Anselm Kiefer: 'When I make a truly great painting, then I feel real'

Fifty years ago he outraged his fellow Germans with Nazi salutes. Now, at 74, the artist’s epic canvases are exploring a different kind of darkness

I arrive at White Cube in south London just as Anselm Kiefer is writing the title of his exhibition on a gallery wall. Perched on a mini-forklift, the 74-year-old German slowly and meticulously inscribes the words “Superstrings, Runes, the Norns, Gordian Knot”. It is a typically dense and allusive title for a show that merges Kiefer’s now familiar preoccupations – ancient myths, astronomy, alchemy, history and arcane systems of knowledge – with a more recent obsession, string theory.

“These advanced mathematicians are attempting to find a theory of everything,” he says, when we sit down for a chat in a back room of the gallery, “but each time they open a door, many other doors reveal themselves. It is all abstract mathematics, of course, so nothing is really yet proved. The more I read about it, the more I think they will never find the answer.” He is not good at maths, he tells me, laughing, but nevertheless when a serious mathematician visited his studio recently, he looked at the paintings inspired by string theory and exclaimed: “That’s it!”

As the exhibition shows, for Kiefer string theory is a relatively new big idea around which all the old big ideas can coalesce. Described in the show’s press release as an attempt “to articulate the known fundamental interactions of the universe and forms of matter”, it is the perfect subject for an artist whose interest in the arcane matches his curiosity for the scientific. He is a rationalist who is fascinated with the mysterious, an agnostic whose work is full of references to ancient belief systems, from the Kabbalah to Gnosticism. When I mention this, he says gaily: “These are such fantastic systems of thought because there is so much hard work put into proving that there is a big meaning to everything. But, of course, the reason that there is so much hard work is because there is no meaning.”

Der Gordische Knoten.
Der Gordische Knoten by Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: courtesy White Cube

In person, as with his art, Kiefer is a complex, obsessive individual, given to making connections that may seem tenuous to the rest of us but provide extraordinarily fertile raw material for his work. The show’s ungainly title barely hints at the range of allusions in the works: to runic alphabets, mathematical equations, mythical prophecies, Alexander the Great and the Norns – three female spinners of fate from Norse mythology. His recent fascination with string theory has also led him back to the alchemical writings of Robert Fludd, a mystical 17th-century thinker who has long obsessed him: “He, too, wanted to find this theory of the world.”

At White Cube, all of these topics are somehow connected, though the result often resembles a kind of organised chaos theory, no more so than in the gallery’s long central corridor, which is lined with 30 tall glass vitrines full of coils and swirls of plastic tubing and electrical cables. In one, a large axe is visible though the tangle of wires, a reference to the mythical Gordian Knot of the exhibition’s title, which was chopped asunder by Alexander the Great. On the glass panels, Kiefer has scrawled elaborate formulas and equations, latterday runes by, among others, Albert Einstein and Edward Witten, an American theoretical physicist who lends his name to one of the new paintings (Edward Witten: Quantized Gravity).

“I cannot produce these formulas exactly, because they are too complicated,” says Kiefer. “So it is string theory as far as I can understand it. But there is also a deeper fascination that connects me to it.” Is it purely intellectual curiosity? “Yes, but also a kind of veneration. Critics say that I am an artist who always wants to overwhelm people. But, no, it is I who am overwhelmed. And, if I am not, something is wrong.”

Ramanujan Summation.
Ramanujan Summation by Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: courtesy White Cube

In the spacious galleries on either side of the corridor, though, his epic paintings are indeed overwhelming in their scale and their looming sense of apocalyptic ruin. In this, they are more reassuringly Kieferesque. From a distance, the landscapes look parched and arid, as if a biblical catastrophe has scorched the earth, removing all traces of life. Up close, burnt branches and twigs protrude, charred books dangle from thin wires and broken stalks of straw cling to the canvases. In a series titled Der Gordische Knoten (2019), more large axes appear, suspended as if in mid-flight amid the tangle of wood and wheat in which several burnt sticks have been arranged to resemble ancient runic letters. The paintings are steeped in myth and mystery, the science buried beneath layers of allusion.

“In a way, science is like mystery,” says Kiefer, “insofar as it does not make me sure of anything. I remember when I did my baccalaureate at high school my statement was, ‘Wisdom should make us sure; art should make us unsure.’ Smart, no?” So, as an artist, he is working in a state of perpetual uncertainty? “Yes, except for when I make a truly great painting, then I feel real.”

Kiefer belongs to a generation of postwar German artists for whom recent history, to paraphrase James Joyce, was a nightmare they were trying to escape. An art critic once declared that his work continually posed the question, “How to be a German artist after Hitler, the be-all and end-all of German artists?” In oil and ash, wood and steel, lead and concrete, as well as fabric, seeds, plant matter and paper, Kiefer has, one way or another, been grappling with that question ever since.

Die Sieben Siegel, die geheime Offenbarung des Johannes.
Die Sieben Siegel, die geheime Offenbarung des Johannes by Anselm Kiefer. Photograph: courtesy White Cube

His critics, including a later generation of more mischievously provocative artists that included Albert Oehlen and the late Martin Kippenberger, lambasted him for what they saw as a quintessentially German portentousness. In person, though, Kiefer is as mischievous as any artist I have met, his often wildly associative train of thought suggesting a mad professor more than a philosophical quester.

Intriguingly, his formative artistic mentor was Joseph Beuys, whom he met in 1971. Back then, Kiefer was still struggling to escape the notoriety he had gained following a series of wilfully provocative photographs he had exhibited in 1969. Entitled Occupation, they showed him dressed as a member of the National Socialist Party and performing mock Nazi salutes at various monuments and tourist sites across Europe. It was, he told me in 2008, an attempt “to confront it and explode” the silence that had settled on the German past. That past was still too raw in the collective memory, though, and the ensuing controversy and attendant critical mauling almost derailed the 24-year-old Kiefer’s fledgling artistic career. Only Beuys approved of his provocations. Kiefer later described him as “the first one to understand me”.

Fifty years on, with often violent far-right populism on the rise across Europe, the sense of historical and existential anxiety that has for so long been a palpable presence in Kiefer’s landscapes seems more a portent than a reminder. “These are really difficult times.” he says, quietly. “In Germany, in Hungary, in Poland, it takes a different form, but really it is not new. It has just been covered for a time. Back when I did this action with the hand, I was saying, ‘You think because we have a new constitution, it’s all fine now?’ For me, it was just being covered up, but that does not mean it had gone. It is always there, but sometimes it is more hidden.” Does the deepening sense of unease he feels seep into his work? He shrugs: “If there is anxiety, I have always had it. It also is nothing new, but, yes, I do feel that democracy is more threatened than before and this, of course, is deeply worrying.”

Though not a political artist per se, Kiefer has been known to make a stand for what he believes in. For several years he refused to go to the US to attend his openings there as a protest against George W Bush and the war in Iraq. Of late, he says, he has been making paintings that are over nine metres tall, even bigger than the ones on show at White Cube. “I like them because they are so big that nobody can show them,” he says laughing. This, too, it turns out, is a protest of sorts. “I have placed myself outside of the art market because it is all about speculation now. I don’t like it. I still know a few collectors who are not like this, but most of them are. I remember in the 70s and 80s, you would have discussions with your collectors. You could tell if they thought a painting was shit. This is good for an artist to know, because if someone you respect says a painting is shit, you must reflect.” He has instructed his galleries not to exhibit his work in global art fairs such as Frieze. “They destroy art,” he says, passionately. “They destroy it.”

Kiefer shows no sign of slowing down, his work rate as prodigious as ever. “I am driven above all by the question I will never resolve – why I am?” he says. “If you look at the cosmos, it is so huge and it has existed for so long. So, in that context, it is really devastating to think about that big question and realise that you have no idea why you are here. There really is no meaning. But, when I work, I give a meaning to what I do. That is enough.”

Anselm Kiefer’s Superstrings, Runes, the Norns, Gordian Knot is at White Cube Bermondsey, London, until 26 January.


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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