Anselm Kiefer
Biography of German Neo-Expressionist Painter, Holocaust Paintings.

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Innenraum (1981)
By Anselm Kiefer. Stedelijk Museum,
Amsterdam. One of the great
20th century paintings.

Anselm Kiefer (b.1945)


Early Life
German Mythology and Culture
Holocaust Paintings
Widening Focus
Installations and Design

Lot's Wife (1989)
The Cleveland Museum of Art.

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One of the greatest living 20th century painters, the German artist Anselm Kiefer is most famous for his exploration of taboo themes from German history, notably the Holocaust, in order to come to terms with the country's Nazi past. His fine art painting is characterised by a heavily worked, depressive style and is executed on a very large, heavyweight scale. Natural materials - including clay, straw, ash, lead, even blood - are often incorporated in his work, along with signatures and names of historically important individuals and places, associating him with a type of contemporary art called "New Symbolism." The surfaces of his canvases are sometimes deliberately "distressed" by burning them with a blowtorch or defacing them with axes, hammers or acid. Originally an exponent of conceptual art, Kiefer switched to painting and joined the Neo-Expressionism movement. As well as modern German themes, his art contains references to Nordic mythology, Jewish mysticism, Biblical subjects and the life of Mao Zedong. The gravitas of his compositions, as well as their "istoria" and "narrative", makes Kiefer one of the best history painters of the late 20th century.

Margarete (1981)
Saatchi Collection, London.
One of Kiefer's most symbolic
examples of history painting.

Early Life

Born in Donaueschingen, a small village in the Black Forest region of Germany, two months before the end of World War II, Kiefer attended grammar school in Rastatt, before starting courses in law and languages at the University of Freiburg. He quit these courses in 1966 to study art at the academies of Freiburg, Karlsruhe (under Peter Dreher and Horst Antes), and Dusseldorf. This move coincided with his first proper understanding of recent German history. He came to public attention in 1969 with his conceptual or performance art, which he captured and displayed in photographs at his first one-man show - entitled Besetzungen (Occupations) - at Galerie am Kaiserplatz, in Karlsruhe. The photographs showed the 24-year old Karlsruhe art student giving the Nazi salute outside certain buildings in France, Switzerland and Italy, and urging Germans to acknowledge the damage to their culture as a result of the insane actions of the Third Reich. The exhibition provoked huge controversy and incomprehension among his teachers, and anger among both the public and art critics, not least for its explicit reference to the evil era that so many of his fellow countrymen had chosen to forget. Only Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a teacher at Dusseldorf (from whom Kiefer received informal instruction) congratulated him, saying that the Occupations project was a good action, and for him, action was art.



German Mythology and Culture

During the 1970s, he turned to painting, often creating mixed-media canvases with glass, straw, wood, ashes and other materials - a method of expression influenced by Beuys' ambiguous use of fat and carpet felt. Kiefer was associated with the political left at this time, although he remained a critical observer and avoided any contemporary art with a political content. Instead, he devoted considerable time to German mythology, exploring the forests where Germanic barbarian tribes had battled with Roman legions and which were themselves a constant source of mystery and stimulation. (In 1971 he returned to live in the Black Forest.) He absorbed German medieval art and the culture of the Middle Ages. He also studied Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the innovative genius of German art in the 19th century, whose romantic landscape painting reflected so much of the German soul.


Kiefer's direct style of art was like that of his contemporaries Georg Baselitz (b.1938) and Jorg Immendorff (b.1945), and, in fact, during the 1980s he became associated with Neo-Expressionism, whose members included modern artists like Gerhard Richter (b.1932), Bernd Koberling (b.1938), A.R.Penck [Ralf Winkler] (b.1939), Markus Lupertz (b.1941), Bernd Zimmer (b.1948) and Rainer Fetting (b.1949). In 1980, together with Georg Baselitz, he represented Germany at the Venice Biennale.

Holocaust Paintings

In his 1980s paintings, Kiefer focused predominantly on Germany's Nazi past, depicting scorched, rutted landscapes, symbolizing the renewal that is possible, even after enormous destruction and despair, as exemplified by Nigredo (1984, Philadelphia Museum of Art). He also depicted a series of architectural structures resembling National Socialist buildings designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer and others. See, in particular, his powerful Innenraum (1981, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) which resembles the monumental interior space of Hitler's Berlin Chancellery. In other more direct examples of Holocaust art, Kiefer employed more obvious symbolism. See, for instance, his oil painting Lot's Wife (1989, The Cleveland Museum of Art), in which the railroad tracks symbolize the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. The name of the painting refers to the Biblical story about Lot's wife who was turned to salt because she disobeyed God's order not to look back on his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Another of Kiefer's striking compositions is Margarete (1981, Saatchi Collection, London), based on a fictional character created by the Romanian poet Paul Celan. Celan was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, and before committing suicide in 1970, he wrote a series of poems about Margarete, a woman with blonde Aryan hair, and Shulamite, a Jewish woman with black hair. Kiefer in fact made a series of paintings based on the poems, all of which had straw embedded in the picture surface to represent Margarete's hair, while any tangled black lines reflect the presence of Shulamite. By pairing the two together, Kiefer symbolizes reconciliation.

Widening Focus of Paintings

With the collapse of Communism and the approach of German reunification, Kiefer widened the artistic focus of his paintings to include to include references to ancient Hebrew theology and Egyptian history, as well as other early civilizations. In several works he portrayed the trauma suffered by entire societies, alongside the process of rebirth and renewal. He travelled widely throughout Europe, America and the Middle East, and started to explore sculpture, as well as woodcuts, and fine art photography. Meanwhile, he endowed his painting with unusual textures and added physicality.

In 1991, not long after the reunification of the two Germany's, Kiefer went on a long tour of Japan, Mexico and India. Shortly after his return he left Germany and moved his studio to a disused silk factory at Barjac in the south of France, creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art) out of the 80-acre complex. Since his relocation to Paris in 2008, the Barjac compound - with its extensive layout of buildings, subterranean chambers and corridors, and storerooms - is slowly becoming derelict, waiting for nature to take over. It is, perhaps, Kiefer's lasting work of art - one which symbolizes the precarious and temporary nature of civilization.

Installations and Design

Kiefer continues to work actively on numerous projects. In 2007, he created a large site-specific installation of paintings and sculptures for the inaugural "Monumenta" at the Grand Palais, Paris. In the same year, he became the first living artist since Georges Braque (1882-1963) in 1953, to have a permanent installation at the Louvre. In 2009, he designed the stage sets for the opera Am Anfang (In the Beginning) by Jorg Widmann at the National Opera in Paris. He also held two exhibitions at London's White Cube gallery, entitled Karfunkelfee and The Fertile Crescent, the latter being a sweeping comment on the instability of architectural grandeur, from Mesopotamia to the Third Reich.


Paintings and other works by Anselm Kiefer can be seen in many of the world's best art museums. The latter include the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Fondation Beyeler in Basel; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Saatchi Collection, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; MOMA, New York; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia; and many others.

• For biographies of other modern German artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Neo-Expressionism, see: Homepage.

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