The themes of myth and German history have been prominent in all of Anselm Kiefer’s lonely, beautiful and dehumanized work. Kiefer, now the subject of a major retrospective at London’s Royal Academy, took up the challenge to post-war German artists to respond to Hitlerism when from the wooden Valhallas he made in the 1970s to the vast Mistero delle Cattedrali of 2011, he figured the Third Reich as a vast pseudo-civilizing ambition now crumbled to rubble. The ‘Mystery of the Cathedrals’, also installed in London, opened with gigantic tableaux morts of Berlin’s ruined Tempelhof Airport. When it closed in 2008 Kiefer immersed himself in the demolition of a key building in Nazi architect Albert Speer’s plan for a transformed German capital.
But his focus on empty spaces and decay also has greater reach. It suggests nameless hubristic cultures razed from the earth time and again. His preoccupation is with life passing over things, as Sophie Fiennes unnervingly showed in her film And Over Your Cities Grass Shall Grow.
In this he seems to have found inspiration not only in German history but in two other sources. One was the painting of van Gogh and the other was the philosophy of Heidegger.
I’ve been writing about this recently in A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West.
When he was eighteen Kiefer won a scholarship to go and study van Gogh’s art in its own places. (See Chapter 14: ‘A Counterpath: Reading Derrida and Being Happy in Amsterdam’).
Van Gogh is well-known to art historians for the way he raided the rubbish site. Scraps of iron, bent wire, dead flowers: he loved these tokens of used-up life, and sand and dust getting mixed up in his paint. One can imagine a morally passionate twentieth-century artist learnt a lesson there.
Later Kiefer read Heidegger, and got to know of the philosopher’s own love of van Gogh, expressed in the 1936 lecture The Origin of the Work of Art. Heidegger talked there of how the materiality of our world ‘wears out and becomes banal’ as things that we construct lose their usefulness. Here’s a passage I’ve never otherwise seen quoted from early on in Heidegger’s lecture. The translation is mine:
Individual objects get used up and worn out; and with that the practice of using them declines, loses its shine and becomes banal. Something that existed for a purpose now rots away; sinks back into being any old thing. When something that once existed for a purpose declines into purposelessness its reliability [on which we can base our lives] vanishes from sight.
Compare that sentence with the accelerated oxidation that is a keynote feature of the sculptures Kiefer has made out of lead sheet. Kiefer’s fascination is with the way materiality deteriorates. A Heideggerian-Borgesian masterwork is his installation of lead books on lead shelves, which shows them falling out of their bindings, slumping in disorder. Perhaps this work takes literally Derrida’s assertion that the Logos, the Word of God and of Truth, that used to guide Western civilization, has collapsed. Finally instantiated in a hard sharp metal used extensively in warfare, the word of truth is now immobilized, and not even that for all time, for even in this last form it will decay.
In Kiefer’s work the waste and devastation of war merges with the wastefulness of our daily lives, as our own bodies and the things around us wear out, and the question hangs over us, as it hangs over his work: how do we value this material existence of ours, which is the only one we have? What do we do with it? This is our ‘world’ but shown to us as the passing of time of our material being-here. Our worlds are Heidegger’s Seiendes: Beings, everything in Being, but nothing for ever. Heidegger still just seemed to squeeze a metaphysical value out of that Being where I don’t think Kiefer does. Yet with his depiction of paths and fields, horizons and temples, equipment and work spaces, all so akin to Heidegger’s vision, Kiefer manages heart-stopping moments of accidental beauty. Although Kiefer says he is interested in ‘the technological possibilities of spiritual power’, the only translation he has found for that formula is to add gold leaf to his palette and to appeal with his open spaces to that faint hope we can never get rid of, that destruction is a prelude to creation. He is, avowedly, an alchemist, interested in the eventual process by which lead might be transformed into gold; but what he gives us is the aeons that must pass, not really a promise at all, though perhaps a good enough place sometimes lurks on his horizons.
Heidegger, when he talked about van Gogh’s painting ‘Boots with Laces’ in his 1936 lecture, embroiled the painter and himself in a deep controversy, for, according to his critics he made use of van Gogh’s work to express Nazi values of ‘blood and soil’, that is, a culture based on ethnic purity and the glory of labour. The American art critic Meyer Schapiro, after the war, had the offending paragraph pointed out to him, and in a brief 1968 essay pretty much accused Heidegger of being at once a Nazi and a bad art critic. But then the French postmodernist Jacques Derrida, whom I referred to just now, came along and found Schapiro’s essay a travesty of non-scholarship and a terrible impertinence, from one who knew nothing about Heidegger’s philosophy, but had meanwhile become caught up in the nascent Holocaust Industry. This is the quarrel I set out in A Shoe Story, as crucial to our understanding of so much postmodern art.
In fact I think Kiefer specifically painted his version of this controversy in a work of 1986 called ‘Eisen-Steig’. The title marries the iron of ‘the iron way’ of the German Eisenbahn (railway) with Steig, which is a path, albeit not one limited to Heideggerian field and forest. Made of oil, acrylic, olive branches, lead, iron, gold leaf and emulsion on canvas, this artwork shows a single railway track receding sharply into the distance, in a perspective that is immediately reminiscent of van Gogh’s ‘Crows over the Wheatfield’. The scrubland all around has Kiefer’s familiar swirling and bristling texture, another borrowing from van Gogh, only the bright colour and the goodness of van Gogh’s faith in nature are not there. In the foreground, to either side of the picture, but between the rails, lie what may be the remains of a pair of wellington boots. The one on the left might be standing, foot forward; the one on the right has fallen over and the foot points awkwardly away from the horizon. The boots are indicated by a single black line around their perimeter. They’re not solid. Indeed they’re disintegrating, and in both cases the soles have become detached and sit awkwardly on their respective rails. The landscape meanwhile permeates and reclaims the space each boot as a whole once occupied. Ahead of the boots along the rails there are points, and the iron way becomes two divergent paths. Two ways for Germany? Two ways with Heidegger’s reading of van Gogh’s ‘Boots with Laces’? Two ways with Heidegger himself? it might even be said that if one of these single-line tracks leads to Auschwitz, the other leads to Kiefer’s own work, via Heidegger’s comments on a now almost disembodied and no longer useful pair of boots.
‘Eisen-Steig’ was first exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1986. This was the museum where for many years, before the creation of the present-day van Gogh museum, ‘Boots with Laces’ hung. Perhaps that was the moment when Kiefer, in a nod to Derrida, made his own intervention in The Shoe Story. That was meanwhile the story in which Heidegger put such a deeply philosophical interpretation on van Gogh, and made the nature of materiality a new kind of topic for philosophically minded artists.