Essays by James Hyman

Anselm Kiefer's recent work

Anselm Kiefer's recent work


James Hyman
Tate magazine
January 1997

In the summer of 1996 James Hyman visited Anselm Kiefer at his new home, an extensive studio complex in Southern France. Here, in an essay accompanied by the author's photographs, he discusses the recent developments in Kiefer's imagery, which have taken the artist away from Germany, towards mystical and alchemical concerns that are at once personal and universal.

TEXT EXTRACT:Oppenheim, Germany, 1617. Robert Fludd, the English physician, publishes an illustrated explanation of the making and working of the universe. Entitled Metaphysics and Cosmic Origins, it bears on its title page an engraving of Man. The image is simple in structure but complex in content. In a pose made famous by Leonardo da Vinci, a man stands, full-length and naked, his legs and arms apart. Enclosing him is a ring of rope that represents the circular, rather than linear, passage of time, and pulling this rope is the winged, hoofed figure of Time (or Saturn) on whose head is an ancient symbol of the sun, the four pronged solar wheel. The Man is Everyman and the Circle is Cosmic.

Accompanying the picture there are a series of inscriptions and symbols that clarify its meaning. The words inscribed between the man's open legs refer to the Four Humours, those properties identified by Hippocrates in the 5th Century BC, and which by the time of the Renaissance were associated not only with the Human but also with the Cosmic: `'Melancholia' denotes black bile and earth; `Cholera', the properties of yellow bile and fire; `Sanguis', the life giving qualities of blood and air; and `Pituita' signifies phlegm and water. The symbols that surround the man refer to the Universe - the Macrocosm - and the Human - the Microcosm. Each of these two realms has its own sun and moon around which signs denote the planets of the Zodiac.

Barjac, Southern France, 1995. Anselm Kiefer, the German-born artist, begins an ambitious new series in which he places man at the centre of the world and positions around and within him allusions to the microcosm and the macrocosm, including sunflowers, seeds and stars. As in Fludd's tracts, each element has a comparable status and is related to each other element. A reference to one may contain an allusion to another.

In Ich halte alle Indien in meiner Hand. (I hold all the Indias in my hand) (1996), Kiefer develops these dual readings and the correspondences they draw betwen Macrocosm and Microcosm. He shows a man standing man in the centre of a series of rings. But these are not the clean circles of the mathematician. Instead they are organic in form - resembling the contours on a map - and allusive in their references to time and space - combining the ripples caused by a figure standing in pool of water with those of an ocean filled with land masses.

In another recent picture the figure is full length, naked and life-size. His stomach is cut open in a circle and reveals within it, the stars of the cosmos. Above the man, in the centre, is the single head of a giant sun-flower.

The image recalls Fludd's Threefold Man in which the light of G-d is related to the body of man and specifically to the three parts, the head, the thorax and the abdomen. For both Fludd and Kiefer, the abdomen encompasses the elemental spheres of fire, air, water and earth and includes Choler (gall bladder), Blood (liver and veins), Phlegm (belly), Faeces or dung (viscera).

But in Kiefer's picture, the figure with its open belly is not merely symbolic. It is clearly also a portrait and an accompanying inscription - Robert Fludd -appears to make this explicit. But Robert Fludd (1996) is evidently not merely a portrait of the seventeenth century mystic. It is also a self-portrait for the features shown are clearly those of Anselm Kiefer, himself. In this way, the Alchemist and the Artist become one, bridging time and place. For Kiefer, as for Fludd, there is an indivisibility to these different realms, a totalising vision that recalls Octavio Paz's mystical vision in Blanco (1966).

The spirit
is an invention of the body
The body
is an invention of the world
The world
is an invention of the spirit
No Yes
the unreality of the seen

In the lives of both artist-alchemists periods of hermeticism are broken by intensive travel. The six years of travel undertaken by Robert Fludd, through Spain, France, Germany and Italy, are matched by the recent travels of Anselm Kiefer, spanning South America, India and the Near East. In each case an actual journey is married to an intellectual quest. Fludd's spiritual journey, from Christian theology through the mysticism of the Jewish Kabbalah to the ideas of the Occultists, led to a profound and prodigious outpouring of writing: scientific texts, medical remedies, mystical tracts, theories of evolution. Kiefer, for his part, recalls the way in which Medieval Hermeticism gave way to the journeys by which Renaissance Man enriched himself through the incorporation of knowledge from other cultures and belief-systems. The resulting output is no less impressive: paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, woodcuts, water-colours, drawings, unique books.

The alchemist and the artist are also united by their procedures. In each case there is a literalness in the use of materials, a quality Kiefer also shares with Joseph Beuys, and there is a methodicalness in the way in which a particular enquiry is pursued through a series of related. The content is actual rather than theoretical. It is actual flowers - grasses, ferns, lilies, crocuses, poppies and sunflowers - that are attached to paintings. And however densely layered the source material may be, it is always `upfront' and `to hand'. The emphasis on the front plane places everything within grasp. Ingredients are used and reused to open up new possibilities, meanings, allusions and implications, and consistencies to the scale, in which for example man and flower may assume a similar size, emphasise an holistic vision in which Man may reach for the Continents and contain within him the Stars. Colour is restricted to white and black, representing the primordial Light and Dark, and the choice of woodcut adds a unifying definition, even eliminating the tonal gradations to be found in a `black and white' photograph. When other colours are present as in Tournesols(Sunflowers) (1996), these are often bodily stains of red and yellow. The resulting four colours bring to mind the four stages of the alchemical process identified by Heraclitus in pre-Christian times: melanosis (also known as nigredo) or blackening, leukosis or whitening, xanthosis or yellowing, iosis or reddening.

Our own experience of these pictures also frequently takes the form of an odyssey. We can follow the ridges and troughs of the desert, traverse the mountains, trawl the swamp, collect seeds and gaze at the stars. Our journey gives equal status to the natural and the man-made, the near and the far. Cities are seen through a veil of sand and constellations are created by clouds of sunflower seeds, conjuring up the visions of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm by eighteenth and nineteenth century mystics, and suggesting both William Blake's `world in a grain of sand' and Jakob Bohme's recognition that:

`the eternal centre and birth of life ...
are everywhere

Trace a circle no larger than a dot,
the birth of nature is therein contained'

As we turn the thirty pages of the unique book, Uber Everen Stadten Wird Gras Washen... Fesaia (1996) (Over Former Cities Grass Will Grow... Isiaah), we are taken on a journey that bridges time and space. We fly over a contemporary city filled with high rise blocks and busy roads whose tiny windows and miniature cars have the substance of the sand that overlays them. As we continue to travel in time, the city becomes engulfed, literally, since the photograph becomes increasingly obliterated by sand. For a moment life is extinguished, but then flowers, first of a pure white, then of a blood red, bloom from the wasteland, recalling the fields of poppies that cover the First World War battle fields of Southern France. In two related books, Ninife (Niniveh) (1996) and Herbstzeitlose (Autumn Crocus) (1996), we are travellers again, this time journeying from distant views of desolate land to studio views in which seeds germinate and flowers bloom from the body of the artist.

There are several precedents for the ways in which Kiefer relates human and plant life. The illuminated manuscripts of Medieval scholars and the sculpted portal programmes of numerous churches and Cathedrals, are filled with depictions of the Old Testament Tree of Jesse, symbolising the genealogy of King David; and the treatises of the Hermetic Philosophers contain renderings of an `arbor philosophica', a philosophical tree that bears symbols that represent the stages of the alchemical process. This tree is usually shown growing from the ground, but also occasionally grows from the body of man. In one version, contained in a fourteenth century manuscript, Miscellanea d'alchimia in the Medicea-Laurenziana Library in Florence, the tree that grows from Adam's loins, directly prefigures a recent series of works by Kiefer such as Aschen Blume (1995), in which a sunflower grows from the man's reclining body and the surrounding ash suggests a phoenix-like image of regeneration.

Like so many of these ideas, this is not a new departure for Kiefer. Just as alchemical images of Nigredo and Melancholia resurface, so too does the image of the tree. In Liegender Mann mitt Zweig (Reclining Man with Branches) (1971) in which he shows a full length figure, lying on the ground, and holding a skeletal tree. Later, in versions of Paths of Worldly Wisdom, Kiefer's major series of the later 1970s, a woodland setting is the location for a series of portraits of leading figures in German history, and an overlaid impression of tree rings reference the passage of time.

More recently, in the unique book, Les Reines de France (the Queens of France) (1996), a tree is overlaid with the names of women that range from the familiar to the famous, from Desiree, Gisele and Adelaide to Catherine de Medici and Maria Stuart. The relationship of this `tree of life' or `family tree' to the seed of man is reinforced in a related painting, Les Reines de France (1996), in which a reclining man is linked by threads to the names of women from the fifth to the nineteenth century.

However, in recent pictures Kiefer transforms the sturdy tree into a sprightly sunflower, thereby suggesting an equivalence between the male and the sun as life-giving forces. In this, too, there are precedents, this time in scientific and mystical texts from Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens (Oppenheim, 1618) to M. Richardson's The Works of Jakob Bohme (London, 1764). In Manget's Bibliotheca Chemica (Geneva, 1702) a reclining figure is contained in a circle created by the branches of a tree. Above him are several suns - a central dominant sun, two smaller suns, and two suns created by two flower heads.

The prominence Manget gives to sun and to fire is shared by Fludd and Kiefer. For Fludd the sun is the 'wheel of birth', the 'hearth of Life ... the mother and nurse of life' since before G-d created light there was nothing save blackness. Similarly for Kiefer fire is a central element, either in interiors such as the spiritual Father, Son and Holy Ghost (1973) and Interior (1981), or outdoors as in redemptive series entitled Grane in which Brunhilde's horse is burned.

In recent pictures Kiefer, like Manget, presents a central sun accompanied by flaming sun-flowers and shows that fire is a creative as well as a destructive force. One new picture of a flower bears the inscription Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun); and another, Die Klugen Jungfrauen (1996) includes several burning sun-flowers, that create in a literal way a solar (sun) system; and in two unique books, Robert Fludd (1996) and For Robert Fludd (1996), Kiefer's extends this conception by relating seeds to stars. The cover of Robert Fludd is dominated by a huge sunflower head whose seeds are replaced by stars and inside the book sunflowers coexist with clouds of seeds and the splattered woodcuts of stars. The cover of For Robert Fludd, meanwhile, is dominated by two large sunflowers, one of whose head is filled with seeds, the other by stars. Inside we move from germination to growth, from a field of flowers to close-ups of a sunflower head, from seeds through a combined representation of seeds and stars to the splattered stars of the Cosmos.

Kiefer's sunflowers are dark, dry and black, like Van Gogh's first four pictures of sunflowers, painted in the South of France in the late summer of 1887. But unlike Van Gogh's flowers whose heads are cut to create a `nature morte', Kiefer's flowers, like those of Emile Nolde, remain on their stem. In each case, however, the sunflower is an indicator of time and space, referencing the changing seasons, its seeds alluding to the generation to come. They are at once a source of light and of life (sun-flowers are suns and their seeds create life) and a source of darkness and death (blackened heads suggest life extinguished and clouds of seeds resemble swarms of locust).

Their dual nature echoes the way in which the earth is actually and symbolically positioned midway between the light and darkness of the sun and moon in the writing and diagrams of the Hermetic Philosophers. They share with the Philosophica Reformata (1622) of Mylius, and the Scrutinium Chymicum (1687) of Maier, a dual conception of the `sol niger' (black sun) and of `dark light'. Often the artist's use of his medium accentuates this duality. In Die Klugen Jungfrauen (1996) Kiefer adds white emulsion paint - a water based medium - to dampen down sun-flowers that are rendered in flammable oil-based shellac. This use of white and black allows for the coexistance of a dense blackness and ghostly apparitions.

This black and white sun/flower embodies both presence and absence, echoing the imagery to be found in two poems admired by Kiefer. It has the deathly resonance of Paul Celan's, Todefgugue, with its image of `black milk' and possesses the alchemical overtones of Octavio Paz's sunflower which is both `asleep or extinct' and `a yellow chalice [...] burning.'

or extinct,
high on its pole
(head on a pike)
a sunflower
light charred
in a vase
of shadow
In the palm of an
invented hand,
the flower,
not seen nor imagined:
a yellow chalice
of consonants and vowels,

These sun/flowers are both flowers of good and `fleurs du mal'. Their `sun' recalls the enigmatic imagery of Albert Camus, their `flower' the metaphorical writing of Friederich Nietzsche. In The Enigma, Camus's appreciation of the `shining glory' of the sun is married to the `memory of its absence' to produce a devastating inverted image in which `the very thickness of [sun] light coagulates the universe and its forms into a dazzling blackness.' And in Zarathustra's Discourses, Nietzsche draws allusions between Man and Nature that simultaneously embody good and evil: `it is with men as with this tree. The more it wants to rise into the heights and the light, the more determinedly do its roots strive earthwards, downwards, into the darkness, into the depths - into evil.'

These, then, are tragic pictures. They are tragic in precisely the sense that Piet Mondriaan recognised and defined in his first published essay, The New Plastic in Painting (1917) : `Tragedy arises from inequality in the appearance of the duality by which unity manifests itself - within space and time. The tragic exists in inward and outward life... Due to disequilibriated mutual relationships, the tragic exists between male and female and between society and the individual.... the tragic in nature is manifest as corporeality.' But unlike Mondriaan, whose recognition of such tragedy led him to advocate an abstract art free of such qualities, Kiefer who addressed this Modernist legacy in Piet Mondriaan-Operation Sea-Lion (1975), emphasises the natural and the corporeal to affirm the tragic.

At the centre of this world, for both the Humanist and the Alchemist, is Man and within each man is the potential for good and for evil. At the heart of Kiefer's vision is a recognition of `der gestirnte Himmel uber uns und das moralische Gesetz in mir' (the starry heaven above us and the moral law within me), a paraphrase of a line form Emanuel Kant's Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788) that he inscribed in his picture, Der gestirnte Himmel (The Starry Heaven) (1980). In it the artist stands enveloped by darkness and the only light is provided by the stars and by a palette whose shape and position form the artist's heart. In this literal way, art is not only presented as a moral force but is also married to life and to enlightenment.

In this world the artist's own presence is not only inscribed, frequently it is also pictured, principally through the incorporation of photographs. But Kiefe's self-portraits are neither specifically about psychology nor physiognomy. Nor do they emphasise the individuality of a particular subject (the real) or generalise into a specific type (an ideal). What they are about is a reconciliation of aspects of both Western and Eastern philosophy as Kiefer addresses the distinctions drawn by Jung between Western and Eastern conceptions of the divine and of man. Western man perceives that G-d is around us, Eastern that G-d is within: "Western man [...] sees only particulars, he is ego-bound and thing-bound, and unaware of the deep root of all being. Eastern man, on the other hand, experiences the world of particulars, and even his own ego, like a dream: he is rooted essentially in the `Ground', which attracts him so powerfully that his relations with the world are relativized to a degree that is often incomprehensible to us."

Kiefer's self-portraits succeed in being both particular and transcendent, and direct and allusive. Even when the artist stands right in front of us, there is still a sense of containment and self-absorption. In one water-colour, Jeder Mensch steht unter seiner Himmelskugel (Every human being stands beneath his own Dome of Heaven (1970), Kiefer literally stands in his own world, an enclosing bell-jar.

This sense of containment and the attendant lack of confrontation recalls the early self-portraits of Gustave Courbet. In these the artist often has his back to us so that the position of his body echoes that of our own as we view the picture, allowing us to identify more fully with the figure. In Women of the Revolution (199x), Kiefer acieves something similar when he incorporates a photograph of himself, shown from behind, striding into the landscape.

We do not feel threatened as we do when challenged by Picasso's presence in early self-portraits such as Self Portrait, Yo Picasso (1901), or in self-portrait and portrait photographs in which the artist stares aggressively at us. In such images Picasso emphasises the present and our encounter with the person in front of us is so immediate that it obliterates all sense of the past or future. The moment is everything. What matters is a particular relationship and a particular psychological state. In contrast Kiefer is not concerned with the transient but with the timeless and his exploration of universal forces leaves little room for the ephemera of anecdote or emotion. His self-portraits are comparatively ego-less and unlike those of Picasso do not present a unitary self. Instead Kiefer's use of role playing creates an openness that recalls Duchamp.

For Kiefer, as for Duchamp, the incorporation of photography is decisive. Duchamp, as photographed by Man Ray, changes his gender to become Rrose Selavy and Kiefer uses photographs taken by an assistant to adopt different guises. In 1969 in a series of photographs entitled Occupations, Kiefer addressed the relationship of present day Germany to its past by adopting the guise of the saluting Nazi and most recently he has used photographs of himself taken by an assistant in positions the artist could never view himself. This achieves a form of transcendence in which photography is used as a distancing device to present his own body as Other. In some recent pictures Kiefer and Fludd become one, and in others the features are generalised and thereby escape a specific identity.

We identify with the figure and through this act of projection it becomes a conduit for our own journeys, hopes and fears. We are transported into a new world as participants rather than observers. Everyman cannot address us. He is us. All of us. By giving Man centrality and imbuing his own presence with the status of Everyman, Kiefer places us at the centre of the world, not as a passive spectator but as an active agent of change.

This, then, is an empowering vision in which each of us may play our part. Everyman becomes Hero, assuming a role that brings to mind, Theodore Zeldin's redefinition of the Hero in his Intimate History of Humanity (1994), The Hero, he argues, is no longer the leader of a particular faction, group or nation, but as an intercessor who is 'able to receive as well as give [...] Heroes need to be intermediaries, who open the world up to one another...'

In these new works Kiefer takes on such a role, a role in which the artist as Everyman assumes the shamansitic function of intercessor. Its roots may be deeply buried in both the artist's own past and in the blood and soil of German history, but in these latest pictures Kiefer rises above specific events, precisely located in time and space, to chart stronger, Universal, forces. As in alchemy, the approach is holistic, the process one of unifying opposites, and the result a new form of reconciliation.

Kiefer's achievement is to create for us a new world, a world that is both familiar and new. Familiar from our knowledge of Kiefer's own work and familiar, too, from our experience of the world around us, but new in its development of its iconography and new in achieving a vision that despite the tragedy, is cathartic and, which despite the catharsis is affirmative.

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