at the Art Institute

Anselm Kiefer, the German painter whose works are being shown at the Art Institute, rarely gives interviews, dislikes being quoted, and has been photographed only occasionally. It’s refreshing to find an artist who refuses self-promotion, who apparently believes that his gloomy paintings are clear enough and powerful enough that he needn’t risk limiting the public’s interpretation of them with explications. Not that his paintings are simple. On the contrary, though his symbols are chosen from established mythologies and his images are usually recognizable–forests, fields, cities, buildings–each image is thick with meanings, and each layer of meaning supports or contradicts the others. In fact Kiefer’s works are so intricate, so painfully dark, that when I first saw this exhibit I half hoped he had somewhere answered the haunting questions he’d raised.

For many years Germans were largely silent about the crimes committed during the Second World War. But their silence didn’t survive the turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, when younger Germans demanded to know what had happened and why; why the world collectively shrank from Germans; why even the cultural heritage of which the younger generation might have been proud was tainted by Nazism. As this generation discovered the shame of their parents, they had to ask themselves what it meant to be German and what responsibility they had to the millions of dead. Kiefer, who was born in the last year of the war, has filled his work with the anger, shame, and anguish of that legacy.

Kiefer passionately denounces Nazism, quite directly in some cases. Interiors, painted from photographs of Hitler’s destroyed chancellery in Berlin, depicts a room in ruins: the ceiling is open to a gray sky; the upper walls drip a black sludge; the huge mosaics that line the walls are charred; in the center of the floor a fire burns–the fire of destruction, the fire of purification. Most of Kiefer’s works make some reference to the war; over and over he paints or photographs battle scenes of tanks and ships, bunkers, blood-stained snow, smoldering or burned fields–images that resonate with new meaning when they are combined with symbols of the targets of the Nazi destruction.

In Shulamite, Kiefer has painted the Nazi Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier, which was built in Berlin. The massive bricks and low arches of this hall make it dungeonlike, even ovenlike. The windows are dark and the ceiling is black with pitch. High in one corner, in white paint, is printed the name of Shulamite, the lover and beloved of the Song of Solomon, the book of the Bible traditionally read during Passover. At the far end of the hall is an altar on which several small flames burn as memorials.

Kiefer told the journalist Amei Wallach that he paints what he doesn’t understand, and you can see him struggling to comprehend the Holocaust in many of his paintings. In some he seems to be showing us that the Nazis picked fragments from a legend or from a philosopher’s work to support their theories–and in the process nearly destroyed the whole. Again and again Kiefer refers to Margarethe, the innocent lover of Faust, the blond ideal woman of the Nazis, but also the woman who killed her own child. Kiefer doesn’t paint her. Rather she is a ghost, represented only by a fall of hair that Kiefer has made of real straw glued to the canvas. This straw is sometimes shown burning, the strands tipped with painted fire; it is sometimes draped across a field where it will rot; it is always shadowed by the dark paint of Shulamite’s black hair.

Many of Kiefer’s paintings border on sculpture. He has covered photographs and canvas with glued-on sand and pasted straw over paint; he has poured molten lead over some paintings and attached forged metal climbing shoes and ladders to others. The sand, straw, and metal splashes are not likely to stay put; children have been seen leaving the exhibit clutching wisps of straw. Kiefer must know and he must not care.

In Nuremberg, a huge work nearly 10 feet by 12, a deeply furrowed field is covered with straw that has been daubed with black and brown paint so that it seems half rotted. Snow lies in the ruts and the sky drips blue across the distant black city. Across the field are painted the words “Die Meistersinger,” a reference to the Wagner opera set in Nuremberg, of which Hitler was very fond. In this story, a number of suitors compete in a singing contest for the hand of a woman named Eva. Paper cards with names written on them are tucked in the straw of the painting, but the names have been scrawled over in black so they cannot be read. On the level of the opera story, these eliminated names belong only to fictional characters who have lost in a contest of love. But of course Nuremberg is far more than the setting of an opera: there is also the Nuremberg that was a center of the Nazi party, the Nuremberg of huge Hitler support rallies, the Nuremberg of the laws depriving Jews of their political rights and citizenship. On another level, there is the Nuremberg of the war-crimes trials–the world’s condemnation of the Third Reich. Each Nuremberg is transformed into another; cause and consequence ripple backward and forward in time.

For all the destruction and pain that weigh down Kiefer’s work, one can still find flickers of hope, especially in his most recent pieces.

One cringes before the blackened, soggy fields that Kiefer paints, but they are fields, after all: the straw stubble that lies on them may rot, but it will also become fertilizer for seeds that will be sown when winter becomes spring.

Trains carried millions to their deaths, yet in Iron Path the rails of a train track cut steeply out of dark shadow toward a bright, gold-flecked horizon, above which float two golden suns. (Kiefer has found a way to create a glowing light that seeps through the darkness in some of these later paintings; it makes them, for all their grimness, staggeringly beautiful.)

Two canvases butt against each other in Jerusalem, dividing the city in two. This painting is blurry and scorched across the bottom; it is also spattered with molten lead–as Kiefer has hinted, the base metal of alchemy, the soft metal of both bullets and protective shields. Two full-size snow skis made of steel slash across the city, one moving down toward darkness, one moving up toward a gold and white sky. Along the path of one ski, a large splash of lead has been peeled back to reveal blotches of charcoal, ocher, and white: darkness, but also light. The choice of Jerusalem for the title was apparently inspired in part by William Blake’s poem of the same name. Many lines of that poem echo Kiefer’s major themes: evil and innocence, destruction and reparation, death and redemption.

In The Book, a large lead book–the pages of which seem fragile, for all that they are metal–is propped above a far larger furrowed expanse of land that stretches up to meet the crashing waves of the ocean, a symbol of timelessness and constant motion. Time and nature are indifferent to the passing of human life, Kiefer seems to be saying. It is knowledge, memory, history that give us meaning. Yet the pages of the book are blank; we choose what will be remembered and how. Gunter Grass once wrote that a writer is “someone who writes against the passage of time.” Kiefer paints against it.

Yet the hope of atonement or peace in these works is tenuous. “Kiefer,” writes Mark Rosenthal, who interviewed him for the show’s catalog, “is uncomfortable when his art is positive or perceived to be so, for he believes that this attribute is not sensible or realistic given history and the present world situation.” Each of the paintings that seems to offer hope is still thick with a darkness that could snuff out the light. Flecks of gold may symbolize the final, pure stage in the alchemist’s transmutation, but the greed for it also inspired the sickening thefts of the concentration camps.

When Kiefer goes beyond the Germanic culture in his search for symbols (as he has in his later paintings), the mythic figures he chooses are ominous. In Osiris and Isis, a painting completed last year, he refers to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, who is murdered, dismembered, and flung in pieces all over the world. His wife, Isis, finds all the pieces except his penis and buries them. Osiris is then resurrected, not in this world but in the underworld. In this painting Kiefer has built a massive temple that towers under a murky, dripping sky. At the top of the temple is a circuit board that trails copper wires, some of which are attached to shards of porcelain, others of which go nowhere. If we think technology will piece together our psyches, Kiefer seems to be saying, we are badly mistaken. And if somehow it can, we may not like what we’ve become.

Even the role of the artist in society, symbolized by a palette in many of Kiefer’s paintings, is ambiguous. Sometimes these palettes are propped up as memorials, sometimes they are soaring across the land, sometimes they are shattered into pieces. The artist can act as a witness; the artist can be destroyed. Before the war, many artists spoke out against Hitler to no avail.

Kiefer’s agonizing may seem excessive to Americans, but we must remember that a significant portion of those who live in Germany must have gone through the war as bystanders who didn’t see that they had a responsibility to act against the removal and the extermination of their neighbors, and who, after the war, settled into living–outwardly at least–normal lives. “In essence,” Kiefer told Wallach, “the Third Reich is something that could happen again. The person, Hitler, was not so important. Half the people went along with him. So it is even more terrible. I am part of this.”

Perhaps part of Kiefer’s anguish is self-doubt. Gunter Grass writes in his essay “What Shall We Tell Our Children?” that “the belated anti-Nazism of my generation [Grass was 17 at the end of the war; he had been called in the last draft] was never subjected to the danger test. I could not swear that, if I had been six or seven years older, I would not have participated in the great crime.” In a later essay he writes, “We are left with grief, with a constantly renewed dread of inadequately fenced-off abysses, and with the fear that we may again be faced with so fundamental a test and again fail.”

If even such intensely moral men can wonder where the limits of their courage are, mustn’t we wonder where our limits are? I think Kiefer wants us to ask ourselves that question. Because he won’t explain his paintings, we must rummage through our memories and through history books to remember or to find the sources of his images. In the process, his questions become our questions. And when we stand in front of an enormous work such as Nuremberg, with clotted paint and clumps of straw that make it three-dimensional, with its high horizon and sharply angled perspective, our feet are pulled into the muck and that cold, blue sleet hits our faces. What responsibility do we have to those who are long dead? What responsibility did we have to the millions who died in genocides in Bangladesh, Uganda, Cambodia? What responsibility do we have to those who are living? To those to come?