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Anselm Kiefer - Biography and Legacy

German Painter, Sculptor, Photographer, and Installation Artist

Movements and Styles: Neo-Expressionism, Installation Art

Born: March 8, 1945 - Donaueschingen, Baden-Wurttemburg, Germany

Anselm Kiefer Timeline

"I believe art has to take responsibility but it should not give up being art."

Anselm Kiefer Signature
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Biography of Anselm Kiefer

Childhood and Early Life

Kiefer was born on March 8, 1945 during the final months of World War II. The son of an art teacher, Kiefer was drawn to art and saw himself as an artist. He was raised in a Catholic home in the Black Forest near the eastern bank of the Rhine, an environment that would play a formative role in his development as an artist and would provide imagery and symbolism for his work. His family moved to Ottersdorf in 1951 and Kiefer attended grammar school in Rastatt.

Although he had artistic ambitions from an early age, Kiefer studied law and Romance languages between 1965 and 1966 at the Albert-Universitat, Freiberg. Soon thereafter he abandoned his aspiration to become a lawyer to focus solely on visual art, taking classes with the influential painter Peter Dreher at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildende Kunste in Karlsruhe. During this period, at the age of 24, he also traveled extensively throughout Europe.

Kiefer was part of a generation of Germans who felt the shame and guilt of the Holocaust, but had no personal experience of it. The artist has stated that the lack of discussion of WWII in school became a creative wellspring for him. He began his artistic career with a provocative photographic series titled Occupations (1969), which caused controversy because of its overt dealing with the Nazi past.

Mature Work

In 1970 Kiefer moved to Düsseldorf where he studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie and befriended the artist Joseph Beuys, who would have an enduring influence on Kiefer, as a mentor and informal teacher. Impressed by Kiefer's use of irony in reference to Germany's past, Beuys saw great potential in the young artist and urged him to explore painting. Kiefer switched from photography to other media as a result, and in 1971 he created his first large landscape paintings. Drawing largely from Beuys's conceptual approach and use of symbols, Kiefer began to develop his own unique representational language, focusing on evocative landscapes and interiors. He continued to explore themes of German history, culture, and mythology, depicting the country's rural pastures, while engaging with the legacies of Germany's artistic past, including the composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner and the Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Appearing at first glance to be simple bucolic landscapes, these works are imbued with Germany's morbid past, evoking the desolate fields of mass burial sites and concentration camps.

Beuys would remain a lasting influence on his work, but Kiefer also befriended fellow Neo-Expressionist painter Georg Baselitz, who would become his first patron and an artistic collaborator during this period. Baselitz purchased several works by Kiefer in 1974, allowing the artist to continue his seminal early series despite their provocative subject matter. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kiefer traveled outside of Germany, with several trips in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. These experiences greatly influenced his perspective and his work, motivating a shift away from themes of German history toward subjects more broadly related to the roles of art and mythology in social and religious contexts. Impacted by the cultural upheavals in Israel in particular, he integrated motifs of Jewish mysticism and the teachings of the Kabbalah into his paintings. Similarly inspired by a visit to Egypt, Kiefer appropriated the rich visual vocabulary of religious idolatry and hieroglyphic symbols from the nation's vast trove of ancient art and artifacts.

While this period saw the use of new motifs, including sigils, and a fascination with spiritual and occult symbolism, it was also characterized by Kiefer's use of a number of new materials. In his 1981 series Margarete and Shulamite, for example, the artist used, for the first time, straw in his work, which he preferred for its tangible, malleable, and ephemeral qualities. While he had previously explored the use of glass, natural materials like straw, flowers, and ash would come to be central fixtures in his work. Lead, which he had used in previous works also became more dominant in this period after he bought the lead roof of a Cologne cathedral when the roof was being redone in the 1980s.

As Neo-Expressionism rose to prominence during the late 1970s and 1980s, Kiefer quickly gained worldwide fame, and in 1980 he was chosen to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale along with Baselitz. This decision, made by the Stadelsche Kunstinstitut Director Klaus Gallwitz, validated Neo-Expressionism as a movement and forced the country to come to terms with German history in an international context. The presentation also served to catapult Kiefer's career into the global art arena, leading to widespread recognition.

Later Life

In 1992 Kiefer left his first wife of approximately 20 years and their three children, moving from a small town outside of Frankfurt to a new 200-acre studio complex in Barjac, France, which had been an abandoned silk factory. Over time Kiefer transformed the space into a Gesamtkunstwerk that included towers, tunnels, and buildings. Between 1995 and 2001 he moved beyond his traditional subject matter, undertaking an abstract series based on the cosmos and broadening his repertoire of themes and media. At the same time, he renewed his long-standing interest in sculpture and text, creating a compelling series based on the Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov and revisiting the work of the Romanian poet Paul Celan, whose writings recur throughout Kiefer's oeuvre.

In 2008 he left the Barjac complex in the hands of a caretaker with plans to let nature take its course and moved to Paris with his second wife, the Austrian photographer Renate Graf, and their two children. His studio in Paris is large as well: 36,000 square meters in a former Samaritaine department store warehouse at Croissy-Beaubourg. He is represented by Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris, Gagosian Gallery in New York, The White Cube Gallery in London, and Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris and Salzburg.

The Legacy of Anselm Kiefer

While Kiefer rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s in the midst of the Neo-Expressionist movement, his work continues to resonate with artists and audiences alike. His use of materials, influenced in part by Robert Rauschenberg's combines and the unconventionality of Art Brut and Arte Povera, brought a revitalized awareness of the symbolic use of everyday non-art resources in painting. This aspect of his practice rekindled interest in three-dimensional, many-layered canvases and encouraged later artists, such as Zhang Huan and Dan Colen, to experiment with materials to a greater extent.

Kiefer's dense compositions and austere subjects have had an enduring impact on artists who explore themes of war, memory, and loss in a range of media, from painters William Kentridge, Stephen Barclay, and Christopher Bramham to photographers Zoe Strauss and Jyrki Parantainen and installation artist Christian Boltanski. Ever teetering on the edge between abstraction and figuration, Kiefer uses a distinctly poetic, psychological style to convey heady social and political issues, abandoning the cold aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptual art in favor of a more redolent, painterly, and moralistic visual language. Along with his contemporaries Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, he has succeeded in bringing social issues to the forefront of contemporary discussions, forcing Germany to reckon with its horrific past.

Most Important Art

Anselm Kiefer Famous Art

Shevirat Ha-Kelim or Breaking of the Vessels (1990)

Kiefer's massive sculpture visualizes creation as put forth in the Kabbalah, a collection of ancient Jewish mystical writings that describe the attributes of God as divided among ten vessels that were not strong enough to contain them. When the vessels were broken, only the virtues of Will, Wisdom, and Understanding remained while those pertaining to spiritual, moral, aesthetic, and material values were let out into the world - a world outside God's immediate control. The breakage symbolized the introduction of evil and the human condition into the world.

The work consists of a 17-foot-tall bookshelf with 41 oversized lead books. Despite their overall gray appearance, each book has a unique character: some have textured pages, most look like volumes that have been worn from use with corners turned down or crumpled. Two books on the top shelf tilt out as if ready to fall. The books are decorated and interspersed with broken glass that merges with the glass on the floor in front of the work. The spirit of God is represented in the semicircular pane of glass suspended above the bookcase and inscribed with the word "Ain-Sof," Hebrew for "the infinite."

The lead markers with Hebrew inscriptions attached to the bookcase symbolize the ten vessels of the divine essence. Eight are on the bookcase; one is at the base of the glass half-circle; one lies on the floor; all are connected by copper wire. The inscriptions translate as follows: (left-top to bottom) understanding, judgment or severity, and glory; (middle-top to bottom) crown, beauty, foundation and kingdom; (right-top to bottom) wisdom, mercy or love and victory. The words in this arrangement are the Kabbalistic diagram of the Tree of Life.

As in so many of Kiefer's works, the sculpture has multiple layers of meaning. It can be seen broadly as a metaphor of the human tragedy and the cycle of rebirth and regeneration. It also alludes to the richness of Jewish culture and the many times it has been threatened throughout history, specifically during Kristallnacht when the Nazis shattered the windows (broken glass) of synagogues and Jewish storefronts in November 1938.
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 08 May 2015. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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