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Anselm Kiefer: Biography, Paintings & Sculpture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about the life and work of Anselm Kiefer, a German painter and sculptor born in 1945. Compelled to confront his country's recent history, he creates massive paintings and sculptures from natural and manmade materials to explore and confront difficult truths about the past.

Early Years and Influences

Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 near the end of World War II. As a boy living in post-war Germany, no one talked about the war and history lessons in school gave only a brief overview before moving to other topics. That silence about his country's history profoundly impacted Kiefer. In university, he studied law, romance languages, and literature but his interest in art proved stronger, ultimately moving him to abandon law and enroll in art school.

In 1969, Kiefer exploded onto the German art scene with his first solo show. In it he included a work he called Occupations. In a series of black-and-white photographs, he wore his father's Nazi uniform and posed in various European locations with his hand outstretched in the Hitler salute. The images directly confronted Germany's Nazi past and caused a violent negative reaction (another art student almost beat him up). Kiefer has explored similar themes in his work ever since, from the horrors of twentieth-century German history to man's inhumanity to man. Other influences include Nordic legends, the stories of the brothers Grimm, and works of Richard Wagner, as well as religion and the occult.

In 1970, Kiefer met Joseph Beuys, another German artist who produced his own confrontational art using animal fat and other biological, perishable materials. Kiefer began studying with him, and Beuys convinced him to try painting, which pushed his career in a new direction.

The Artwork

Before we discuss his art, you should understand how Anselm Kiefer works. He makes massive creations using nontraditional (i.e., not normally used in art) materials such as tar, ash, dried flowers, straw, and lead. He builds up very thick impasto surfaces, meaning paint and other materials are layered so heavily that they stick up from the surface. Often his brush work and construction process is visible. These natural materials suggest elemental processes of time, cycles of life, and decay. When you stand in front of one of his works, the size, scale, and weight hit you. Kiefer's work is confrontational in the most fundamental sense.

Kiefer's work Germany's Spiritual Heroes (1971) was included in the German Pavilion for the 1980 Venice Biennale. Constructed of paint and charcoal on burlap attached to canvas, it portrays a large wooden hall with wall-mounted burning candles. It feels like you are stepping into a hallowed space. But the room is empty, challenging notions of heroism and spirituality. Not everyone got it, but it catapulted Kiefer to international fame.

In his sculpture Breaking of the Vessels (1990), a massive bookshelf holds giant lead books. It is based on the creation story in the Kabbalah (an ancient form of Judaic mysticism). Some books have writing and designs on them, some are broken, and others seem ready to fall. The work also uses broken glass mixed with lead shards on the ground, recalling Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in 1938, when Nazi soldiers shattered the windows of Jewish businesses and homes in Germany and Austria.

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