Feature Archive

Far From Heaven: Anselm Kiefer at the Hirshorn

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth
Recently at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oct 12, 2006 through Jan 14, 2007
By Joseph Phelan
Naïve tourists from Kansas who wander from the National Mall into the Hirshorn Museum in search of the religious pictures promised by the title "Heaven and Earth" may be disappointed by this survey of the work of the contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Though Mr. Kiefer is as fascinated with the meanings of religious revelation, especially in their mystical variants, as any artist alive today, his vision of heaven and earth on the evidence in this exhibit looks more like purgatory than paradise.

But you can understand why the show's organizers, curators Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, where the show was organized, and the Hirshorn's Valerie Fletcher, in bringing together the 40 paintings, watercolors, book and sculptures created between 1969 and 2005 in the show choose a more upbeat title.

Kiefer, who was born during the final months of World War II, began his career in the 1970's as one of those "bad boys" of postmodern art with a series of photographs showing him in various German locations performing the "sieg-heil". Although these photographs are not in this show, there is a fine watercolor landscape titled Everyone Stands under His Own Dome of Heaven with a tiny figure performing the salute under what looks like a miraculous blue snow globe.

Some saw in these early works a sinister nostalgia for Hitler or a parody of that nostalgia. When Kiefer became world famous a few years later in the 1980's it was for his super sized paintings depicting forbidding war ravaged landscapes like The Milky Way and grandiose haunted Albert Speer like interior spaces as in The Ash Flower.

Kiefer found his mission as a kind of post modern "history painter" whose special subject was the menacing presence of Germany in the history of the 20th century. This led the distinguished art critic John Russell to write that Kiefer's art "tackles some of the greatest and most daunting issues of our century in ways that in the heyday of modernism would have been virtually taboo"

The series of oil paintings in the first few galleries offers an introduction to the artist's key themes and symbols. Kiefer, whose name means "pine tree" in German, has remarked "Our stories always begin in the forest," Man in the Forest (1971) depicts the artist wearing a nightshirt holding a burning branch in a dense pine forest. While the artist is dwarfed by the trees, the fiery branch he holds indicates he may either light the way or set the woods on fire.

Resurrexit (1971, pictured left) offers a different view a wooded landscape with a building barely visible in the distant clearing. In the center foreground, Kiefer has been replaced by a snake headed toward the building. A pinewood staircase is attached to the top of the painting. Some see this as a staircase to heaven. We learn that the building is the former schoolhouse which Kiefer converted into his studio. The pinewood stairs are the only access to the studio.

In Quaternity (1973), the first of the super-sized paintings included in the show, we are inside the attic studio. Attics have a symbolic significance for Germans that is where families hide their secrets. On the pinewood floor the staging area for his historical imaginings we see three small fires identified in the artist's cursive script as the three persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. From the dark area on the right another snake enters clearly labeled Satan. By his choice of the title, Kiefer presents evil or Satan, as a fundamental element in the spiritual matrix. There is eternal balance of good and evil, creation and destruction running through Kiefer's sense of history.

The artist has special affinity for troubled places and no place on earth is more troubled than the holy city of Jerusalem (1985-86) where the three great revealed religions struggle to coexist and dominate. This dynamic abstract monumental composition evokes the holiness and the troubles. Two skis like forms made from steel float before a background of gray lead illuminated by flashes of gold leaf. Thus the possibility and desire for transcendence is suggested as well as its seeming impossibility here on earth.

Kiefer's frequently incorporates three dimensional objects into his paintings In Melancholia (2004, see detail at right), a cloud of lead seems to emit a strange polyhedron suspended over a murky desert. In this mysterious painting Kiefer hooks up with the greatest of German artists, Albrecht Durer whose engraving of an angel meditating is one of the profoundest of all his works. The subject of that work is the human conflict between art and faith and science and learning. Melancholy was understood as one of the four humors, the one which caused deep and lasting sadness if present in excess. The same tradition holds it to be present in individuals of the greatest intellectual gifts.

Kiefer has said that it is the artist's job to imagine the most impossible things. I found a few of these in the show: monumental free standing sculptures made from lead like the marvelous Book with Wings (1992-94, pictured top right) in which the book - the source of the wisdom of the past- remains flightless despite its seemingly ethereal wings. Another such work Meteorites consists of a gigantic steel bookcase with lead books which appears to have been attacked by heavy fragments of metal from space.

Kiefer's most recent Leviathan (2005) is the final work in the show. A small rusty submarine floats in a luminous tumultuous seascape where water and sky become indistinguishable. Kiefer mixed red sand with his paint to achieve the cosmic glow. It is as if a luminous late Turner seascape was repainted by the saturine Clyfford Still.


  • Anselm Kiefer Artcyclopedia entry

  • Hirschhorn Museum mini-site for Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth


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