A Salute by Any Other Name... Anselm Kiefer and the Politics of a Pose

Jessica Backus
Oct 2, 2014 11:55PM

“Between the summer and fall of 1969 I occupied Switzerland, France and Italy. A few photographs.” This sentence accompanied Kiefer’s Occupations series, for which the artist photographed himself performing the Hitler salute in front of various monuments throughout these three European countries, one of which (France) had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The series was submitted as his final thesis for his arts education degree, and all but one of the committee members — a former concentration camp inmate — rejected the project. This early series of events anticipated the harsh reception that would befall the work for some time to come.

While critics decried the series’ uncomfortable proximity to a National Socialist image world (Kiefer was accused of proto-Fascist leanings), the artist would find notable supporters for his provocations; the artist Joseph Beuys, whom he met in the early 1970s, called it laconically “a good action.” The scholars Benjamin Buchloh and Andreas Huyssen saw in it a formidable attempt to come to terms with the Nazi past by attempting to inhabit it. As the tenor of debates over collective guilt in Germany shifted in the late 1960s to the individual actions of everyday Germans, Kiefer literally put himself in their shoes. “I wanted to find out how I would have acted,” Kiefer has said of his motivations. What is more, the title of the work, “Occupations,”  points not only to Germany’s physical occupation of Europe during World War II, but also to the National Socialists’ total co-option of German cultural symbols and images; the composer Richard Wagner and the 16th century artist Albrecht Dürer are some of the many cultural figures from Germany’s past conscripted in service of Nazi ideology. The Nazis, in essence, so steadfastly “occupied” these national symbols as to leave them unusable for subsequent generations, a state of affairs that compelled an artist like Kiefer to confront Nazi visual culture head-on.

Since his student days in the politicized climate of the late 1960s, Kiefer has been interested in the way power can be perverted. He returned to the trope of the charismatic authoritarian political figure in his series “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom” (2012), which centered around the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, depicted with an outstretched arm amidst flourishing landscapes (the visual similarity between Mao’s pose and the Nazi salute is not lost on Kiefer). As the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao was a polarizing figure: a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese, he became something of a cult figure for the European left. The title of the series refers to Mao’s invocation to intellectuals in 1957 to partake in the Communist cause, offering  a false promise of pluralism. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” As it were, many intellectuals were forced into farm work in the wake of the cultural revolution. The image of Mao used by Kiefer is based on the ubiquitous concrete monuments to this Communist hero throughout China. Taken together, both series show how potent symbols of national figures can be, and that working through a fraught history requires  an understanding of the images that helped confer power on these charismatic figures in the first place.

Jessica Backus