Anselm Kiefer…

Anselm Kiefer on the Existential Crisis Facing Humanity

  • Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.
    Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.

Anselm Kiefer is emphatically one of the world’s most successful and well-known living artists. His work has been described as “verging on the divine,” no less. But at 72, what does it all mean to Kiefer?

This past weekend, the German artist was in Copenhagen to open a new exhibition at a little-known art center, Copenhagen Contemporary (CC), located on the city’s Paper Island—where, for decades, newsroll was stored in industrial halls. Four of Kiefer’s life-size replicas of 20th-century warplanes inhabit one of CC’s four former paper halls.

Two of these are modeled on the U.S. Army’s F-84F Thunderstreak, a snub-nosed plane used during the Korean War. A larger sculpture is based on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a heavy American bomber plane used on Germany during World War II. And a fourth sculpture, titled Exodus, is after the twin-engined Martin B-26 Marauder, first flown in 1940 and used by the British, French, U.S., and South African air forces.

The works—three of them built with Kiefer’s trademark material, lead, the other with zinc—have never before left Kiefer’s studio in France. Although planes have been a motif in his work since the 1980s, and the artist also collects decommissioned military jets, this is the first time so many of them have been seen at a single show.

  • Portrait of Anselm Kiefer. Photography by Charles Duprat. Courtesy Gagosian.
    Portrait of Anselm Kiefer. Photography by Charles Duprat. Courtesy Gagosian.

They are framed by a series of “desert paintings,” huge compositions that are based on Kiefer’s photographs of the Gobi desert and loaded with cosmic and alchemical symbolism. Looking at them, you can feel the process of his painting, the slashes of a blade against thick impastoed surfaces.

Though the paintings and sculptures represent two distinct bodies of work, together they form a barren landscape, as if the paintings’ dust and sand had been blown over the corpses of the planes. Piles of closed lead books, rocks, and resin-cast poppies rest on the planes’ wings—imagery of death and destruction so familiar in Kiefer’s work.

The atmosphere is elegiac and somber, a morose memorial to human innovation gone wrong. But for Kiefer, growing up in post-war Germany, such vestiges of conflict were also playgrounds. There is something exploratory in the rubble and wreckage—the possibility of regeneration amid chaos.

It might seem surprising that this little-known Copenhagen space has managed to draw a giant like Kiefer. But CC tends to focus its program on monumental installation works that attract a younger audience, and it was the venue’s founder, Jens Faurschou, that pursued the artist.

“He came to my studio with his family, and then, spontaneously, I said yes,” Kiefer told me at the exhibition’s opening event, where 300 guests gathered for food, drinks, and dancing.

According to Georges Armaos of Gagosian New York, who helped to coordinate the exhibition, the space closely resembles Kiefer’s warehouses in Croissy-Beaubourg. “My studio is a little bit higher and a little bit bigger!” Kiefer laughed.

  • Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.
    Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.

The exhibition takes its title, “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” from the controversial French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1932 novel of the same name. The book—which follows its protagonist Bardamu through his personal accounts of World War I, colonialism in Africa, and a Ford factory in Detroit—has influenced many artists, especially the male icons of modernist and existentialist writing, like Beckett, Barthes, and Bukowski.

“It’s one of the most astonishing books of the 20th century, but he was an asshole, yes,” Kiefer said, with trenchant humor that is not always obvious in his work. Indeed Céline’s legacy has been tainted by his anti-Semitic writing and support of the Axis powers during World War II.

After Kiefer’s appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1980, the artist was himself accused of neo-Nazism. So why reference someone like Céline now? “He was a horrible man, but a great writer,” said Kiefer.  “You have to separate, you know. There can be bad characters who are great writers, or good artists, it happens.”

The book is what matters, Kiefer insists. Voyage au bout de la nuit, he said, “was nihilistic, but not in a negative way. He created an anti-world.”

War and humanity’s destitution have been at the center of Kiefer’s work for five decades. One can only imagine the artist has been ruminating on our current world, with mounting tensions in North Korea, talk of a second Cold War, and right-wing populism sweeping through the West.

“When I started to work in the 1960s, I said 1945 is not the beginning of a new time,” he explained. “I said all the morass is still there, it’s covered with a thin layer of democracy, but it’s still there. It can go up anytime. And now we live in a time that’s very dangerous. We have horrible things happening, because mankind is wrongly constructed.”

  • Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.
    Anselm Kiefer, installation view of “For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Copenhagen Contemporary 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, courtesy of Copenhagen Contemporary.

Art certainly can’t redeem the world, but Kiefer believes it has a role to play in helping us find a way to go on. “I don’t think there’s no hope,” Kiefer said. “You have to create hope, otherwise you cannot live.”

In Remembering the Future, a documentary film about the artist and his work, Kiefer says, “We don’t know why we are here, we don’t know where we go… it’s quite desperate. We have an intellect to find out and we cannot.”

It is what the French writer Albert Camus referred to as absurdism: the confrontation with our own inability to discover the true meaning of life, and our impulse to create in the face of it.

And despite having a somewhat diabolical outlook on the world, Kiefer has never stopped creating. “I work because I want to be surprised about myself,” he said. “Every day I do something that I didn’t expect.”

—Charlotte Jansen

 

Rules I Follow as an artist

  1. Don’t take art too seriously
  2. Take art very seriously
  3. It’s ok to paint over your own work (Don’t be too precious)
  4. Don’t paint over pictures the Muse has allowed to be very good
  5. Keep painting as much as possible like its as necessary as air
  6. Remember to have gratitude that your channels of creativity are open
  7. Support fellow artists, musicians, writers etc as much as possible
  8. Educate people who see artistic endeavour as a trivial act
  9. Always seek to regain your childlike sense of wonder
  10. Appreciate the Muse and the history of art and artists

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The purpose 

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This is one of the few posts you will ever see here that involves knowledge obtained directly from putting in many hours as a psychiatrist (as well as an artist).

I just read an article by some self-appointed and probably well-intentioned authority on how to be successful as an artist. It Ofcourse boiled down to the thesis “keep building your reputation, your prestige, your rating and your profile”. In other words, keep working away at making yourself known by as many art people as possible . Then you will become a successful artist. In the Age of Celebrity, it’s not surprising advice . It’s not even wrong. It’s just boring. And likely a good way to become another lost soul.

Our world is full of depressed, struggling souls with and without the following : money, recognition, reputation, artistic talent, charisma, brilliance, etc etc. These things don’t bring what the real core of a healthy human being wants : an authentic , creative and alive existence. Success ultimately is about living a creative and authentic life that is not dependent on the recognition of others, especially authority figures and the judges of the successful life. The main person you have to satisfy is you (ofcourse it’s nice for others to get joy from what you do as well).

In other words, I am interested in writing about how to live an authentic and creative and invigorating life. Painting and photography just happen to be my close at hand forms of creativity and authenticity . I hope they are not considered the only or even main ways to live a creative and authentic life .

Therefore , advice on how to make it in the art world might be interesting for those who see this as the ultimate goal. I do not. I wonder whether seeing “making it in the art world” may even be often anti-thetical in the quest to “make it in the art world”. Many consumers of art desire to buy a material manifestation of this desire to be creative and free. Egotism and narcissism are don’t usually sell well, do they? Not when they are nakedly revealed anyway.

This blog is not about that narrow goal of success in the art world.

It is about living and appreciating what it is to live a creative and authentic life. It is about the feeling of freedom that creating can give you.

I will try to clarify more and more the differences as we go between motives for art-making.

In a world of broken souls, of searing clinical depression, living a creative and authentic life must be nearer the ultimate goal than the somewhat self-torturing aim of becoming a successful artist. Success as an artist derives (in my value system at least) from pursuing more profound and humanistic paths toward the true and beautiful, the free and playful.

You’ll see what I mean as we go, I hope.

The opinions of others

Being a producer of art, whatever that is, one is exposed to a whole range of opinions and responses. It’s a fair question to ask “What do you think of the opinions people express about your art?”

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The bottom line is that I am not all that interested in praise or recognition. Rather, I produce paintings as a form of authenticity to myself and as a way of being true to my self. As a social being, I value feeling that my productions have given someone an experience of joy, peace, inspiration or awakened their aesthetic awareness. That is a nice side-effect of what I am doing.

As for the opinions of the art authorities, gallery owners or self-appointed art lords, it’s nice to have a positive review by this kind of person, but for me the art world is mainly a mix of cynicism, commodification of art, prestige-creation, art as currency and spurious claims to being an authority. Art as business.  I have many friends who are very poor and yet I enjoy their art work immensely. The real power of art is as a practice of self-awareness, as a discipline of attention to the world. In this sense, it is more like a daily meditation or a commitment to contemplation.

It is  also inherently a practice of freedom and play. These are the true rewards of being involved in art. Elitism, art snobbery, and the commercialisation of art are antithetical to this real living and burning core of art. I have no problem paying an artist for a piece, but it’s all about the motive and the experience.

Does this make sense to any of you?