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Traveller from an antique land

Anselm Kiefer’s bleakly despairing vision causes disquiet in an art world used to in-jokes and irony

It comes as no surprise, I guess, to discover that there was a time when Anselm Kiefer believed he might be a Second Coming. Though he was only four when he had his intimations of immortality, the artist has subsequently made an extraordinary life's work of grim sacrifices and unlikely resurrections of one kind or another.

Kiefer was born in 1945 in the Black Forest garrison town of Donaueschingen, midnight's child. He spent his first months in the cellar of the family house, ears stopped up with wax to shut out the noise of the Allied air raids. He was a malnourished squeal of life in a place that was all about destruction. While his mother went out for food, Kiefer found all the toys he needed in the bricks and ashes of the place. "The ruins, the dust, this is where I begin from," he is apt to say - and he is referring not only to the circumstances of his birth but to the sense of possibility he has had every time he faces a blank canvas.

His studios tend to re-create his childhood on a vast scale. The raw materials of his art are bundles of wire, rolls of lead, uprooted trees, emulsion, shellac, ash, concrete, the fabric of children's clothes, earth, bricks, seeds (these stand for hope and keep him going). In his sculpture and his painting he mingles the organic with the inorganic, in the way Bomber Harris and his squadrons managed so comprehensively in raids on the Rhineland.

Kiefer's large-scale show at White Cube in London, which opens on 16 October, will return him to some of these ever-present themes. Called "The Fertile Crescent", it takes its title from a phrase coined by the American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, who used it to describe the great river societies in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, which early-20th-century German scholars claimed as the birthplace of western civilisation. A series of paintings, their surfaces thick with debris, will pick through the ruins of those civilisations, now crumbled in the desert.

Mesopotamia and Egypt have long been obsessions of Kiefer's, not least for their living Ozymandias empires. The alluvial, sedimenting cycle of civilisation has much in common with his method of painting: building up layers of material and emulsion to create surfaces that have a kind of primeval depth. The White Cube show is an extension of the designs for his opera In the Beginning, which opened this summer in Paris, where he now lives: an apocalyptic vision, created with the clarinettist Jörg Widmann, told in the voices of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. "My work is called In the Beginning," he has said of it, "because it begins by the end. This is a region of the world where our destiny has been played out . . . where empires have risen and fallen. A place of ruins that chronicle the throes and rebirths the world has undergone."

Kiefer is not a follower of fashion in art; he does not do irony or jokes or look for smart sensations. He has always been that most archaic of things, a history painter, but one unlike any other. I have never been able to look at his paintings without the late German writer W G Sebald coming to mind. Kiefer and Sebald share not just a biography - Sebald was born the year before the painter, in Bavaria - but also a state of mind, a conscience. When Sebald's writing first came to prominence in the 1990s he was described as a psychogeographer; he witnessed in the landscape and its memories the co-ordinates of his own anxieties and dread.

The term would apply equally to Kiefer's work. The terrains he depicts - not least in the "Fertile Crescent" paintings - are both resolutely external and historical in their context but are also maps of his own state of mind. This signature mood is despairing, and even when punctuated by hope it is bleak and fragmentary - flowers are occasionally visible in Kiefer's inchoate Passchendaele-like landscapes, little flashes of colour which, on closer inspection, may appear diseased or done in by pollution. In any case, there is no doubt, looking at any of his work - and he shares this, too, with Sebald - that it has been born out of necessity rather than choice. He is an obsessively restless raker-over of things, pulling fragments from the past; and he clearly has no option but to do that.

Like Sebald, who made his name with Austerlitz, his extraordinary meditation on European destruction, Kiefer has been most often drawn to the weeded-over sites of ancient horrors. He began painting in a former schoolhouse in Germany's Oden Forest - brooding, congealed visions of his nation's epic myths, such as Teutoburger Wald, which captures in its wooded density the terror and slaughter of the Roman legions of Varus by the Germanic tribes that created the nation. Kiefer moved from the forest to an abandoned brick factory near Buchen in the 1980s. The schoolhouse and factory haunted, and figure in, many of his paintings, where they are freighted with associations of all of Germany's darkest hours. Kiefer exiled himself from his homeland in 1990 - the year of reunification - perhaps to preserve, intact in his head, the place that he knew.

Until recently he was based on and off in a 200-acre studio complex in Barjac, in the south of France, built on the site of a former silkworm nursery. In the grounds of this estate Kiefer erected a vast series of brick-built structures - towers and ziggurats, which give the impression of imminent collapse. They are connected by a network of tunnels that houses some of his work, including self-portraits in which trees sprout from his loins. In among these buildings Kiefer cultivated giant sunflowers, partly in homage to Vincent Van Gogh - a psychogeographer if ever there was one - whose sunflower paintings were done nearby.

Kiefer's exile to France resulted in a second great burst of creative energy. The first had come in his twenties when he fell under the charismatic spell of Joseph Beuys, his mentor and perhaps the single most influential European artist of the past 50 years. It was as if, having left Germany in middle age, he could see its history all the more clearly. In France, he was both there and not there. "I worked in Barjac for so long," he said in a recent interview. "But, you know, I never felt at home there. I never even knew the landscape there. I used photographs of the landscapes of Germany and Israel but I did not really draw on the landscape of this part of France. This is strange, no?"

If the world is divided into those who construct and those who destroy - bridge-builders and bomb-makers - then Kiefer has created for himself a kind of uncharted territory between the two, desolate but fecund, which has something in common with Eliot's Waste Land, say, or Beckett's blasted heaths, but which is in fact a no-man's-land of his own making.

After 11 September 2001 Kiefer was lauded as a kind of prophet; his fixation with collapsing towers seemed both prescient and unnerving. He remained phlegmatic about the attention, suggesting that his towers were more symbolic of Babel than the World Trade Center. Powerful civilisations had always built towers, and they had always been reduced to nothing. "I am trying always to catch that moment of collapse, that sense of dreadful movement," he said.

Such intensity can cause disquiet among gallery-goers. The critic Peter Schjeldahl once described the confused reactions of New York to Kiefer's unashamed epics as "Anselm angst". The art crowd had got used to in-jokes and was suddenly up against an Old Testament sage. You may see some of the same thing at White Cube, that stronghold of Britart. Visitors looked in Kiefer's work for the knowing glance, the undermining conceit, but found none.

“The moral backbone of art is about that whole question of memory," Sebald once observed in another context. "To my mind, it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives." The task that Kiefer set himself when he started out painting in the forest 40 years ago was to ask if it was possible to create a German art that was all about memory, and that was as much about destruction as creation. He is still working on the answer.

“The Fertile Crescent" is at White Cube, London N1 and London SW1, from 16 October until 14 November. Tim Adams is the New Statesman's art critic

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people