Anselm Kiefer is one of the most important and influential European artists, through his unique approach to painting and sculpture and the issues with which he wrestles. Anselm Kiefer: Fertility and Wreckage focuses on three artworks to investigate the process and meaning behind the artist and his art. Kiefer’s work incorporates diverse materials including dirt, lead, ash, and other symbolically loaded media in order to contend with fraught cultural and political histories. In this way, through its own materiality, his work goes beyond just imagery but into symbolically charged objects grappling with process and society.
The Fertile Crescent like so many of Kiefer’s work confronts human histories of construction and destruction. Its title is an allusion to Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilization. Combined with the materiality of the work – evocative of dried earth, mud bricks, and the fire that creates both – The Fertile Crescent explores the very human impulses of creativity and violence. As a German citizen growing up in a country emerging from WWII, Kiefer has grappled with difficult issues of remembrance and how to comprehend harrowing tragedies. All of these allusions and symbolism reverberates within the viewer to think of moments in history of great and terrible endeavors.
Paired alongside Jericho, particularly because of its book form, these two works bring up additional biblical allusions including the fall of the walls of Jericho. In the piling up of meaning that stack, weave, and inform each other, the viewer is left to contemplate the cooperation needed for immense enterprises both creative and destructive, the hubris in thinking they will last, and the circular nature through the return of materials to the earth. Books play a central role in Kiefer’s process whether through his journaling or monumental works like Zweistromland (The High Priestess), whose German title also references Mesopotamia and comprises 200 books, at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo. Books record and protect our history, the good and the bad, but themselves are subject to decay. Like other artists before him including John Soane, ruins are both an ending and a beginning, the goal and the starting point.
The third work, San Loretto, continues the biblical references and of the larger themes of renewal and exhaustion. The title references the town of Loreto, Italy where the Basilica della Santa Casa contains the supposed Holy House in which the Virgin Mary lived. Only through great effort could the building be brought to Italy, but it also speaks to the destruction of the Crusades. The buildup of fragments and rubble on San Loretto coalesces into an image of a bird, which combined with the title and its layers of meaning, suggests the figure of a dove and even the Holy Spirit.
The greatest irony or perhaps more accurately, optimism, is that the use of detritus and the focus on wreckage has proved fecund ground for Kiefer and for which he has been able to mine into great creations that prod viewers to think more deeply on our time and being and that has influenced a generation of European art and artists. In dealing with ruins and the complicated and difficult past, Kiefer and his work turn not to a nihilistic destruction but in the opening that can be provided by an ending.