Germany's Past as an Artifact: Frank Trommler

Anselm Kiefer. Innenraum (Interior), 1981.

Anselm Kiefer. Innenraum (Interior), 1981.


The impressive American reception of the contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer is largely based on his ability to evoke powerful images of Germany's recent past.That quality has been raised to the status of singularity by art critics in major newspapers and journals from coast to coast whose commentaries accompanied Kiefer's comprehensive retrospective from Chicago and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and NewYork in 1987-89. His swift rise to the heights of international stardom appeared as miraculous as Athena's birth from the head of Zeus. According to these reviewers, Kiefer has burst upon the the art world with surprising force because of his aesthetic challenge to what they view as Germany's amnesia toward the legacy of the Nazi past.The critics have taken great pains to decipher his oversize painting as emanations of a genius or at least of an artistic hero who operates on a higher plane than the standard fare of postmodernist art.In the exhibition catalog, an impressive and thorough introduction to all aspects of Kiefer's oeuvre, Mark Rosenthalt, then curator of twentieth-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and co-organizer of the show, presents the German painter in Olympian isolation, as an artistic loner who has taken on the Nazi past almost single-handedly.

The critics' preoccupation with Kiefer's singularity tells as much about their sense of artistic relevance as it does about Kiefer himself. Moreover, it highlights the state of exhaustion in artistic paradigms of what art should be as much as it reveals the neglect of what has been going on in the arts east of Paris. While German painters are rarely considered to be harbingers of aesthetic currents, their innovative potential is most often recognized when it appears in expressionist guise. In the case of AnseIm Kiefer this expectation provides a key for the sudden transformation of professional curiosity into outright enthusiasm–a transformation that led the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, for example, to give his highly complimentary review of the retrospective in Art in America the title "Our Kiefer," a reflection on Francis Ford Coppola's controversial naming of the American version of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's movie "Hitler: Ein Film aus Deutschland," "Our Hitler." While Schjeldahl reiterates with particular pleasure that Kiefer's assimilation and refinement of Jackson Pollock's manner of combining spatial illusion and material literalness makes him an "American type" painter, his acclamation of the German artist is primarily motivated by something else. Schjeldahl is convinced that Kiefer's work has become a catalyst for a new aesthetic concern with history, ideas, and materials: "Our Kiefer? One among many (mine, yours, theirs). Kiefer is a product, catalyst and test case of a new internationalism in culture, which will seek to build a unity of reference, of conversation. In other words, Kiefer is a prime conversation piece of this era—a difficult position, even a crisis for any artist.”[1] And, we might add, a crisis for the critic too, for he has to face the question that he himself raised: "Is Kiefer 'really great'?" Or, in a telling variation, "Wouldn't it be amazing if he turned out to be really great?" In any case, in their reaction to the Kiefer retrospective of 1987-89 in the United Slates, art critics were in unusual agreement with a middlebrow, market-and-publicity-driven majority. Their perception of this artist as a catalyst of contemporary thoughts and preoccupations added to the sense of his uniqueness.

Evidently the "Kiefer Phenomenon" illustrates the public desire for a good old-fashioned genius, a desire which has not found much satisfaction since the deaths of Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol. The reaction to Kiefer's work also illustrates the pent-up need for paintings that can be experienced, "read," and talked about after so much abstract expressionism, minimalism, and concept art. Kiefer's obsession with writing lines of consciously inelegant script right into the middle of his huge canvases seems to have struck a familiar chord with many exhibition goers. However, in his native country Kiefer was greeted with much less enthusiasm. Only a few years ago he was accused of being some kind of neo-Nazi, filling oversized canvases with clichés of Nazi iconography, conjuring up Germanic myths with a Wagnerian ambition for grandeur, and appealing to the Teutonic longing for great classical halls in the shallow spirit of Hitler, Goebbels, and Speer. His German critics felt that Kiefer had broken a taboo that had been part of their efforts to disengage themselves and their art from the Nazi past.

Indeed, Kiefer's work has clearly visible ties with fascist aesthetics. Some paintings such as Interior (Innenraum, 1981,) and To the Unknown Painter (Dem unbekartmen Maier, 1983) originate in visions of actual Nazi architecture. Interior is based on Hitler's New Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer. The picture gives an intimidating view of an immense hall which has dark, imageless panels on the wall and a gridded floor and ceiling. The spectator is pulled in not just by the deep perspective but also by an uncanny atmosphere of doom, in which the collapse of the heavy walls seems imminent. The fire on the tombstone in the foreground enhances the ominous tone of the scene, whose oppressive grandeur leaves doubts about the artist's ultimate intentions.

However, if one studies Kiefer's other works that are directly based on manifestations of National Socialist thought, actions, or designs, one cannot but notice a consciously unrefined theatricality in his presentation. They are marked by an ironic play on the crudities of the Nazis' self-aggrandizing megalomania. A case in point is the much commented on Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelow, 1975,) which refers to one of the gigantic follies of the Nazi regime, the planned invasion of England with a small and unprepared navy. The center of the painting is dominated by a standard-issue Nazi-era zinc bathtub which the regime provided to families, along with directives for weekly bathing. While in the zinc bathtub one of the toy battleships is already burning and sinking, an immense cityscape with all the attributes of industrial power dwarfs the scene, reducing it to a sandbox game played out in front of empty chairs. The mockery of Hitler's grandiose miscalculation of such a wide-ranging military operation is unmistakable. In this mordant allegory Kiefer succeeds in evoking the sense of spatial magnitude together with the realization of its grotesque dimensions.

In other explicit evocations of the legacy of the Nazi past Kiefer has diminished the ambiguities even further, especially in confronting the persecution of the Jews. The series on Margarete and Shulamite (1981-83) is, of course, not intended as a direct illustration of a narrative of the Holocaust. It is based on the most impressive and excruciating poem of postwar literature on the Jewish Holocaust, Death Fugue (Todesfuge, 1945), written in German by the Jewish poet Paul Celan who, together with Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, has made the most acclaimed attempt to approach the phenomenon of Auschwitz in the language of poetry. In Death Fugue Celan pairs Margarete, the blond Aryan whose lineage reaches back through Goethe's Faust, with Shulamite, the black-haired woman from the Song of Solomon, an emblem of all Jews. While invoking the destruction of humanity in the murder of Shulamite, the poet shows the inseparability of these mythical figures. It is this inseparability that Kiefer picks up in his works on Margarete and Shulamite, conjuring in representations of each personage the presence of the other either by writing her name onto the canvas or by delineating the shape of the hair in straw or black paint. Referring to this painful pairing, Mark Rosenthhal concludes: "In Kiefer's view, Germany maimed itself and its civilization by destroying its Jewish members and so, by frequently alluding to both figures, he attempts to make Germany whole again. His action is certainly provocative, for some would contend that until very recently there was a virtual taboo in Germany against even mentioning the past existence of its Jews.”[2]

In this context the awesome setting of Shulamite (Sulamith, 1983), using a Nazi design of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers in the Berlin Hall of Soldiers, assumes some of its provocative character. By transforming the cryptlike interior of the intended Nazi memorial into the fire-blackened and suffocating space and by magnetically drawing the viewer toward the seven-flamed candelabrum at the end of the hall, Kiefer is able to disclose the dimension of oppressive terror within the Nazi cult of heroic death. That this transformation of terroristic monumentalism into a memorial for the victims has received such favorable reviews'' results from its evocation of mourning. Kiefer's style of allegorical rereading of Nazi symbolism deserves to be taken seriously as an attempt to confront the legacy of Nazism as an act of self-realization, not just a verdict of the otherness of evil.

Kiefer is much more vulnerable to accusations of aesthetic fascism in his consciously "mythical" works. Especially those paintings that recreate the Germanic ghosts of the Fatherland or rejuvenate the theme of Deutsche Geisteshelden suggest a digressive aestheticism in which the intended irony is often eclipsed by a murky conglomerate of acrylic, shellac, sand, awe, and inept drawing. In paintings such as Wayland Song (with Wing) (Wolundlied [mit Flugell], 1982) or Paths of Worldly Wisdom (Wege der Wehweisheit, 1976-77) the artist never reaches the aesthetic presentation promised by the rich mythical and spiritual associations. Kiefer's obsession with "spiritual homes" and philosophical fantasies brings him too close to the spiritual pretensions of earlier Germans in the twentieth century who mistook the intrusion of their mythical inscriptions into everyday reality as steps toward the political redemption of their people.

In the Federal Republic Kiefer's work was a much-debated topic at the time of the 1980 Biennale in Venice. His selection, together with Georg Baselitz, as a representative of German art at the Biennale caused a minor uproar, exemplified by the comments of the critic Werner Spies, who wrote in his review "Overdose of Teutonic Zeal" that "this sower spells danger.”[4] Kiefer was denounced as a neo-Nazi. A few years later, after it had become clear that the reputation of German painting abroad had not suffered from the choice of Kiefer and Baselitz but rather had gained enormously in some mysterious way, one of the few lively and courageous journals of the German left, Asthetik and Kommunikation, devoted a whole issue (no. 56) to the "mythical" approach to Germany's past. As a cover illustration it used Kiefer's rendition of the Teutonic forest, Varas (1976,). On this work in a consciously childlike script he has written the names of some of the more idiosyncratic German writers, such as Friedrich Holderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Christian Dietrich Grabbe, together with those of General von Schlieffen and General Blucher. In the center of the picture are the names of Varus's great Germanic adversaries, Hermann and Thusnelda, surrounded by blood stains which indicate the besmirching of the "mythic" past. Even the special issue's title, "Deutsche Mythen," points to the peculiarities of the preoccupation with myths insofar as it brings out both the legacy and the historical prefiguration of National Socialism. The reader is reminded of the fact that the concept of myth already has a long political history in twentieth-century Germany, encompassing more than the heroic vehicle in which Hitler floated into the Germans' subconscious. As an observer has aptly phrased it in an analysis of German literature in the Weimar Republic: plagued by "Hunger nach dem Mythos”[5] (hungering for the myth), Germans devoted many of their political and intellectual energies in the interwar years to an uncanny return to the "truly" natural, indigenous, and transrational.

Only by taking this political mythophilia before and after 1933 into account can one understand the polemics surrounding Kiefer's use of myths. After having been stained by Nazi abuse, how much more suspicious does the term Mythos appear when used by an artist who, in his early years, traveled to Switzerland, Italy. and France where he relived moments of Nazi grandeur at famous monuments, having himself photographed while giving the Heil Hitler salute. This series of pictures he labeled Occupations (Besetzungen, 1969). Kiefer is taken to task primarily for his use of art as a way of staging history as an aesthetic construct that evokes a nebulous feeling of nostalgia—a hallucination of history, not history itself. From there the connection is drawn, more or less aggressively, to the Nazi use of history as an imaginary construct of divergent elements whose manifestation so far exceeded the boundaries of its own possibilities that reality assumed the theatricality of myth.

"The German myths." one of the contributors of Asthetik and Kommunikation remarks, "are stories of the victimized child who becomes the victimizer (Geschichten vom gepregelten Kind, dos zum Priigler wird) because he cannot get away from the childhood experience.”[6] Other critics are less psychoanalytically minded. Barbara Catoir, for instance, noted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Except for a few pictures such as 'March Sand' and 'Resumptio' the artistic expressiveness of the painting does not reach the level of the symbolically charged lines of text. Expressivity becomes an interchangeable mode of citation.“[7]

In the United States, by contrast, even such a critical observer as Sanford Schwartz found himself intrigued by Kiefer's technique of quoting cultural and mythical signboards. In the New Criterion Schwartz elaborated:

When he writes Die Meistersinger in the clouds that are above the field in Die Meistersinger, he may be saying that it's time for Germany to stretch its Wagnerian muscles and take pride in its past once again. Or he may be saying, "Look what Wagner and his lofty conceptions have brought as to—a rank field, a mouldy legacy." Yet when you see the words Die Meistersinger up in the pale blue and cloudy white sky, your immediate response, unless you come equipped with thoughts about this opera, is that the title has an audaciously 'grandiloquent ring, and that it fits this mightily proportioned, straw-embowered, orange-black European landscape in the same corny and stirring way that Ile de France fits a transatlantic luxury liner, or that Man O' War fits a racehorse. Putting the words Die Meistersinger up in the narrow strip of sky of a landscape that has clumps of brushy straw all over it, Kiefer emphasizes how much of an object—almost a living, breathing object—rather than a painting, this is. We feel the distant trees, the fields, and the sky together as one noble, immense. silent creature, one that might raise itself on its haunches and slowly move away.' [8]

While elucidating the fascination evoked by this artist, Schwartz's comment also allows some conclusions concerning the different reactions here and in Germany. The underlying perception in America can be traced back to earlier periods of the twentieth century when events were experienced from afar. To the foreign observer, Germany—the country of the most barbaric aberration of humanity in modern times—presents both a history and a story. Much of the fascination abroad is intrinsically tied to the confrontation of German history as a story in which the fight between good and evil exploded into an awesome spectacle. Taking Germany's defeat in World War II as the closure, the observer is drawn to all those elements that confirm the story-like structure of these historical developments. helping him to integrate them into a broader picture of the modern world where the potential for meaning has not yet totally disappeared.

The search for this kind of story obviously is stronger outside than inside Germany. However, once the German artist's (or filmmaker's) participation in this search is recognized as an attempt to come to grips with the past, it is viewed with respect for its authenticity. That amazes the Germans to no end and confirms what contemporary ethnographers. such as Clifford Geertz and James Clifford, have described as the self-serving positioning of "the other" by the dominant group in every culture. Viewed as the manifestation of "the other," the sense of authenticity is more engrossing than the purely artistic achievement. While the story gains its particular reality through the evocation of moral and mythical dimensions, the observer is reassured of its reality by the "authentic" nature of the work. In turn, the German artist profits from something over which he has little artistic control. Or has he? One of the more serious accusations leveled at Anselm Kiefer in Germany is that his success abroad, especially in the United States, has been the result of a shrewd manipulation of sentiments, animosities, and fascinations which have met with a particularly receptive audience among Jewish art dealers and collectors.

The fact that in 1984 Kiefer became the first contemporary German artist to be accorded a retrospective at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has often been reported, together with Kiefer's own estimate that 75 percent of his collectors are Jewish. In its exhibition review the Jerusalem Post Magazine took Kiefer's evocation of mourning as the basis for the strong Jewish response: "Mourning might be the key to the psyche of Kiefer. It is not a mourning comparable to the mourning of the Jews of our times. Kiefer seems to be mourning the indigestibility of his heritage by battling with it in an ongoing series of waking dreams.”[9] In its own way the Jerusalem paper illustrated the phenomenon that the recognition of "the other" and the appreciation of its authenticity can be particularly forceful on "home territory," in one's own realm of remembrance. The key to the Jewish interest in Kiefer's work might indeed lie here.

However, cultural authenticity is and remains a strong selling point to the general public, as the extensive American interest in the 1987-89 Kiefer retrospective has shown. While the focus of reviews shifted between the eccentric topics and the weight of myth and history in general, no reviewer forgot to alert the audience to the Germanness of the show, maneuvering well-known stereotypes in and out of the art panorama. With this stringent initiation the show was bound to be "understood," presenting what Walter Abish in his ironic novel. How German Is It (1980) delineated as the predictable experience of the foreigner vis-i-vis things German: "In referring to Germany (after all, a not uncommon topic of conversation), its history, its achievements, its literature, its amazing economic recovery, it hardly seems possible not to acknowledge or recognize in everything German the intrinsic Standpunkt. the German point of view, the unique German way of seeing and appraising an object: a house, a barren hill, a tree in bloom, or something as evanescent as a passing cloud—and also the way in which this appraisal, this mere looking at as well as recognizing the true property or quality of what is seen, can be said to reflect a society, a culture, a particular people.”[10] Equally predictable is what Abish demonstrates immediately thereafter in his German heroes Gisela and Egon: that they "do not necessarily measure the degree to which it is authentic, or German.”[11]

Obviously Kiefer owes his reputation among his countrymen to other qualities. The clue to numerous strong and committed reactions in the Federal Republic seems to lie in his ability to arouse his generation's childhood dreams and nightmares, an ability that imbues associations of war and Angst with the feeling of a real, though bygone experience. Contemporaries—Kiefer was born in I945—are intrigued by his efforts to expose rather than overcome those memories. This exposure reinstates individual continuities, establishing ties with the past that supersede the official rhetoric of Vergangenheitsbewalrigung, of coming to terms with Nazi history.

A case in point is the powerful though hard to reproduce painting Cockchafer Fly (Maikafer flieg, 1974,) whose title takes up the old German nursery rhyme: "Maikafer flieg / der Vater ist im Krieg / die Mutter ist in Pommerland / Pommerland ist abgebrannt / Maikafer flieg." of which a familiar variant in English would be: "Ladybug, Ladybug / fly away home / Your house is on fire / your children all gone." As the poem evokes the overpowering sadness of war and destruction, the picture's blackened, scorched earth is smoldering in the aftermath of some horrible event. Small flames flare up, smoke touches the horizon at the narrow ribbon of the dark blue sky. The gloomy landscape is burnt by history, the human lament is scratched into it, the children's rhyme resonates in its ineffable despair. Kiefer is able to sustain the balance between the dark evocation of childhood memories and the conscious attempt to invent landscape as the central image of history.

Over the years landscapes have become Kiefer's medium of communication with the past. With his bleak palette of blacks, grays, and earth colors and his use of sand, straw, and zinc, his visual contemplation of nature assumes a symbolic intensity which bears comparison with the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Max Ernst. Two qualities deserve particular mention. The first is best summarized by Hilton Kramer in his observation that Kiefer's nature "is deeply implicated in the myths of a culture that has conferred so many spiritual or symbolic meanings on natural phenomena that the life of the earth seems at times to have been stripped of its independent existence. Which is to say that for Kiefer, as for so many German artists, nature is an allegory—a world of spirit as well as a realm of organic materiality—and it is in the effort to encompass its double nature, so to speak, that his landscape paintings achieve their special distinction.”[12] A new and devastating extension of this tradition can be seen in the double meaning of the painting Iron Path (Eisen-Steig, 1986,). Here railroad tracks to which two iron climbing shoes are attached lead through an open landscape toward a pair of glowing, gold-leaf orbs above the horizon. The evocation of a spiritual ascent is overshadowed by the association of the trains that transported the Jews to concentration camps on the same tracks. Kiefer does not need any figures in this melancholy landscape. The image of the tracks leading to Auschwitz, which has been reproduced over and over again, provides enough historical presence.

The other quality of his landscapes arises from their being at once flat and deep, aggressively frontal and yet rapidly receding toward a high, faraway horizon. As in the case of Kiefer's architectural images, the viewer is confronted with an aesthetic energy that creates the experience of space, of a spatial amplitude for which the German term Raum provides more resonance than the English "space." While the English term seems to point more directly to geographical location (unless it is used for the sphere of astronautics), the German Raum has more of a cultural connotation, evoking a three-dimensionality whose definition refers back to the individual experience. This cultural connotation makes Raum an important metaphor in German thinking, one whose evocation is filled with both the most weighty and the most airy concepts, ranging from the political Lebensraum to the existential Innenraum. Some of Kiefer's landscapes are clearly designed to provide such an experience, most notably those that depict Germany's East in the fields of the March of Brandenburg, the sandy area around Berlin. The series March Sand (Markischer Sand, 1977-82) presents quite literally the fields of Prussian history; in one of its paintings yellow labels name different towns of the area, grouped in a wide oval around a center which can be understood as a site of commemoration. In these landscapes the representation of the vast Raum in the East also invokes the gruesome storms of recent wars which left the fields in Cockchafer Fly smoldering. The fascination with the vast space turns into mourning over the destruction of a culture by the scorched earth policy that was prepared long before World War II.

Kiefer's evocation of Raum relies heavily on the enormous dimensions of his works. These paintings need space; they need the environment of large rooms or of grand exhibitions. The arrangements of the retrospective in Chicago and Philadelphia and later in Los Angeles and New York provided for broad sweeping vistas that were in character with the architectural and landscape space of the works. The visitor is drawn deeper and deeper into the different layers of this theatricality of sand, straw, lead, and grand spatial gesture. Kiefer's paintings appear to simultaneously recede from and press in on the viewer. His art of structuring space touches even those who think that Rosenthal's words are somewhat overdrawn when he says that "there is no escape" from this confrontation.


The emphasis on the uniqueness of AnseIm Kiefer's work has both advanced and obscured an understanding of the artist's dialogue with history, but this phase of ambiguity is passing. The early 1980s have already witnessed an extensive debate on the return of Europeans to representational art. In his assessment, "The New European Painters," John Russell pointed to an almost universal hunger for images of a new kind: "People needed to feel that art could still father unpredictable images, not in ones and twos but in superabundance. Wonderful as has been the achievement of American painting over the last 25 years, it has been in many cases an autonomous, self-referring achievement. Faced with paintings in which, from a common-sense point of view, virtually nothing was going on and paint was applied sparingly and as if under sedation, many people thought that too much of life was being excluded from art. Sometime, somewhere—so they thought—life had to come back in.”[13]

Kiefer's images are a powerful confirmation of this trend, as are those of a number of other successful German artists such as Georg Baselitz, Jorg Immendorff, Marcus Lupertz, and A. R. Penck who reinvigorated the expressionist tradition with crude though colorful representational paintings. It is neither the return to an oversized pictorial theatricality nor the rediscovery of emotions, desires, or the Angst of the past that singles out Kiefer's work in the context of these painters but rather his imaginative engagement of iconographic taboos that postwar German artists and writers have tried to exorcise for a long time. And just as the German Neoexpressionists' crudities and achievements have to be viewed in the context of the dreaded abstractionist and minimalist doctrines, so Kiefer's oeuvre has to be seen in the light of established models for coming to terms with that ominous predicament of creating art in Germany after Hitler. Kiefer's attempt to set himself apart has been successful because of his decisive rejection of the need to defend himself generally as an artist after modernism and as a German artist after fascism. Consequently any encompassing judgment of his work has to address both aspects in which his innovation can be identified: (I) redefining art as a social and intellectual paradigm and (2) evoking history as an aesthetic experience. For obvious masons the latter task has given rise to arguments and positions whose full range is still to be explored. Characteristic of artistic developments in (West) Germany after 1945 is the shift from a predominantly literary to a more visual approach to the legacy of the Nazi past. This shift, which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, coincided with the appearance of a younger generation of artists and filmmakers that had had no first-hand experience of life in Nazi Germany. Before the latter's emergence, the so-called generation of I945—authors such as Heinrich Boll, Alfred Andersch, Gunter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, and Peter Weiss—had tried to take the older generation to task for its political and moral responsibility, first in stories, radio plays, and novels, later in documentary plays. Contradicting Theodor Adorno's verdict against the aesthetic transformation of events that seemed to defy expression, these authors developed "metaphors of evil”[14] that simultaneously attempted to lay bare the horrors of Nazism and to reveal their legacy in postwar German society. This twofold enterprise only rarely succeeded, usually at the expense of an analysis of Nazism. It worked in the case of Gunter Grass's novel The Tin Drum (1959) where the satiric analogy between the adventures of the grotesque hero and the rise and fall of the Third Reich provides a metaphor that transcends the self-pitying moralism evident in other literary works. Grass's bold satire was well received both inside and outside Germany, meeting the need for a "theatrical" approach to reconstructing the past that could challenge the limits of the traditional moral narrative.

The strongest challenge came from the visual exploration of the past in movies created during the 1970s by a new generation of German artists. What was labeled New German Cinema—exemplified by films such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen or Volker Schloendorff 's The Tin Drum—represented a break with the moral metaphors of postwar literature. It culminated in Hans Jurgen Syberberg's seven-hour visual and acoustic investigation into the life of the Fuhrer, Our Hitler (1977). According to Syberberg's programmatic description, the film is designed as a theatricalization of historical documents and of subjective interpolations rather than as a moral narrative. "It is too different to what they were taught and what they learned," Syberberg said about his German critics, "and they always want, at the end of a film, results. They want to know how to avoid the new Hitler and they want to make it clear you can do it with technology, with statistics.”[15] He claimed to have made a movie about "the Hitler within us," implying that Hitler was really obeying the secret voice of the people whose dark dreams he brought to life. Syberberg's critics replied, in turn, that his approach was too aesthetic. They accused him of transforming politics into mythology, thus making his exploration of the Nazi past look more like an apology than an indictment.

In his treatise Reflections of Nazism (1984), Saul Friedlander has devoted much space to Syberberg's movie. Together with Fassbinder's Lili Marleen, Luchino Visconti's The Damned, and novels such as Michel Tournier's The Ogre and George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal, Friedlander considers the work representative of the "new discourse" on fascist culture and politics. That new discourse displays a disquieting fascination with the very totalitarian phenomenon it scrutinizes. He is concerned that these films and novels, by aestheticizing the horror of fascism and evoking pleasure in the audience, awaken nostalgia for the fascist period and invite complicity with fascist tendencies in contemporary society. Friedlander argues: "The endless stream of words and images becomes an ever mom effective screen hiding the past, when the only open avenue may well be that of quietness, simplicity, of the constant present of the unsaid.”[16] Today's modalities of exorcising the Nazi past, Friedlander maintains, remind one of the Nazis' "complex maneuvers to neutralize their own actions, a kind of exorcism accompanying the very cause of the exterminations." [17]

This conclusion leads straight back to Kiefer's cathartic monumentalism, which is similarly based on the "image overload" of the second postwar generation whose well-intentioned expurgation of the Nazi past presupposes an enormous aesthetic reconstruction of the fascist phenomenon. At a time when the majority of Europeans remember World War II through the lens of Hollywood, [18] Kiefer's reenactment of fascist vistas and German myths can be separated neither from this self-proliferating visual machinery nor from the Nazi technique of reenactment. As Kiefer himself pointed out: "I do not identify with Nero or Hitler, but I have to re-enact what they did just a bit in order to understand the madness. That is why I make these attempts to become a fascist." [19]

After all, one must ask, was Kiefer's early series Occupations, for which he photographed himself in the dictator's pose in front of foreign monuments, really motivated by a search for historical insights? Or was it rather a provocative take-off for his very own version of the perennial posturing of the artist as the guardian of a higher vision of reality? It seems that the search for a new self-theatricalization of the artist and the interest in that most dramatic chapter of twentieth-century history have been feeding upon each other. Kiefer discovered early on that the intended aesthetic catharsis founders in isolation but is tremendously enhanced when merged with the political sphere. Schjeldahl's doubts about whether Kiefer really is a great artist derive from this realization. Obviously, one cannot dismiss the association with Hitler's and Goebbels's use of the same pose: they considered themselves artists, striving finally to subdue and exorcise history by merging the political and the aesthetic.

While all three used the symbol of fire to establish their power over the world, however, Kiefer plays with the motif in order to depict himself as an artist in the eyes of the world. In a singleminded manner, Kiefer exposes in his work the traditional insignia of the artist, supplementing the old-fashioned painter's tool, the palette, with the wings of artistic genius, calling on the viewer to engage in the ironic and yet engrossing demonstration of the artist's power over reality. The notion of singularity is itself already transformed into a motif, something Kiefer developed as a disciple of Joseph Beuys and a colleague of Andy Warhol. It is obviously a product of the public's yearning for the old-fashioned genius capable of injecting into the encounter with art a sense of his own importance, even though art lost its redemptive function long ago. While Kiefer's concern with the German past is recognized as crucial for the authenticity of the aesthetic experience, public interest concentrates on the wings of his palette, on his engaging presentation of art as an irreplaceable phenomenon. If some viewers feel overwhelmed, it is due to the intensity of their doubts about the role of art in contemporary society.

In his own theatrical way Anselm Kiefer has shown that he is aware of the precariousness of his predicament. Critics have expressed their satisfaction with his recent movement away from specifically German subjects and myths toward more universal ones. The shakiness of his aesthetic stance is well rendered in a series on Icarus as an alter ego of the artist—not exactly the model for a successful flight through the heavens. In the painting Icarus—Sand of the Brandenburg March (Ikarus—markischer Sand, 1981), the protagonist has crashed from a heavy sky into a devastated landscape of brown sand, white flames, and dark furrows—the history-laden Raum of Brandenburg. The ash-black wings seem to have failed him miserably. Strikingly, the head is rendered as the artist's palette, the thumbhole his eye. A scene of predictable failure, to be sure; nonetheless, it is a great sight to behold. The flight of the artist out of despondency into the sun has ended in the reality of history.


1   Peter Schjeldahl, "Our Kiefer," Art in America 76, no. 3 (March 1988): 126.

2   Mark Rosenthal. Anselm Kiefer (Chicago and Philadelphia. 1987), p. 96.

3   Compare Mark Stevens, "A Poet of the Apocalypse," New Republic (February 8, 1988), pp. 27-30.

4   Steven Henry Madoff, "Anulm Kiefer, A Call to Memory," ARTnews 86 (October 1987), 126.

5   Theodore Ziolkowski, "Der Hunger nach dem Mythos," in Die sogenannten Zwanziger Jahre, ed. Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand (Bad Homburg, 1970), pp. 169-201.

6   Mara Loydved-Hardegg. "'Da ist Raum and Zeit &zwischen': Ram installation in Nurmberg, September 1984." Asthetik und Kommunikation 15. no. 56 (1984): 70.

7   Barbara Catoir. "Die neuen Extasen: Zur Malerei der “Junges " Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (December II. 1981).

8   Sanford Schwartz. "Anselm Kiefer. Joseph Beuys. and the Ghosts of the Fatherland." New Criterion 1. no. 7 (March 1983): 4.

9   Paul Taylor. "Painter of the Apocalypse.” New York Times Magazine (October 16. 1988). p. 103.

10   Walter Abish. How German Is It (New York. 1980). p. 123.

11   Ibid., p. 125.

12   Hilton Kramer, "The Anselm Kiefer Retrospective," New Criterion 6, no. 6 (February 1988): 3.

13   John Russell. "The New European Painters," New York Times Magazine (April 24, 1983), p. 30.

14   Hamida Bosmajian, Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism (Iowa City, Iowa, 1979).

15   Lawrence van Gelder, "A German Filmmaker Looks at Adolf Hitler," New York Times (January 13, 1980).

16   Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (New York, 1982), pp. 97-98.

17   Ibid., p. 102.

18   Compare Anton Kaes, Deutschlandbilder: Die Wiederkehr der Geschichte als Film (Munich, 1987), pp. 207-9.

19   Stevens (n. 3 above), p. 28.