In 1968, while Europe and America were in uproar, art student Anselm Kiefer put on his father’s Wehrmacht uniform and photographed himself giving Nazi salutes at various European ssites. This “Occupations” series was shocking, and Kiefer has said that shock is at the beginning of all his work, but it wasn’t just gratuitous spectacle.
It was the lack of information available to school children about the Nazi period that inspired Kiefer to make the work. Yet many of the people involved in the Third Reich were still teaching in colleges and sitting in positions of power. Kiefer is part of a generation that demanded an acknowledgement of this history and a facing up to the past.
The earlier works have been criticised for romanticising the Nazi period, and certainly they are not comfortable to look at. Kiefer wanted to reclaim art and German cultural identity from the Nazis. The whole notion of a national identity is a slippery one, but these are not triumphalist images at all. They are complex and thoughtful.
There is one early photograph of the artist wearing a crocheted dress giving a Sieg Heil salute which is entitled “For Jean Genet”, the gay French playwright. The paintings of Albert Speer’s intimidating architecture sit in the same room as a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Notions of identity, myth and of shared histories are present in these works.
But how is it possible to come to terms with the shared history of the Holocaust? Once you open the pandora’s box of remembering, what do you do with the horrors inside?
There is a spectacular outpouring in Kiefer’s art. He has been massively prolific, and his art is drenched in meaning. His themes are erudite, but tend to the mystical, as though what has happened in history is too unbearable to be understood in a sane way. Myth, alchemy and religious notions of good and evil are recurring themes, along with a motif of the cyclical nature of everything. Things decay (making Kiefer an archivist’s worst nightmare) and are reborn, but never seem to progress.
The works themselves are wonderful though. The paint is so thick it is like sculpture, cracking and crumbling, smothered in gold, encasing sunflowers or wheat, or caked in sand. Lead books project from a huge canvas depicting a land covered in snow. Dull lead canvases glitter with a spectrum of diamonds as if looking at the night sky on a gallery wall. There is a lot of lead, and lots more to enjoy.