Royal Academy of Arts
Born into a Catholic family in the Black Forest region of Germany in 1945, at the very end of the Second World War, Kiefer always knew that he wanted to be an artist. Following school he expanded his cultural education, which was wide-ranging and largely self-taught, and briefly studied law at the University of Freiburg, before attending the Academy of Art in Karlsruhe.
Kiefer has taken inspiration from poets, philosophers, scientists and writers throughout his life. Although he acknowledges the influence of such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Caspard David Friedrich, Kiefer has created his own, distinctive iconography in which each element is loaded with symbolism and meaning.
Kiefer takes a cyclical view of time and history rather than a linear and progressive one and, as a consequence, a handful of over-arching themes appear regularly in his work. He seeks to understand our purpose here on Earth, our relationship with the celestial, the spiritual, and the weight of human history. His subjects might appear historical in their reference, but they are in essence of our time, as much about the world today as about the events of the past. Though his work, Kiefer struggles to make sense of our passage through life. His thirst for knowledge and understanding provokes the viewer to consider these bigger questions with him, making his work challenging and occasionally confrontational.
Winterlandschaft (Winter Landscape), 1970
Books have been central to Kiefer's practice since 1968. He considers them works in their own right but also intimate visual diaries in which he seeks to 're-create a memory'.
It is the very re-enactment of memory that first brought Kiefer to the attention of a broader public. Finding that his history lessons at school only touched lightly on the Third Reich, he was drawn to address this collective absence of memory, and created his 'provocation' in the painting series Heroic Symbols and the Occupation books. In these he used his own body, dressed in his father's German army uniform, to confront the viewer with the realities of our histories. The fact that the Nazi salute and the wearing of Nazi clothing had been banned in Germany since 1945 served to heighten the outcry, with many wrongly confusing Kiefer's critical consideration of the period with sympathy of the regime. At the heart of Kiefer's motivation lay an attempt to reclaim the authority and integrity of the artist following the Third Reich's exploitation of and associations with art, particularly given the Nazis' promotion of Hitler as a fine artist.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw Kiefer's attention turn to the landscape of German history and the buildings of the Third Reich. Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kries were commissioned by the Nazis to design buildings to exalt the ideology of National Socialism, Hitler himself ordering that all such buildings should be made from stone so as to make beautiful ruins. In To the Unknown Painter and other works from this series, Kiefer explores the cultural significance of these neoclassical buildings, which appropriate the values of ancient civilisations. The artist is represented by the solitary palette standing at the centre of the work.
For many years, Kiefer has moved between the worlds of poetry and painting. He has spoken of poems as being 'like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next: without them, I am lost'. In the pair of paintings Margarethe and Sulamith, Kiefer responds to Paul Celan's poem Deathfugue, written shortly after Celan was liberated from a Nazi labour camp.
A fundamental concern within much of Kiefer's work is the link between the celestial and the earthly, between the divine and the human, between God and Man. In Kiefer's cosmology, the universe is an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction.
In Operation Sea Lion the celestial plane – on which the three chairs of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are placed - sits in judgement of the earthly scene below. The legends surrounding this planned but unexecuted naval attack on Britain by the decimated German navy are belittled by its enactment in this painting with toy boats in a bath. The bath itself is a reference to the zinc baths issued to all German households by the Third Reich. Kiefer encountered one of these baths in the attic of his studio at Hornbach many years later, and it went on to feature repeatedly in his paintings and photographs.
Die Orden der Nacht (The Orders of the Night), 1996
Osiris und Isis (Osiris and Isis), 1985-1987
Kiefer has long been fascinated by the civilisation of Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and particularly by cuneiform writing on clay tablets made from the hand-pressed mud of the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates. He noted that the same material was used to make bricks, leading him to perceive 'a secret connection between writing and building' and to wonder whether bricks, like tablets, could hold memories of people, of events, of time. Furthermore, the artist's memories from Donaueschingen, where he played among the bricks and rubble of the bomb-damaged buildings that surrounded his childhood home, remain a strong influence on his work.
Kiefer has also been inspired by buildings he has seen throughout the world. Travelling along the Silk Route Kiefer encountered, at regular intervals, the remains of brick kilns built in the time of Chairman Mao, who had ordered the roads to be paved. The traces of these kilns, with their resemblance to archaeological digs, left a deep impression on Kiefer. The story of Osiris and lsis is one of death and resurrection. Osiris, god of the underworld, was murdered by his brother Set, who dispersed the dismembered body across the land. Osiris' grieving widow, lsis, searched for his remains, literally 're-membering' and resurrecting him. Pyramids have long stood as a meeting point between Heaven and Earth, but the presence in this work of a fragmented television circuit board alludes to the connection between the ancient and modern worlds.
Ages of the World, an installation made especially for the Royal Academy, speaks of a geological time frame so long it is almost beyond our comprehension. Part totem, part funeral pyre, it refers to the history of our planet's evolution, the Romantic aspiration of art, the poetry of ruins, and the relationship between the human individual and the deep time of the cosmos. The work touches on the great events of our planet, from the devastating impact of meteorites to the creation of fossil fuels, and hints at an ongoing pattern that will continue, referencing Kiefer's belief in the cyclical nature of time.
The exhibition was probably my personal favourite of all times. In the gallery surrounded by Kiefer's paintings, I couldn't help but be in awe of the grandeur and the scale of his works. There is a calming quality in his paintings, despite the thickness and absolute richness of texture and pigment. The paintings that features himself or faces gives the work a sense of performative quality, as if the paintings were alive. His works evokes a spiritual and philosophical thought in the audience. It is also very interesting to see the shifts of topics and focus throughout his career, yet never changes his personal belief and theme.
In the two paintings, lead books feature. Kiefer regards lead as an important material, one that affects him more than all other metals. His first engagement with it came at Hornbach when he encountered a system of pipes made of the material and became fascinated with its shapes, textures, colour, strength and malleability. In 1985 he acquired the lead roof of Cologne Cathedral when it was replaced, using it subsequently in his work. He believes that lead is the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history, and that its properties most closely resemble ours. 'It is in flux. It's changeable and has potential to achieve a higher state of gold: This reference to alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold, a subject that fascinates Kiefer, is perhaps a metaphor for the way his art attempts to transform and redeem the past.
The snowy, barren landscapes that we see here feature often in Kiefer's painting. In Celan's poems, snow and ice often refer to the landscape of the Holocaust and symbolise the oblivion and silence that descended over Europe at that time.
Colour plays an important role in Kiefer's painting. Although his earlier work may suggest a monochromatic key, it is not unusual for him to begin a canvas with a colour photograph. Onto this he applies coloured paint, augmenting the image and creating his own until the colour register takes him back towards the blacks, greys and whites for which he is known.
In the 'Morgenthau' series of paintings, Kiefer refers to the 1944 plan proposed by the US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr, to transform Germany into a pre-industrial, agricultural nation in order to limit her ability to wage future wars. Although the Morgenthau plan was never realised, news of it was leaked to the press in 1944 and Goebbels used it to unite his countrymen in their last stand, possibly extending the war and its impact on human life.
Within the tradition of landscape painting we see clearly Kiefer's associations with the nineteenth-century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and with notions of the sublime in nature, whose grandeur inspires awe and wonder. The overriding reference, however, is to Vincent van Gogh, whose late paintings of wheat fields are echoed here with their black crows, symbolising death and resurrection, hovering menacingly above.
Der Rhein (Melancolia) (The Rhine (Melancholia)), 1982-2013
In the final gallery Kiefer returns to the woodcut and to the Rhine of his homeland. Kiefer's interest in the Rhine, which marks the division between Germany and France, is linked to his consideration of borders. The basement of Kiefer's childhood home, close to the river's banks, would regularly flood with the springtime meltwaters, raising the question of where the border now lay, and whether France had indeed entered his basement.
In this 'forest' through which we can walk, its leporello format echoing the pages of a book, Kiefer also makes reference to the influence of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749- 1832}. as well as to Paul Celan and the German artist Albrecht Diirer (1471-1528). The totemic Rhine runs across the works, and key motifs such as the melancholic polyhedron, the crucible of flames, the Holy Trinity and the bomb-damaged defences and bunkers of the Siegfried Line, are also recorded here.