Visu­al Arts

Anselm Kiefer: A Monograph

Dominique Baque
  • From the Publisher
August 31, 2016

Dominique Baque’s new mono­graph Anselm Kiefer is a big, beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced book rich­ly illus­trat­ed with 250 glossy col­or illus­tra­tions. The inten­si­ty of the sub­ject, Ger­man-born artist Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945 — ) and his exten­sive bod­ies of work — like this mono­graph — can over­whelm. As the author, a not­ed art his­to­ri­an, acknowl­edges, Kiefer­’s work is unques­tion­ably dif­fi­cult and requires great effort and con­cen­tra­tion for many read­ers and audiences.

The same can be said about this mono­graph. Baque suc­ceeds in address­ing the numer­ous dif­fi­cult con­cepts that con­tin­ue to moti­vate Kiefer and his work, but the going can be rough. One might won­der why Kiefer, who is not Jew­ish, mer­its dis­cus­sion among Jew­ish read­ers and art enthu­si­asts. There is the ongo­ing debate over what con­sti­tutes Jew­ish art, inter­twined with the vex­ing ques­tion of who can be con­sid­ered a Jew­ish artist — and why. Float­ing some­where in prox­im­i­ty to these ques­tions of art, iden­ti­ty, and Jew­ish­ness resides the art and career of Anselm Kiefer.

Kiefer’s Jew­ish cre­den­tials” ensue from his artis­tic inter­est in Kab­bal­is­tic thought and sys­tems, explo­rations of Jew­ish fig­ures like Lilith and Shu­lamith (Kiefer has a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion with strong Jew­ish female ances­tral fig­ures), the Roman­ian Jew­ish poet Paul Celan — per­haps the only male fig­ure Kiefer rep­re­sents — the Sec­ond World War, and the Holo­caust. As Adorno stat­ed (and is often mis­quot­ed), Writ­ing poet­ry after Auschwitz is bar­bar­ic;” to Kiefer, the chal­lenge is how he can be an artist at all, but specif­i­cal­ly a Ger­man artist in the high clas­si­cal tra­di­tion, after Auschwitz.

In this thor­ough mono­graph, Baque suc­cess­ful­ly works through the biog­ra­phy of the artist, his vast body of works in dif­fer­ent media, and the philo­soph­i­cal ideas which dri­ve his cre­ativ­i­ty. Kiefer’s work is encrust­ed with lay­ers of sym­bols and of his­to­ry; quite strik­ing­ly, he was born at the end of World War II dur­ing an Allied air raid. A great strength of this mono­graph is the atten­tion the author pays to Kiefer’s art books which provoca­tive­ly pro­nounced their Ger­man­ness, and to this point, have not been giv­en their right pro­por­tion of con­sid­er­a­tion. Sto­ry­telling, myth­mak­ing, mem­o­ry, and the con­struc­tion and resus­ci­ta­tion of his­to­ry are strong com­po­nents of Kiefer’s art and Ger­man iden­ti­ty: Kiefer bold­ly, shock­ing­ly pro­claimed and ques­tioned his nation­al her­itage in a series of per­for­mances and books in which he donned his father’s Nazi uni­form, ques­tion­ing what would his own role have been had he been alive dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Sim­i­lar­ly, Kiefer dis­man­tles com­mon house­hold objects — bath­tubs, for exam­ple — to illu­mi­nat­ed how they have also stained by false­hoods of Nazi values.

Baque’s dis­cus­sion of phas­es of Kiefer’s incred­i­ble work or bod­ies of a medi­um or on a theme some­times lack a focused, visu­al­ly dri­ven analy­sis of indi­vid­ual pieces, which can be frus­trat­ing to the read­er. Kiefer’s con­cep­tions are mul­ti-lay­ered, as are his Neo-Expres­sion­ist paint­ings, instal­la­tions, and sculp­tures, and read­ers would ben­e­fit from more stud­ied for­mal analy­sis. Anselm Kiefer: A Mono­graph may not be the best intro­duc­tion for those new to the artist’s work, but Domonique Baque’s study is reward­ing and the large-scale illus­tra­tions com­pel all.

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