earth and the male skies.[17] In The Milky Way of 1985-7, Kiefer fixed an inverted lead funnel to his canvas. Its tip is immersed in a white line stretching over a flat field, which Kiefer has labelled 'The MilkyWay'. Thin strips of lead reach up from the funnel to the skies, denoting a link between the female earth and its milky fertility and the male stars of the Milky Way.

Kiefer takes a cyclical view of life and does not believe in a straight, linear development.[18] Could not a black hole, wreaking destruction in our universe, be but the precursor to a new big bang, a new creation? In the same way that life on earth is caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of birth and death, death and rebirth, so the universe itself might shrink to an infinitesimal singularity, the big crunch, only to explode again into new life, a new big bang.


[1] C.G. Jung, Psychologie und Alchemie, Zurich 1944, p. 400 (author's translation).

[2] Lyndy, Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Cambridge 1988, p. 60.

[3] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London 1999 (first published 1988), p. 201.

[4] Ibid. p. 106.

[5] Ibid. p. 191.

[6] Revelation 21:1-2.

[7] To the author of this essay.

[8] Abraham 1988 cited note 2, p.135.

[9] Abraham 1988 cited note 2, p.85.

[10] Abraham 1988 cited note 2, p.186.

[11] Many of these sculptures (although not Circe) were shown in the exhibition Anselm Kiefer Die Frauen der Antike at the Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris, 6 November-23 December 1999.

[12] A very good translation of a selection of Celan’s poetry is available in Poems of Paul Celan. Translated, with an Introduction, by Michael Hamburger, New York 1995 (first published 1989).

[13] Ibid., p. 297.

[14] Celan’s perhaps most famous poem, Death Fugue (Todesfuge), about a golden-haired German woman, Margarete, and an ashen-haired Jewish woman, Shulamith, and their intertwined lives in a Nazi death camp, has informed several of Kiefer's paintings, particularly in the early 1980s.

[15] 9 November 1938.

[16] For further discussion see Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings. The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, New York 1990, p. 66.

[17] See Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, Chicago and Philadelphia 1987, p. 18.

[18] Speaking to Joseph Beuys in 1985 Kiefer said: '... I can see more and more cyclical movements and, above all, happening at the some time... The belief in a linear, eschatological development leads to the danger of legitimising temporary catastrophes. Do you not think similar circumstances can re-occur, Over and over again, albeit in a different form?' (author's translation). Quoted in Ein Gesprach. Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi, Zurich 1986, p. 157.