Anselm Kiefer has been making lead sculptural books for over thirty years now. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kiefer’s monumental lead libraries became immoveable fixtures in the museums and galleries that owned them. Characteristic of Kiefer’s oeuvre, the intransigence, fixity and immobility of epic lead books was thrown into conflict with the ephemerality and ineffability of the organic hair, straw, sand and earth written on the pages of Germany’s troubled past on which these books discoursed. Kiefer’s books are monumental not just in size. They embrace an infinity of materials, meanings, media and histories. They are about painting, about sculpture, books, indeed images and texts of all kinds. They blur the line between the symbolic and the real, the past and the present, heaven and earth, death and regeneration, violence and serenity and on and on. The scale of these works is inconceivable, and it is not only their size and their ambition. But unlike any other artworks in circulation and on exhibition today, Anselm Kiefer’s books hark back to the possibility of the redemptive power of art, and in particular, of a marriage between landscape painting and the book as an evocative metaphor for the communication of collective knowledge.
In the lead sculptural books of the last 15 years — eg. Dein und das Alter der Welt and Fünfundzwanzig Jahre Einsamkeit (1998), Buch mit Flügen, 1992-1994 — Kiefer moves outward from his earlier concern with the traumas of German history, the charred landscape of Germany and its cultural manifestations, concerns at the heart of his monumental lead libraries of the 1970s and 1980s. He books begin to embrace the world of our present relationship to images and books: he instantiates a complicated marriage of image and word, image and object, a marriage that becomes the most evocative metaphor for the communication (and lack thereof) of collective knowledge, memory and myth today.
The sculptures and sculptural paintings turn to the past, to the decaying and dilapidating history of worlds, artistic media and forms, places and things that apparently no longer matter. Kiefer’s books reflect on the dilemma of images and words, seeing and knowing, the real and the symbolic, the mystical and the scientific in the historical world that surrounds them. The books of paintings, painted books, books on canvas, dishevelled (usually lead) leaves hastily bundled together and left as if to rot on the floor of a museum, are placed in dialogue with a world in which we no longer respect the integrity of images, objects or words. It is a world in which images assume the philosophical characteristics of documentary texts, texts are rendered imagistic – on the World Wide Web, on the television nightly news, on advertising billboards that litter our roads. Likewise, we no longer read books, we look at them, they are objects for display in a library, they are metaphors for the understanding of a grand, secreted epistemological weight – written in lead, of the past. The apparent grace and elegance of Kiefer’s lead books simultaneously sees them fly; they are weightless and ephemeral, sacred altars to the possibility of spiritual fullfilment. They hold within them the redemptive power of art in an age when such a promise has long been abandoned.
Over the past four decades, Anselm Kiefer has produced a diverse body of work in painting, sculpture and installation that has made him one of the most important European artists of the past four decades.
After studying law, and Romance languages and literature, Kiefer devoted himself entirely to painting. He attended the School of Fine Arts at Fribourg-in-Brisgau then the Art Academy in Karlsuhe while maintaining contact with Joseph Beuys, but soon began to develop his own deliberately indigenous set of subjects and symbols that he used to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity. In his muscular artistic language, physical materiality and visual complexity enliven his themes and content with a rich, vibrant tactility. His subject-matter ranges over sources as diverse as Teutonic mythology and history, alchemy and the nature of belief, all depicted in a bewildering variety of materials, including oil paint, dirt, lead, models, photographs, woodcuts, sand, straw and all manner of organic material. By adding found materials to the painted surface of his immense tableaux, he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture. Recent work has broadened his range yet further, and in 2006 he showed a series of paintings based around the little-known work of modernist poet Velimir Chlebnikov (1885-1922). Few contemporary artists match Kiefer's epic reach, and his work consistently balances powerful imagery with acute critical analysis.
Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany in 1945. He has lived and worked in France since 1993. He has exhibited widely, including solo shows at MoMA, New York (1987), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1991), The Metropolitan Museum, New York (1998), Royal Academy, London (2001), Fort Worth Museum of Art, Fort Worth (2005) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2006), Mass MoCA, Massachusetts, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2007), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark (2010) and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2011).
“The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge.. I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.” Anselm Kiefer