Exodus from Historical Time: Gudrun Inboden

Anselm Kiefer. Siegfried vergißt Brünhilde (Siegfried forgets Brünhilde), 1975.

Anselm Kiefer. Siegfried vergißt Brünhilde (Siegfried forgets Brünhilde), 1975.

The earth was without form and void,
and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
and the Spirit of God was moving
over the face of the waters.



The prototype of Kiefer’s landscapes is most common, if one remains with the outer schematic impression. Earth and heaven make up the protagonists; the horizon takes care of casting the parts. And yet, nothing is happening. The plowed fields are fallow; heaven is pushed back, pushed almost out of the pictures. There is nothing to cushion the missing event: Neither fog nor light, nor any other natural phenomenon between heaven and earth allegorically replaces the incident. The infinitely vast horizons, at the end of the furrows moving towards them, do not lead us to the atmosphere of the infinite. They are the boundary between heaven and earth: Instead of melting “near” with “far,” they separate that below from that above. At the horizons the landscape-space becomes a plane, and the representation postulates an abstract rather than an allegorical level of contemplation. | would like to go a step further and in advance describe the landscapes as cosmic.

In this they are without precedent in Western cultural history and at the most insinuated in medieval images of Creation which present the creation of the world according to the words of Genesis as a cosmogonic act of separation. In those images the disjoined materials or elements are united to form the whole of the cosmos in a circular sphere. With Kiefer, in a series of paintings from the 1970s, the outline of the palette describes an analogous contour around heaven and earth: The palette comprises that below and that above as a symbol of the cosmos and compares painting to a cosmogonic act. In Heaven-Earth from 1974 a perpendicular line furnished with the word “painting” in the center of the palette-circle unites the parts marked in hand-writing as Earth and Heaven and is itself qualified as an ascending movement. More unmistakable than the global profile of the palette, the vertical line points to the polarities of upper and lower and thus to its bracketing function in the act of painting.

The cosmogonic movement expressed in the straight line is subject to several picto-metaphoric variations in Kiefer’s work. One of the most striking is the wings: not only because they make it possible to soar, but because they have their roots in the myth of the powers of creation (cf. Wolundlied, Icarus). However, they contain more than can be expressed in an abstract vertical line, The wings overcome physical gravity, and through them the boundary between earth and heaven--between that below and that above--now accordingly becomes the distinction between matter and spirit. In the uprising movement of painting, both are bound together and thus contained in the act. Another metaphor for this is the ladder in the Seraphim images. The ladder derives from mystics and is clearly cosmological: It originates in the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius on the hierarchy of the heavens. Accordingly the world is divided “into a lower and an upper, a spiritual and an intelligible world which are not only opposed to each other, but whose character consists in their reciprocal denial, in their polar contrastiveness. But in the center above this abyss of denial, a spiritual bond links them together. A continuous path of mediation leads from one pole to the other, from the alter-being to the alter-one, from the empire of absolute form down to the absolutely formless matter... There is always something to surmount in between, there always remains a medium of separation which cannot be leapt over, but which must be traversed step by step in an orderly sequence. This step-ladder, which leads from heaven down to earth and up from earth to heaven, is systematically described and pictured in the writings of Dionysius . . . Thus, everything emanates from God, only to be comprised in him at last and to be revoked in him.“[1]

Above all, what the high horizons in Kiefer’s landscapes and what the vertical line in his painting Heaven-Earth seem to exclude--i.e. that the rising always corresponds to a fall--is made clear with this quotation, but foremost, the paintings and the metaphors cited themselves testify: The rounding of the palette itself is without direction; the word “painting” is written downwards in the canvas Painting from 1974; Icarus falls from heaven to earth; in The Order of Angels (1983/84) strings of lead course downwards and cross the vanishing lines pointing toward the horizon--like the rain in Painting. Other canvases, for example the untitled landscape from 1983/84, force the eye to read the perspective pull backward simultaneously as a surge forward.

In the Creation heaven and earth were separated. Since then--and this is the condition for the harmony of the cosmos--they strive for their initial unity. Such an alchemistic, mystic point of view of the creation and development of the world does not succeed in explaining Anselm Kiefer’s paintings. The landscapes (heaven and earth}--hardly distinct from one another--even deny such interpretations on their own. Only the metaphors and the inscriptions, some of which have been mentioned, give each single painting individuality and interpretiveness. They have mostly been applied to the landscapes as alien elements, and thus the perception of cosmogonic unity they evoke does not comprise the picture as a whole. The applications remain external. The alien and incompatible thrust between the signs and that which they should denote. The linguistic-metaphoric interpretation of the raison d’étre--if we want to term heaven and earth in this manner--is an artifact and, at the same time, the risk of bridging an abyss.

The metaphors and words--how often they stand exactly on the horizon, at the dividing-line and the connecting-line-- are symbols of interpretation. They necessarily belong to mythology, if mythology is cosmogonically perceived as a revelation or rather interpretation of reality. In this sense every interpretation is a creative act and every act of creation an interpretation. The words are written as if by a child’s hand, in unbroken astonishment and amazement at the magic of naming, at language through which the world first becomes meaningful for us. The “magic” mystic word-and image-metaphors are, as Dionysius Areopagita says, the “spiritual bond” between heaven and earth, and its creators are those heroes of the spirit (Geisteshelden), those unknown painters (Unbekannte Maler) in Kiefer’s paintings and books, and their monuments are sacred halls. “And where is the ‘sacred hall?’ In the spirit,” says the book Bahir.[2]

The spiritual brackets which lend unity and purpose are placed in the first (the foremost) plane of representation, without ever retreating backwards or becoming organically united with that which lies behind them. What the second (lower) plane is incapable of producing from its own energy is, in the form of an abstract overlayering, assigned to the upper level of perception. The landscape--especially when filling the entire canvas with fallows and tilled earth--by all means constitutes the receptive part: It is porous, and its richness stands symbolically for the potential fertility, especially when burnt earth awaits fresh irrigation and fructification. Still, it refuses those powers emanating from the upper level. Matter and mind separate in the horizontal interpretation, as do earth and heaven in a vertical one. That which is below is void of humans--a darkness without history, which in order to become history has to unite with that which is above. Even where the lower space actually pretends to contain history, it does so in the shape of an isolated container thrust into the earth, bearing historical quotations without any suasive effect on the surrounding space. The soil destined for life seems to persist in rigor mortis. Siegfried forgets Brunhilde is written upon it in a shocking foreshortening toward the horizon. The line of demarcation of a withering memory separates mythology and history. The oblivion of their original and characteristic unity leaves a fruitless wasteland and pushes heaven out of sight.

In reconstructing the vital “spiritual bond” between them, the artist acts in awareness of the oldest and noblest task in the arts. As a mediator between history and mythology he gives history a purpose. How incompatible such a task seems with a world without history is discomfortingly expressed by the “alien bodies” of the metaphors. No expectation counterpoises the “mandate.”


In contrast to the earlier landscapes, the paintings and cardboards with the theme of Exodus from Egypt mostly reverse the proportions of that below and that above. This observation would contradict what has just been said, if these works were not concerned with “cosmic landscapes” as well--with spaces “before” and “after time,” void of humans and therefore of history--and if the separation and purposeful mediation between that below and that above were not opposed to one another.

In most cardboards an amorphous mass of lead seizes the metaphoric level, pouring down from the upper edge of the picture, fingering onto the horizon or merely overlapping its course. In contrast, moving upwards, one sometimes finds a shepherd’s crook. It is made of lead like those formless metaphors in the sky, and in some pictures it actually touches them. The cloud-like forms, with colors of fire, can also be branded like a wound into the somber, black-decked landscape-space. They are the negative forms of the liquid lead poured onto the paper and removed again after cooling.

The chasm between these signs and their semantic foundation widens all the more as both betray their morphological relationship. The mass of clouds is virtually a natural component of the clouded heaven, and the crook finds its formal analogies in the telegraph-masts, in the steel frames of electric power plants or in a tree-vertical forms which, like the crook, are rooted in the earth and tower above the narrow, dark silhouette of the landscape against the heaven. The signs, however, seemingly tautological compressions of their environment, significantly grow beyond it and tear the genealogical context apart. They leave the level of (photographically) reproduced reality, to which they have just belonged, and confront it with their own original reality. The black, often unfocused landscape background and the grey, lightless heaven sink powerlessly, like another world, behind the more tangible metaphors.

As in the big landscape paintings, the initial, discursive picture-plane thus obtained is the level of concurrence between that above and that below. In the cardboard pieces, however, the movement of ascending and descending, which forms the prerequisite for the production of an encroaching “spiritual bond,” is defined in a special manner as dynamic, and whenever the crook emerges, also as dialogical. In both the lead-and the fire-cloud is concealed a center of energetic potency, slowly streaming downward or exploding powerfully. Similar to the earth, shaped like a container in these big landscapes, the crook and its analogous forms are receivers of the substance which they consume, transform and remit. The exchange of powers between that above and that below, this dynamic dialogue between effusion, absorption and remittal of spiritual energy, is nothing else than the archetypical form of the cosmagonic process. The crook, however, does not always come up to this creative task; in some pictures it succumbs to the predominance of its destination, in others it seems to threaten a revolt. The crook binds the amorphous flux of energy into a form. Here the disseminating energies are redeemed to an existence and a purpose. (One of the cardboards is entitled Golgotha).[3]

Just as little, however, as in the big landscape paintings, which | like to call earth-paintings, does the act of redemption effect any consequences on the metaphorical level of the heaven-paintings for the landscape lying behind. History does not come into being. Instead of fertilizing each other cosmogonically, the creative centers of energy--here, the heaven, there the earth--both set each other apart as subsections. Not by coincidence, the earth-paintings and the heaven-paintings are works in their own right.

Lead is closely related to the earth. Since ancient times both were regarded as primeval matter and as that “massa contusa” in whose gravity the volatile spirit conceals itself and from which it can be “redeemed.” (The physical weight of the small cardboard pieces takes this fact to heart.) Lead or rather earth thus unite the opposites (including the complementary elements) of that below and that above. According to an alchemistic practice the redemption of spiritual substance from lower matter takes place in a gradual process of separating and combining, of ascending and descending, and, on the correspondingly higher level, as the cycle of death and resurrection. This inner polarity is appropriate to all of Kiefer's lead-metaphors (the wings, the books, etc.}. The leaden or lead-colored mass of clouds (at once heavy and light} in the cardboard pieces resembles the alchemist’s “lead of the air” and contains the power of fire. According to Kiefer, a gold-colored skin forms on the surface as soon as lead is heated.

As material-spiritual unity of opposites the lead also symbolizes the double nature of Saturn (the sol niger), of lower Mercury. In Saturn the cosmogonic and the eschatological aspects merge. It thus represents the demiurge in Jewish mysticism and is synonymous with Jehovah.

The lead-cloud has to be read in this sense anywoy if one is to pursue the theme which underlies all the cardboard pieces. Signaling the way in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, the God of Israel leads his people out of Egypt through the Red Sea and the desert. Disguised in such a manner, he reveals himself to his people and speaks to Moses. The crook is made of the same ambivalent matter as the cloud, and its nature corresponds to the god-like unity of opposites. Moses receives the at once ruinous and miraculous crook in the form of a serpent from the transforming hands of God. Thus, Moses is endowed with superhuman powers, but also with a superhuman task.

The cloud of lead and fire (in some cardboard pieces also in the shape of a pillar) grasps the contradictory nature of Jehovah more fundamentally than is revealed to Moses at the departure from Egypt. The suggestive power of this amorphous celestial creation by far exceeds God's choice of appearances in the Book of Moses. (Cf. for example, Raphael’s portrayal of the theme in the ceiling of the ninth loggia in the Vatican in Rome.} It is more comprehensive and general than the shape of God while hiding and communicating. It is immediately the active power itself. By flowing onto the earth, the suggestive power never disintegrates or is lost. It is a formless, continuously flowing substance which needs only the appropriate receptacles to take shape, similar to liquid lead in respective foundry molds; and yet, it retracts--an energy which does not consume itself and which is not lost, a force which draws on itself. Jehovah (-Saturn) is identical with this power. The teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah interpret this force in the sense of “emanation flowing, streaming outwards”[4] from En-Sof, the “eternal being,” while En-Sof and its god-like emanation are one.[5] In it or in the ten Sefiroth, the creative power of God is revealed.[6] However, according to the myth of the orthodox Kabbalah of Isaak Luria, this power from the first contains evil, the forces of judgment besides those of grace. At the beginning of the “drama of the world” God retreats, and due to this “exile” “the forces of judgment will gather and mass at one point, that prime-space from which God will retreat."[7] The process of emanation which unfolds across the ten steps of the Sefiroth tree is also a process of “cleansing the godly organism of the elements of evil.“[8] The “distillation of these forces of judgment” took place in the so-called “Breaking of the Vessels” of the Sefiroth, which were supposed to absorb that gleaming emanation. Thus, the demonic powers gained their own existence, and as a result of this “primeval crisis,” everything is “somehow broken, everything has a flaw, everything is unfinished;"[9] it needs restitution and healing.

God's exile corresponds to the exile of the tenth Sefirah, the Shekhinah, in the lower world of the Creation (also paralleled by the people of Israel and expressed by the image of a garden [earth] or the ocean}. Similar to the “prima materia,” all things of the created world are already foreseen,” and are thus regarded as representations or reflections of godly powers.[11] Therefore the Shekhinah is both “beneath” (earth) “as well as above” (heaven).[12] To quit the exile, to reunite with God, “is the purpose of salvation."[13] “Thus, the world of the Lurianic Kabbalah reveals itself as a great ‘mythology of exile and salvation’,”[14] of separation and reunion of the primeval “unity of that below and that above.”[15]

During the work on the cardboard pieces and paintings with the theme of the exodus, a series of small studies in wood and pieces of glass emerged which are concerned with the order of the Sefiroth and the “Breaking of the Vessels.” The metaphoric trees, telegraph-masts and the like are, so to speak, also “replicas” of the kabbolistic Sefiroth tree or rather the emanatistic gradation. In some cardboard pieces the emanating mass of clouds is substituted by a lamp-like light as it literally appears in Jewish mysticism for the “old of the old:” “He is a mystic lamp, disguised to all those in disguise, concealed to all those concealed, yet graspable only through those lights which disseminate from it, reveal and immediately conceal themselves again. And those lights are called the holy names of God." [16]

The term exile, denoting a concealed, retreating God, thus creating the break between that below and that above, and the emergence of Saturn-like opposites within God, reveals how much history and myth relate to, even explain one another in Jewish mysticism. Exile and salvation are not exclusively rooted in mythology but form the core of the historical reality of Israel. Therefore, the departure from Egypt simultaneously took place at the “lower” and the “upper” level. The departure is the historical experience and the “cosmic symbol” of continuously “renewed and always critically missed chances of salvation.”[17] The Book of Moses itself equates the beginning of the exodus with the beginning of the historical age: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”[18] From here on, the history of Israel is a path determined by God with the aim of eschatological fulfilment. “in Babylon the cultic calendar might have completed its eternal circle, untouched by the vicissitudes of history; in Israel, history itself rewrote it into the incredible signs of singularity.”[19] Here the religion and history of Judaism are singular in that an unending dialogue elucidates them. The “spiritual bond” of mutual questioning and justifying, that gradual reconciliation of that below with that above and vice versa must be visualized in the lower world--must, so to speak, incarnate itself like the act of legislation in the Book of Moses. (“Moses alone could support the weight of the voice and repeated with a human voice that statement of highest authority which has become the ten commandments.”[20] Moses’ ability and duty to interpret the upper, formless, concealed world to the lower sphere and to interpret it in graspable forms stands for the primeval image of creative interpretation, the event of the creation of a purpose. The course of the exodus, as well as the ever-changing interpretation of the Torah and the subsequent political history accompanying it, reveals that the “spiritual bond” of rendering a purpose is not unique and eternal but, in time, an ever-new restoration which always demands continuous restitution. This results in the persistent duty of the “lower world,” but also the given ability to intervene creatively at any moment: reflection of the primeval act of Creation and the sole guarantee for its lasting existence.


In the paintings of Anselm Kiefer the spiritual or cosmogonic bond of rendering a purpose as the primary and upper level of meaning lies before and above a second, lower plane of representation. Discursively it calls to mind the creative reflection between that above and that below and, visually, in a parallel background it unveils a world which, having lost the reflective powers or mistrusting them, has drawn and literalized the dividing horizon as an impregnable line of demarcation between both parts. Mythology and history are mutual strangers; they know nothing of one another. In contrast to the abundance of purpose in the former (in the anterior level of the picture}, the latter (the background plane of the picture} wraps itself in silence. The landscape of the latter is empty and the place of action is void of history. Yet the setting for this departure from Egypt is far too much of this world to be regarded, in a sense, as an archetypical landscape still void of history--which supports a harmonic, affirmative interpretation. The exodus does commence an historic age; but in that “initial moment” Jewish history is still unwritten and the alloted territory still has to be conquered and animated: Thus, Israel's exodus from Egypt is a movement into an empty and prehistoric territory. But the photographed landscapes are empty in yet another way. Photographs speak of the past; they do not witness the future.

These unsettled spaces are consequently historical. But history itself has reverted to oblivion. Another exodus has taken place: the exodus from history--the splitting-off and the exile of the perishable side of Saturn.

The exodus from Egypt into history was also the hour of birth for mythology; in mutual permeation both subsequently experience their respective meaning for the people of Israel. The exodus from history naturally is accompanied by the loss of mythology. Even though the nature of mythology is eternal and cannot be lost, in order to be effective, it relies on its ties to the “lower,” worldly occurence and on figures which draw their historical purpose from mythology. Without history, mythology leads a lost existence. Separated from each other they are in exiles. In the landscape-space of the cardboard pieces--even though they are nothing more than our photographed world--one would not like to make a home; one would always be a stranger. And yet nothing in the photographs deceives us that this exile void of history is “our world.” On the contrary: The artificially metaphoric counterbond with mythology accelerates this tragic experience to cosmic dimensions.

Most of what is commonly stated about the theme of history and mythology in the work of Anselm Kiefer seems to miss the realization that it deals with the loss of both of these categories endowing human existence with a purpose and consequently culminating in the term eschaton, the idea of salvation. With astonishing pertinacity, the popular flat interpretations of Kiefer’s art as a subjective effort to surmount the Nazi past--and the natural inverse of this reading, a glorification of Fascism--overlook the pictures themselves. The circumstantial evidence that Kiefer’s metaphors are derived mainly from Nordic instead of Greco-Roman mythology (thereby insincerely paying homage to a hollow ideal of bourgeois-humanistic education) speaks for itself, especially when related to the way German interpreters see themselves. As for the small percentage of outspoken Nazi themes in Kiefer’s work, they are integrated in the context extrapolated above, just as much as the far greater number of other historical subjects. National Socialism hypostatizes history--namely that which it produced--into mythology. In a fatal manner, history and mythology coincide in this construction. It postulates a cosmic awareness of history which in its outward appearance comes close to that of Judaism. At its core, however, it is a gruesome distorting-mirror. In an act of destruction, the Nazi ideology fuses that above and that below to an idol of the Golden Calf and results in the monster of mythologized violence. History as mythology is never the same as history and mythology. As a last monstrosity of modern enlightenment, the misinterpretation aims at the philosophy itself by denying the great idea of a free, individualistic postulate in an awareness of historical and moral responsibility.

The disaster at the end of the enlightenment, the devastated feeling for mythology and history, necessarily takes its place in an oeuvre which is concerned with understanding and reconstructive interpretation. The sense-destroying annexation of mythology to history has credibility only in terms of a polar opposite to the purposeful dialogue between mythology and history. “Without mythology every culture loses its healthy, creative, natural strength: only a horizon surrounded by myths seals an entire cultural movement into unity.“[21] What Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated for a world without mythology bears an emphatic relevance for an age in which historical memory is lost. In Kiefer's post-historical landscapes, corresponding to that which is beyond the horizon and reflecting it, the up-rooted mythology seeks that below in which its sense may again be made manifest.


1   Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance, Leipzig and Berlin 1927, p. 9f.

2   Das Buch Bahir — Ein Schriftdenkmal aus der Fréhzeit der Kabbala auf Grund der kritischen Neuausgabe von Gerhard Scholem, Leipzig 1923, p. 49

3   The small, rod-like, rolled up fern leaves applied to several of the paintings may serve to emphasize these ideas. As medicinal herbs, the fern in Kiefer’s book Johannisnacht represent purification and vigourous renewed growth.

4   Gershom Scholem, Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik, Zurich 1960, p. 150

5   Ibid, p. 53

6   Ibid

7   Ibid, p. 148f.

8   Ibid, p. 149

9   Ibid, p. 151

10   Gershom Scholem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit — Studien zu Grundbegriffen der Kabbala, Zurich 1962, p.173

11   Ibid, p. 166

12   Ibid, p. 167

13   Scholem, Zur Kabbala, p. 145

14   Ibid, p. 157

15   Ibid, p. 171

16   Scholem, Gestalt der Gottheit, p. 40f.

17   Scholem, Zur Kabbala, p. 155

18   Old Testament, Second Book of Moses, 12/2

19   Martin Buber, Konigtum Gottes, Berlin 1932, p. 121

20   Scholem, Zur Kabbala, p. 47

21   Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragodie oder Griechentum und Pessimismus, Works in three volumes, edited by Karl Schlechta, Vol. 1, Darmstadt 1973, p. 125