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Anselm Kiefer: A Visual Glossary

As Anselm Kiefer’s Retrospective Opens at the RCA, A Look at His References from Kabbalah to Contemporary

Born in a small German town in the final days of World War II, Anselm Kiefer often returns to his beginnings in his work: he has spent over four decades creating a sustained investigation of German identity and collective history. Kiefer’s works can appear at first to be a Gordian knot of symbols, literary references, and arcane allusions drawn from traditions unfamiliar to most contemporary viewers, such as Nordic mythology and Kabbalah mysticism. On the occasion of the artist’s current retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, we look at some of these tropes in detail.

Political Figures Salute

Kiefer’s final thesis in art school, Occupations (1969), consisted of a series of photographs of the artist posed in the Hitler salute in front of monuments throughout Europe. Though critics initially accused Kiefer of Fascist leanings, most historians now view this work as a complex indictment of the Nazis’ exploitation of national symbols. Since then, Kiefer has been interested in the way charismatic leaders can distort national images to their advantage. He took up this theme again in 2012 with a series of paintings, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom,” depicting the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, posed with an outstretched arm unsettlingly reminiscent of the Nazi salute.


Architecture
Beginning in the 1980s, Kiefer created a series of brooding, operatic canvases depicting Fascist architecture, such as the Reich Chancellery and the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. He has also made architecture himself, including the total work of art that is his studio in Barjac, in the South of France. La Ribaute, as he calls it, contains an amphitheater, underground tunnels, pavilions, and stack-like towers. There is always something haunting and melancholy about his architectural structures, as if anticipating their own future ruined state. As the philosopher Christopher Woodward writes, “Poets and painters like ruins, and dictators like monuments.”


The Forest
In addition to the personal significance the forest carries for Kiefer—“Kiefer” means pine tree in German—the trope of the dark woods has collective import as well. “The forest is very important to Germans,” Kiefer says. “Our stories always begin in the forest.”


The Artist’s Palette
Since 1980, the image of a winged artist’s palette has occurred frequently in Kiefer’s work, often made of heavy materials like lead, or dark and sullen, skimming the surface of the Earth in his paintings. As a symbol for art, these palettes are ultimately ambiguous. Does art lift us up? Or is it destined to terra firma?


Alchemy
Kiefer uses a number of concepts drawn from the medieval pseudo-science of alchemy, which attempted to make gold from other metals. Nigredo, meaning “blackness,” refers to the idea that all ingredients had to be purified by being burned to a uniform black matter in the first stage of the alchemical process. Lead, a material that Kiefer uses frequently in his sculptures, paintings, and artist’s books, is viewed as the most base and least spiritual of all metals in alchemy. “I feel closest to lead because it is like us,” Kiefer has said. “It’s changeable and has potential to achieve a higher state of gold.”


Anselm Kiefer” is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London through December 14, 2014.