Internationally renowned for his paintings, drawings, sculptural artists books and oversized (and often overpainted) prints, Anselm Kiefer requires little introduction. In German-speaking countries, however, the artist remains a controversial figure, glorified and condemned for his persistent use of subjects and formats linked to the Nazi regime and to the Germanic dreamtime it repeatedly invoked. In 2016 the Albertina in Vienna mounted an exhibition of 35 monumental Kiefer woodcuts made between 1977 and 2015; that show and its substantial catalogue will continue to fuel this discussion long past the exhibition’s closing date.
Apart from six sheets relating to the 17th-century Paracelsian scholar Robert Fludd and the relation between micro- and macrocosm, all the woodcuts on view dealt with the iconography of the Rhine and with German history—events of the 20th century and also the myths, histories and legends that were used to bolster the idea of a pan-German identity: the cult of the Niebelungen and the assertion of the Rhine as a metonym for the German people; and role of the forest and Arminius’s (Hermann’s) routing of Roman occupying forces at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year nine.
Kiefer, who left Germany in 1991 and has lived in the south of France since 1993, was closely involved in the selection of works for the show, and its focus on the Rhine invokes, among other things, the river’s role as a geographical marker of the Franco-German relationship that produced so many catastrophes over the past two centuries.
One of the most elucidating texts included in the catalogue is a letter from Kiefer to Henri Loyrette, then-director of the Louvre, who had invited the artist to create an entrance foyer for the exhibition “De l’Allemagne, 1800–1939: de Friedrich à Beckmann” in 2013. Kiefer chose to line the space with 12-foot-tall woodcuts in which the river is seen through a striation of tree trunks, flowing implacably from one image to the next, while other images—words, fire, border fortifications, the eccentric polyhedron from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia—float in the air. Kiefer’s letter speaks about the river in terms both personal (he grew up within walking distance) and historical, pulling in references from Goethe to Apollinaire to the Siegfried line, and linking the “deficiency and limitation” of woodcut to the “great song” of the river.
In one of the catalogue essays, the German art historian and former director of the Centre Pompidou, Werner Spies, draws links between Kiefer and the woodcuts of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and even Dürer, as well as to contemporary images of the Rhine by artists such as Andreas Gursky. Kiefer’s complex use of woodcut goes beyond simply appropriating historical exemplars. As the German cultural philosopher Peter Sloterdijk explains in his inspiring essay, in his woodcuts Kiefer is also dealing with the perception and stability of monetary value, which is connected to taste and acceptance. Kiefer refuses to satisfy traditional demands: his prints are too big and his book-objects are too bulky (both are often purchased by museum departments of paintings and sculpture rather than prints and drawings); finally, neither are released in regular editions, despite the undoubted market demand. Huge, fragile and disturbing, Kiefer’s woodcuts are, Sloterdijk claims, sublime. He does not argue that Kiefer means to recreate the art philosophical categories of the 17th and 18th centuries, but he uses the word to characterize what separates Kiefer’s works from those of his contemporaries.
In her own essay, the volume’s editor, Antonia Hoerschelmann, begins with materiality—the fact of wood, how Kiefer uses it, and the connotations he assigns to it. Here again there is a historical propagandistic element to consider: any discussion of German forests or wood is necessarily colored by the Nazi assertion of them as markers of atavistic German essence. Kiefer recognizes this, but as Hoerschelmann points out, his affirmative use of woodcut resists any simplistic reading; his strategy is to surpass former connotations, which is why he has taken on subjects exploited by Nazi propaganda. Again, however, one cannot reduce his approach to a simple confrontation with history. Beginning with the Grane and Paths of Worldly Wisdom woodcuts of the 1970s, he has used woodcut to develop an archive of handmade, reusable images, including many portrait heads, which he has assembled in different configurations in paintings, prints and books. And while these works may allude to German myth (Grane is the name of Brunhilde’s horse in the Niebelungenlied, and the Paths woodcuts combine images of the forest with portraits of German historical figures, good, bad and ugly), the result cannot be seen as limited to a particular subject.
Kiefer’s habit of working on various subjects in parallel means that the same element—a tree trunk or the head of Carl Maria von Weber—may appear on various occasions and in different contexts. This strategy, Hoerschelmann points out, disrupts the sense of a coherent subject—as when the head of Brunhilde’s horse rises above a pyre strung between the heads of von Weber and Karl Marx in Grane (1978). He does this not only with woods and forests, but with all types of landscapes. The catalogue helpfully groups these works, and offers short texts that establish links to other pieces and give information on their genesis and background (even providing maps to identify the host of faces in the Ways of Worldly Wisdom).
In assembling this body of work and in explaining its many associations, both internal and external, Hoerschelmann and her colleagues offer a moving survey of Kiefer’s achievements, adding fresh insights and opening up the discussion of this rich and important oeuvre.