Monday, March 10, 2008

The Alchemist

Just a few months old when his homeland of Germany finally surrendered and ended the European theater of World War II, Anselm Kiefer grew up consumed by the memories of the pain that had originated and ended in his native land. Born March 8, 1945, Kiefer continually reminds his country of the past that they wish would fade into the mists of time with works such as his Nuremberg (above, from 1980), which alludes to the Nuremberg trials that brought so many Nazi war criminals to justice. Kiefer followed his teacher Joseph Beuys (himself a German veteran of World War II) in incorporating unconventional materials, such as clay, straw, ash, and even lead, into his paintings, bringing a harsh reality to them that paint alone couldn’t achieve. From those ashes, Kiefer hoped to raise a phoenix of accountability and allow Germany finally to embrace its past and move on.

Kiefer’s works lack the raw confrontation aspect of his post-war contemporary Georg Baselitz, but exceed Baselitz’s critique of post-war Germany in their ability to cast up wartime memories in unforgettable ways. Kiefer’s The Milky Way (above, from 1985-1987) darkly reproduces the desolate, scorched earth policy practiced by the Nazis as they lost ground to the Allies and retreated deeper and deeper into Germany as World War II reached its end. In the foreground, Kiefer fills a gashed area with white paint—the “milky way” of the title. Above that horizontal white slash rests an actual lead funnel connected to lead wires that extend to the top of the painting. Kiefer found the ideas of alchemy fascinating, especially the possibility of turning lead into gold. Kiefer’s works aim at a similar transformation, dreaming of the day when the leaden weight of the Holocaust could become a golden opportunity for Germany to examine its past sins.

When I look at Kiefer’s sculpture Book With Wings (above, from 1992-1994), I can’t help but think of Wim Wenders' beautiful film, Wings of Desire. While so much of Kiefer’s art resembles the earth itself, this one creation of the air seems to provide pure hope. There’s an aching kind of lyricism to Book With Wings that Wings of Desire achieves in a different medium. The two works seem to pass in virtual space, with Wenders’ angel longing to be human and Kiefer’s humans longing to be angels. Like the novelist Gunter Grass, Kiefer has made many enemies in his homeland in those who would rather forget. In the face of such opposition, it would be easy to give up. Fortunately, Kiefer still dreams of being the alchemist of the German soul, turning base metal into something precious and pure.

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