Anselm Kiefer: what remains

Saturn Time, and details, 1986; oil, acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac on photograph on canvas, with poured lead and fern frond.  Anselm Kiefer, born 1945, German.

Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum from Keith L. and Katharine Sachs.  



It is, of course, more instructive to see a collection of an artist’s work altogether than to see just one work.  But beggars cannot be choosers and this is what is available to us.


And perhaps that is not so bad because a collection, even small, of this artist’s work is overwhelming.

German history through the prism of vast halls of wood and brick lit by blazing torches held by sconces of iron;  fields on fire;  fields which are barren;  plants growing aggressively;  railway lines stretching to an unseen place and suddenly ominous;  structures of large books made of metal and piled high and sometimes opened but always illegible as if to remind us of a civilization which placed (places?) a higher value on the life in books  and in theoretical constructs than the life in life.


 The Language of the Birds, 2013.  Lead, metal, wood, plaster.  Anselm Kiefer, born 1945, German.  In private collection.



Works many – but not all – of them weighty,  somewhat monochromatic,  often encrusted,  layered, lowering, somewhat dark;  dense like this painting, always in pleasing balance within the picture frame as if to highlight the catastrophic moral imbalance of the subject matter;  not leaving much room for breathing before we have absorbed as much as we are able and sidle away.

The fern  – a crucifix?

More probably a representative of those forests which so inhabit the German mind and whose wood forms so prominent a part of this artist’s work.




Wooden Room, 1972, oil and charcoal on burlap.  Anselm Kiefer.  Museum of Modern Art, New York

This was the artist’s attic studio in a schoolhouse in Dusseldorf where he was studying under Joseph Beuys.

At its base is a giant butterfly.  More likely a rib cage.  A rib cage-being holding high a fern-tree like a flag. 

The ambiguity remains: are we to be appalled or are we to understand that this is a representation of the normal cycle of ashes to ashes to renew the world?




This work is gold-bearing.  There are thin vertical seams extending downwards from the fern’s extended foliage.  There is a layer of gold in splotches on some photo fragments.  Gold forms a rough halo around the rib cage.  The earth under the rib cage is mottled with gold.

This painting – as the artist’s work in general – is not about a trashing of the history of his native country.  

Art, the artist has said, is not entertainment: it is difficult.  To go forward into the future, the artist has said, he and his countrymen have to go first into the past.



The artist’s question is:  what is it that has gone on and what remains of that activity, thought and time?

Let’s look at it closely.  Let’s expose it all to the light.