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I  was not prepared for the size of the thing—there had been little in the exhibition photographs to indicate its scale. I rounded the corner and there it was, two stories tall.

I was in the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in August, and “it” was one of Anselm Kiefer’s gigantic vitrines. The exhibit, called Regeneration Series: Anselm Kiefer from the Hall Collection, began with three of these glass cases like tall, narrow aquariums. The first and largest is called Engel-Sturz—Angel-Fall, or Fall of the Angels, perhaps a reference to Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Inside the case are three tiers of pale cotton dresses or shifts spattered with mud-colored paint. On the ground level, I confronted a substantial human-height pile of them, stiffened, half propped up with shellac or draped over rusted wire hangers so that they seemed like live or formerly live things, ghosts or the shells of ghosts, making leaden efforts at rising, or having collapsed, spent, or having fallen, the spirit departed.

Above the pile, already well over my head, a horizontal glass plate hangs suspended by wires from the ceiling of the vitrine, and on it two of the garments lay as if fallen from above—or perhaps lifted up from a wreckage—sleeves dangling from the sides of the plate like exhausted arms. I thought of a line from Wallace Stevens: “Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves.” If these were once angels, they were now emphatically matter, spirit inextricable from paint-encrusted form.

Finally, at the top of the vitrine a small cluster of the dresses dangle on hangers from the glass ceiling, as if drawn up as high as it is possible to go and now suspended there, still eternally divided from the heavens above, perhaps sooner or later to tumble back down to the cracked earth.

I had come to Florida to resolve something for myself about Kiefer’s work—whether it is pretentious, stagy, even exploitative as some critics have charged, or whether it in fact deserved and could sustain the powerful impression it made on me from my first exposure, through Sophie Fiennes’s film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), which explores Kiefer’s two-hundred-acre studio-Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) in Barjac, France, the transformation of an abandoned silk factory and surroundings into a ruinous theme park. If the latter, I wanted to understand the significance of that impression—what the work “means.” The vitrines spoke immediately and powerfully for Kiefer’s work as more than mere (if very concrete) illusion— monumental, melancholy, uncanny and ambiguous, they conveyed a sense of decay, tragedy, ultimate things. But this is what is controversial about Kiefer’s art: whether the tragedy it conveys is real or just a fantasy of tragedy.

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, and like many of his generation his art involves a reckoning with the war and Nazism. In the postwar period there was a tendency among the German public at large toward the willful repression of the horrors of the Nazi era, provoking a countermovement toward Vergangenheitsbewältigung—roughly, “coming to terms with the past,” acknowledging it, understanding it, taking responsibility for it. Kiefer’s work has been rightly characterized as part of this effort. He first attained notoriety with his 1969 series of provocative and ironic photographs, Besetzungen (Occupations), which featured the artist standing in various locations around Germany giving the Nazi salute. From the photographs, he proceeded to an equally provocative engagement with myths and images central to German identity—progressively larger and more thickly textured paintings and sculptures representing or alluding to Nordic myth and the German landscape, forest and heath, as well as Holocaust and Reich imagery like train tracks and Nazi architecture—images that impress themselves upon the viewer with an overwhelming presence.

The source of the controversy around Kiefer has been his work’s seeming ambivalence about its subject. Take Kiefer’s monumental paintings based on Nazi architecture, such as Athanor, which confronts and overwhelms the viewer with a dead-on view of a courtyard framed by massive pillars, modeled on Albert Speer’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. The painting is sinister, to be sure—all of its lines leading inexorably to a tripartite black gateway at the far end of the courtyard—but there is arguably also something darkly romantic about it, mournful as if at the loss of something grand. The title, inscribed over the gateway, adds to the ambiguity: an athanor was a self-feeding furnace used by alchemists. What gold could be hoped to emerge from these ruins?

Even if the artist’s intentions were conventionally “pure”—unequivocally condemning Nazism and fascism, dedicated to “never again”—some feared that Kiefer was unearthing a power that had been buried with Hitler and ought to remain buried. As the German scholar Andreas Huyssen puts it:

The problem is in the very usage of those icons, in the fact that Kiefer’s images violate a taboo, transgress a boundary that had been carefully guarded, and not for bad reasons, by the postwar cultural consensus in West Germany: abstention from the image-world of fascism, condemnation of any cultural iconography even remotely reminiscent of those barbaric years.

The Nazi appropriation of Germanic myth and landscape had tainted both, or shown them both to be essentially tainted. For some, breaking the linkage with cultural tradition seemed a necessary sacrifice, given the now-abysmal associations of that tradition.

But what is provocative in Kiefer’s work goes beyond his use of particular German images; it has to do with his use of image and myth per se, and thereby with his appeal to the desire for something that transcends the individual and the drab pragmatics of everyday life. In his “A Dissent on Kiefer,” published in the New Criterion in 1988, the art critic Jed Perl accuses Kiefer not just of flirting with dangerous iconography but of mythologizing the Holocaust, of aestheticizing the atrocity and thereby obscuring reality—and thereby appealing to precisely those sentiments that appealed in Nazism itself. In Kiefer’s art, he writes:

The Nazi past has become a potent but also elusive presence—a sort of texture, made up of the burnt grays and blacks that evoke charred bodies, a sensuous texture, a texture that seduces more than it illuminates. And this seduction serves to divert our attention from the hard facts.

Although I had found Kiefer’s paintings powerful, Perl’s commentary provoked me to reflect agitatedly on my experience. What was the nature of that power? Am I, with Kiefer, taking a sentimental pleasure in my own horror before the abyss evoked by the ashen and ash-covered images? Am I enjoying an escape into a horror fantasy at the expense of the lives of six million Jewish men, women and children, as well as the countless other victims of the Nazis?

No, I want to say—but the answer cannot come quickly, and perhaps never wholly without a degree of self-suspicion.

Huyssen suggests that rather than simply summoning imagistic power, Kiefer’s work provides the occasion to become aware of that power. He describes the dialectic of his own reaction to Kiefer’s art—the initial attraction, the “visual pleasure” of Kiefer’s gigantic renderings of Nazi architecture, their awesome though terrifying character; then the self-critical moment, the disturbed questioning of that response. “Here, then, is the dilemma,” he writes, “whether to read these paintings as a melancholy fixation on the dreamlike ruins of fascism that locks the viewer into complicity, or, instead, as a critique of the spectator, who is caught up in a complex web of melancholy, fascination and repression.” Huyssen resolves his dilemma by suggesting that this double movement is the point of Kiefer’s art—that it intends for us as spectators to become aware of this dilemma, of the attraction of fascistic and illiberal fantasies of power, self-sacrifice, heroism, fate and doom which we can perhaps never eliminate but which we can guard against by becoming adequately aware of the fascist within.

This looks like an attractive defense, and I agree that Kiefer’s art can stimulate reflection on our own susceptibility to these fantasies. But I think it does not fully account for the power of Kiefer’s art, which seems to want to be really powerful, and not just an occasion to reflect on our ironic distance from that power. Kiefer’s paintings and installations seem to intend for us to recognize the awesome and the abysmal as conditions of making sense of twentieth-century history. They suggest that making sense of that history is only possible with reference to what one might call a mythic background. But not the Nazi myth.

From the outset, the Holocaust has always challenged art, and even called into question its continued existence. Few have agreed with Adorno that it is barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz, but there has been considerable concern about a related question: whether and how one could make art about the Holocaust. But why? Why is it that to do so is, it seems, automatically to risk crossing some line into kitsch, exploitation or obscenity? The scholar Liliane Weissberg puts the problem this way: “Is it possible at all to create a work of art that does not offer some sense of pleasure? And is one permitted to feel this aesthetic satisfaction in viewing a work of art about the Holocaust?”

Perhaps the fundamental fear is the fear of exploiting the suffering of others. Perl suggests that the real human victims disappear in Kiefer’s work—“how much easier it is to imagine a landscape suffering than a person suffering,” he writes, referring to one of Kiefer’s blasted fields. Along these lines, a colleague once told me he had “jumped off the Kiefer bandwagon” because he began to find Kiefer “theatrical.” He had come to believe that the right approach to representing the Holocaust and conveying its enormities was Claude Lanzmann’s in Shoah—direct and personal. (In one scene of Shoah, a barber is cutting hair. He is a survivor of the camps whose wife did not survive; he describes cutting hair in the camps as a Sonderkommando. He tells the story of a fellow camp barber who cut the hair of his own wife, just moments before she was led to the gas chambers. Nothing further is needed to convey the horror.)

It may be true, then, that only plain testimony can convey the reality of the victims’ suffering without sensationalizing it. But this leaves open the question of whether, in addition to the suffering of the victims, there remains something else to be understood—something about the nature of the evil that motivated the perpetrators. If, too, there is something that continues to compel about myth, the myth that the Nazis distorted toward their appalling ends and the mythical more generally, this too might demand understanding—an understanding that can only come through an artistic representation that is powerful enough to evoke those myths.

Perl accuses artists of treating the Holocaust as “the ultimate event of modern history” and capitalizing on it. But what if the Holocaust is the ultimate event of modern history? What if, more than any other event, it challenges what we understand of human nature and the trajectory of human history? If so, the Holocaust does signify beyond itself, and in this sense cannot help being “symbolic.” This is not to diminish the specific enormity, or the horror, of these deaths. It is to see the enormity as having a yet further significance—as is implied by the way we often talk about the Holocaust, as something utterly unique yet with the most profound implications for the world we now live in. (As Isaac Rosenfeld writes, “But here is the ‘extreme’ situation, beyond all extremes—incomprehensible, unattainable to reason, and yet the one, the only one, that constitutes the reality of our daily reality. The terror is absolute.”)

Then the question becomes—how to try to grasp and convey that significance? Does Kiefer’s art bring us closer to understanding something essential, or does he obscure more than illuminate, transforming his historical subject into an “interesting” experience in service of some fantasy of purgation?

In his dissent to Perl’s “Dissent,” published as a letter in the New Criterion in 1989, the critic Peter Schjeldahl points to the dimension of Kiefer’s work that Perl misses or misconceives, which is “Kiefer’s profoundly ramified acknowledgment that the Third Reich is integral to German culture and history, rather than some bizarre aberration best unmentioned or, failing that, couched in rote, self-exculpating formulae.” He also offers a justification for the aura of myth that Kiefer’s monumental canvases emit: “In the Margarethe-Shulamith series, he brings a matrix of symbols to bear on the Holocaust as a permanent reality, to be lived with in unremitting consciousness.”

Schjeldahl’s defense refers us back to the work itself. Consider Kiefer’s Sulamith, another in Kiefer’s series of transformations of Nazi architecture—this one based on the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier.

The painting is huge—nearly ten feet wide—and it places the viewer alone in the center of a massive empty space, a crypt-like vault with a soot-blackened surface. There are no human beings; the only “moving” things are what appear to be seven white flames at the far end of the space. The immediate experience of viewing it—even, I think, if one knew nothing of the context or referent—is of an encounter with something terrifying and sinister.

But virtually all viewers will know something of the painting’s context and associations, which conform to and deepen the visual impression of horror. The image echoes the crematoria in which bodies of the Jews and other victims were burned in Nazi death camps; the name alludes to the woman addressed in Song of Solomon and figured in Paul Celan’s poem about the camps, “Todesfuge”: “dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.”

As in Athanor and Kiefer’s other paintings of Nazi buildings, the space depicted in Sulamith is gigantic, overwhelming, impressive—hence the accusation of adopting a fascist aesthetic, of romanticizing the Nazis. But these architectural spaces, although they might inspire a certain fascination and awe, evoke despair and terror rather than a sense of awe or glory. Interior, based on Hitler’s Chancellery, and To the Supreme Being both depict rooms that open into complete and terrifying blackness. To the Unknown Painter gives a sense of utter inhumanity by its scale and (like all Kiefer’s interiors) the complete absence of human figures. If these images are “romantic,” it is because they evoke some dark presence in excess of human reckoning: the negative sublime. And in this way they perhaps court some danger—the danger Karl Jaspers warned Hannah Arendt against, of granting the Nazis a Luciferian evil and therefore potentially a perverse attraction. (That which would speak to those students of Lionel Trilling’s, who look into the abyss and say, “How interesting!”)

But in contemplating the enormities to which Kiefer’s paintings refer, one does sense something abysmal and potent which claims our attention at the same time as it thwarts our understanding. Kiefer does not treat the Third Reich as if it arose out of a collective hallucination, something in the water, or as a crime we’ve decidedly transcended, but as having emerged out of something still present, perhaps ever-present, whether acknowledged or not—what one might call “evil.”

To be clear: this is not to deny that Nazism and the Holocaust had identifiable historical causes—anti-Semitism, economic and social instability, the aftermath of the First World War and the punishments of Versailles. What Kiefer’s art suggests—and the only real justification for it—is that as essential as historical explanation is to the understanding of historical events, it is not always wholly adequate to grasping their significance. For Kiefer, the Holocaust reflects not just historical but also fundamentally human conditions—conditions of a kind that are traditionally expressed by myth. This includes the condition of evil. In Sulamith, we see our smallness before something cavernous that fades into darkness, darkness ascendant except for a few tiny and fragile points of light. The darkness, embodied in the monumental brick edifice, is both human, built by human beings, and inhuman, in its scale and its vast emptiness. It is an enormous prison of the soul that outweighs and outlasts its creators, and, at the same time, also a horrible oven.

It is hard to put into words. That is why we need the art—not as a substitute for thinking as clearly as we can, but to represent the thing we need to try to think about, which always exceeds our understanding.

The attraction of Kiefer’s paintings is not, however, just a dread-filled one, the stiff-spined moral “attraction” to what we think we ought to confront. Kiefer’s monumental canvases also evoke awe—and, I think, not only with the purpose of exorcising that awe. And unsettling as it may be, I think the awe evoked by the Holocaust paintings is continuous with that evoked by Kiefer’s other work.

Near the end of the NSU exhibition is a room walled with three vast landscapes, barren fields whose furrows retreat to a vanishing point near the top center of the canvas, only a strip of brown sky visible. In each, some impressionistic poppies are scattered over the foreground, an ambiguous sign of renewal: not human cultivation but nature taking over. The paintings are of varying tone; in one, the poppies are bright, almost garish, conveying a sense of vibrancy, while in the others the colors are more muted and large swaths of the field dark and charred. A fourth painting in the series, Nachricht vom Fall Trojas (News of the Fall of Troy), hangs in the next room. It too features a receding burnt and furrowed field with a few poppies, but, in addition, a line of small fires are strung across the upper mid-ground, identified by Kiefer’s cursive as Greek locales (Lemnos, Athos). As I studied the painting I realized these were the fires lit to transmit the news of Troy’s fall back to Greece, as described by Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. At the far right, an ominous arrow points to the final destination of the news, Haus der Atreides, the house of Atreus.

In the next room is a painting called Zeit, Mass der Welt (Time, Measure of the World). A toy-sized rusted iron battleship is affixed in the middle of a sea of grays, whites and browns, undifferentiated enough that it is initially unclear whether the ship is floating, grounded or sinking through the deep. The title, scrawled at the top, is followed by a reference to the modernist poet Velimir Khlebnikov and his somewhat whimsical theory that major naval battles recur throughout history every 317 years (Seeschlachten alle 317 Jahre).

These works, like most of Kiefer’s sculptures and large canvases, make you feel as if you are in the presence of history and time—or, more precisely, in some spot marked by their passage and to which their ghostly aura still clings. Both the size and the material contribute to this effect: they seem to have been crafted by natural power, and they have the appearance (which is not an illusion) of having been weathered, dirtied, broken down by natural processes. (Kiefer is notorious for his indifference to and even encouragement of the disintegration of his works, freely using organic materials like straw, ash and branches—and on occasion leaving his works out in the elements.) But there is also the sense that the “weather” is cultural, historical; the scrawled text a reminder that this is the story of human civilization.

What is that story, according to Kiefer’s work? The later work, with its somewhat indiscriminate invocation of the Fertile Crescent, Troy, World War II naval battles, may at first seem to chronicle the eternal recurrence of the same: of war, of the fall of civilizations. In the end, though, Kiefer’s corpus does not give the sense of the present as just one more iteration of the past. Kiefer’s art, one might say, gives a sense of history not as a series of events but as Geist, “spirit.” Geist not as it was for Hegel—a progressive realization of enlightened self-determination—but as a kind of coming to consciousness of what it means to be human. The allusions to Agamemnon and Khlebnikov imply that the chronicle of civilization has some deep logic: the logic of story; the depth of myth. In its literal and figurative heaviness the art conveys the sense of there being something one could call “spirit,” or “our humanity,” which unfolds historically and is distinct from our individual lives. Hence the awe.

At the same time, Kiefer’s work expresses our sense of standing in unique relation to that spirit, because we are able to survey its historical development, if not to comprehend or direct it—a position that is both a privilege and a devastating weight. Looking at the paintings and sculpture we feel ourselves on the other side of a great divide, on the far end of history, the far end of a humanity that is in some significant sense “over.” We have seen the height of Enlightenment give way to—even lead to—the greatest barbarity. All of history looks different after 1945.

If this is so, then Kiefer’s work is not fascist, not organized around the ideal of the Volk or of conquest, nor the wish for revival. It may be, among other things, a mourning of those myths. Mourning is about relinquishment. It is also about acknowledging what was real and valuable in what has been lost—which in the case of the Nazis may be nothing but the idea of something mythical, grand, transcendent of the individual and of the calculating ego. In Kiefer, there is grandeur, but it is all in ruins, and we are ghosts among the ruins.

We cannot rest easy with our attraction to what seems transcendent, or cease to subject that attraction to the severest scrutiny. The problem of judging Kiefer’s work and our response to it is part of the inescapable dilemma of modernity, in which, as Kant tells us, we can no longer rely on any external authority for judgment. Now we must make sense of things, even or especially terrible things, according to criteria we discern for ourselves. But to make sense in a way adequate to our experience will often mean going beyond the “facts”: to image, to story, to myth. Kiefer’s work seeks the myth adequate to our situation—a story of our humanity severely chastened by its recent past but still acknowledging the sublime as well as the chthonic—and it invites us to do the same.

The exhibition, after looping more or less chronologically through the works on display, ends where it begins, back at the vitrines. I stopped, again, before Engel-Sturz on my way out, and it suddenly struck me as a memorial: a memorial to the victims of atrocity, an elegy to the dream of a humanity progressing toward reason and freedom. And at the same time a testament to largeness, to the possibility of reaching some height far above ground, if only in consciousness.

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This review appears in issue 15 of The Point,
with the symposium, What is Church for?
Subscribe now to get the whole issue in print or get a back issue from our archive.

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