Anselm Kiefer (born March 8, 1945, Donaueschingen) is a German painter and sculptor. He studied with Joseph Beuys during the 1970s. His works incorporate materials like straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac. The poems of Paul Celan have played a role in developing Kiefer's themes of German history and the horror of the Holocaust, as have the theological concepts of Kabbalah.
Kiefer ranks among the best-known and most successful, but also most disputed German artists after World War II. In his entire body of work, Kiefer argues with the past and addresses taboo and controversial issues from recent history. Themes from Nazi rule are particularly reflected in his work; for instance, the painting "Margarethe" (oil and straw on canvas) was inspired by Paul Celan's well-known poem "Todesfuge" ("Death Fugue"). Polemical discussions in the media over the value of his artistic work have taken place for many decades.
His works are characterised by a dull/musty, nearly depressive, destructive style and are often done in large scale formats. In most of his works, the use of photography as an output surface is prevalent and earth and other raw materials of nature are often incorporated. It is also characteristic of his work to find signatures and/or names of humans, legendary figures or places particularly pregnant with history in nearly all of his paintings. All of these are encoded sigils through which Kiefer seeks to process the past; this often gets him linked with a style called "New Symbolism."
In 1951 he moved to Ottersdorf and attended grammar school in Rastatt. In 1966 he left law and Romance language studies at University of Freiburg to study at art academies in Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and Düsseldorf. Kiefer began his career as a body massager with performances in which he mimicked the Nazi salute calling for Germans to remember and to acknowledge the loss to their culture through the mad xenophobia of the Third Reich. In 1969 at Galerie am Kaiserplatz, Karlsruhe, he presented his first single exhibition "Besetzungen (Occupations)" with a series of photographs about controversial political actions.
By 1970 while studying under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, his stylistic leanings resembled Georg Baselitz's approach. He worked with glass, straw, wood and plant parts. The use of these materials meant that his artworks became temporary and fragile, which Kiefer himself is well aware of. The fragility of his work is contrasted against the stark subject matter in his paintings. This use of familiar materials to express ideas, was influenced by Joseph Beuys' art practice, in which Beuys used fat and carpet felt. It is also typical of the Neo-expressionist style. In the 1970s he incorporated German mythology (see also: Jonathan Meese) in particular , and in the following decade he argued with the Kabbalah. He went on expanded journeys throughout Europe, USA and the middle east, in which the latter two journeys further influenced his work. Besides paintings, Kiefer created sculptures, watercolors, woodcuts, photographs and books.
By the 1980s, Kiefer’s themes widened from a focus on Germany's role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general. His work became more sculptural and involves not only national identity and collective memory, but also occult symbolism, theology and mysticism. The theme of all the work is the trauma experienced by entire societies, and the continual rebirth and renewal in life.
In 1990 he was awarded a Wolf Prize. In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded him the Praemium Imperiale for his lifetime achievements. In the explanatory statement it reads:
"A complex critical engagement with history runs through Anselm Kiefer's work. His paintings as well as the sculptures of Georg Baselitz created an uproar at the 1980 Venice Biennale: the viewers had to decide whether the apparent Nazi motifs were meant ironically or whether the works were meant to convey actual fascist ideas. Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world. He created epic paintings on giant canvases that called up the history of German culture with the help of depictions of figures such as Richard Wagner or Goethe, thus continuing the historical tradition of painting as a medium of addressing the world. Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort."
Since 1992 he established in Barjac, France and transformed his 35-hectare studio compound La Ribaute into a Gesamtkunstwerk, which can literally be entered. His studio is enormous and in many ways is a comment on industrialization. He has created there an extensive system of glass buildings, archives, installations, storerooms for materials and paintings, subterranean chambers and corridors.
From 1995 to 2001, Kiefer started a cycle of large paintings of the cosmos. He also started to turn to sculpture, though lead still remains his preferred medium.
The builder and arts patron Hans Grothe will present 30 to 50 of the artist's works in the yet-to-be-constructed Anselm Kiefer Museum near the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin in 2007.