Guggenheim
Introduction

“For me, art is the only possibility to establish a connection between things that make no sense and those that have a meaning. I see history as something synchronized, both if it refers to the Sumerians or to German mythology. As far as I am concerned, old sagas are not old at all. Neither is the Bible. When you look into it, the majority of things have already been formulated.” 1

Anselm Kiefer, The Land of the Two Rivers(Zweistromland), 1995. Emulsion, acrylic, lead, salt through electrolysis and zinc plates-condenser, on canvas, 416 x 710 cm.
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Introduction 

Born just months before the final European battle of World War II, Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945, Donaueschingen, Germany) grew up witnessing the consequences of modern warfare and the division of his homeland. He experienced the rebuilding of a fragmented nation and its struggle for renewal. The artist dedicated himself to investigating the interwoven patterns of German mythology and history and the way they contributed to the rise of Fascism. Many of his paintings—immense landscapes and architectural interiors, often encrusted with sand and straw—invoke Germany's literary and political heritage; references abound to the Song of the Nibelung, a German epic poem from the Middle Ages or to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). In one of his earliest projects, his 1969 Occupations (Besetzungen) series, Kiefer photographed himself mimicking the Nazi salute at various sites in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Following his move to southern France in the early 1990s, Kiefer's iconography expanded to encompass more universal themes of civilization, culture, and spirituality, drawing upon such sources as alchemy, ancient myths, and the Kabbalah.

Kiefer became one of the foremost representatives of Neo-Expressionism, an approach characterized by violent, gestural brushwork. Bright color and strong light are not usually present in his works: images are cloudy, veiled, and show twilight scenes, painted with gray as the dominating color. His large-scale works combine a nearly monochromatic palette with mixed media, including materials such as ash, plaster, seeds, soil, straw, and strips of lead. Experimenting with materials is of great importance to Kiefer’s creative process. The chosen material acquires a symbolic meaning when understood in combination with the subject matter. The objects that are gathered in his works transcend their physical identities and speak for themselves, showing the artist’s obsessions through rich association and metaphors. Sand, flowers, dry branches, straw, and the iron objects all show Kiefer’s fascination with metamorphosis. Lead becomes a key material, both for its physical properties and great transformation capacity, as for its relationship with alchemy and the Kabbalah.

The Land of the Two Rivers (Zweistromland) (1995) refers to the land delimited by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in whose banks settled some of the most ancient peoples in humankind, the Mesopotamian civilization, and which is the site of ancient Babylonia, where the Sumerians invented writing in the fourth millennium BCE. Kiefer's painting evokes that land, its civilizations, and the establishment of written culture. The inscribed title at the upper right of the canvas might be seen as an allusion to the written word itself, which leaves a lasting mark that transcends civilizations and eras. Records have gone beyond the decay and ruins of these cultures and have made their past a present in this painting. The Land of the Two Rivers was preceded by a sculpture with the same title comprising several lead books that convey a sense of the enduring nature of the written word and history. Continuing with the use of lead books, Kiefer created For Paul Celan (2006), lead books pierced by flowers, ancient symbols of both fertility and the transience of life, which refers to the Jewish Romanian poet and essayist Paul Celan (1920–1970), who miraculously survived the Holocaust. Celan shares many of the same themes and concerns as Kiefer—a sense of mourning and melancholy, and the importance of preserving memory as a means of coming to terms with the traumas of human history.

1- Anselm Kiefer quoted in Ein Gespräch: Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi. Edited by Jacqueline Burckhardt. Ed. Parkett-Verlag, Zurich, 1986, p. 40.

Sources
López-Remiro, Miguel. "Anselm Kiefer." In Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; TF Editores, Bilbao, 2009, p. 142-147
Spector, Nancy. "Anselm Kiefer." In Guggenheim Museum Collection: A to Z, edited by Nancy Spector. 3rd rev. ed. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009, p.164

Questions

Brainstorm a list of the words that best describe this work.

How would you describe the atmosphere that Kiefer has created in this work? How do you feel when you look at this work? Why? Imagine you could walk in this landscape. How would you feel? Why?

What materials does Kiefer use? Make a list of the materials and describe the characteristics that you associate with each one of them. Why do you think Kiefer chose these materials? How do you think they are related to the subject matter?

What words would you use to describe the surface of the canvas? Discuss how some materials transform with the passing of time. Why might Kiefer be interested in the transformation of materials?

Lead is a very lasting and malleable material, with a great capacity of transformation. Kiefer bought lead from the roof of the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany, when it was removed for restoration after having been devastated during World War II. Talk about the qualities of this material. What is lead used for nowadays? What are your associations with lead? Why do you think Kiefer is attracted to it?

Discuss the meaning or meanings that this material has in his work. Kiefer comments:

“I really like the paradoxical idea that this Gothic cathedral was covered by lead (a very impermeable and resistant material for light rays), when it was supposed to be looking for its union with heaven. It’s a lead that I like because it suffered transformations, it holds many stories, footprints and you can fold it: it’s malleable. Time is also a material that you can work on, the same way that it works us.”2

For Kiefer, reconstructing history as a healing and regenerating tool against the wounds of the past becomes extremely important. Why do you think re-evoking the past is so important for Kiefer? Organize a debate about the consequences of the war in Germany or other countries and comment on how memories of war affect citizens. Discuss why learning about the past is so important.

What does the title suggest to you? What alternative title would you give to this work? Why? How does knowing the title change your perception of the work?

How does the size of this painting affect its impact? Imagine this work much smaller.  How would that change its impact? Why do you think Kiefer has chosen such a large scale?

Interview by Anselm Kiefer with Bernarad Comment “Cette Obscure claret qui tombe des ètoiles”, Art Press, Paris, September, 1998 published in Anselm Kiefer. Exh. cat. Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, Ed. Milano: Skira; Bilbao, 2007, p. 294-295

Activities

Divide the class in groups. Each group will choose three materials which could transform and undergo a metamorphosis with the passing of time. You can use clay, flowers, grass, pieces of wood, plastic, soil, stones, water, etc. Think about the chosen materials—their properties, characteristics, uses—and write about them. Experiment with the materials: leave some of them outdoors, to observe the effect of climate on them, and keep some indoors. Look for changes and record them in writing. Take photographs of the process. What materials show greater transformation?

Create a memoir book gathering images, objects, and materials that symbolize your memories. Try to make your book reflect the passage of time. You may use some of the weathered and transformed materials from the first activity in your book to imply the passage of time.