THE NECESSITY OF LOOKING BACK
 
ANSELM KIEFER, LOT’S WIFE, 1989
(Cleveland Museum of Art)
 
 

    One day in the summer of 2002, while crowds lined up at the Tate Modern to see the blockbuster Matisse/Picasso exhibition (a show so crowded that the word ‘see’ should not be taken literally), I stood almost alone in a gallery on another floor and concluded that Anselm Kiefer is the only living painter to whom the adjective ‘great’ can be unhesitatingly applied. I was looking at Lilith... No, that’s not right... One doesn’t just ‘look’ at these large Kiefers (Lilith is wall-sized, about 12 by 18 feet); one is drawn into them, enveloped by them. We enter these paintings like forbidding, unfamiliar rooms, fragments of a burned-out parallel world. I was, then, enveloped by Lilith, a work whose title evokes not the egalitarian first wife of Adam but the terrifying winged demon of Hebrew and Sumerian mythology, described by Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem as a creature who "kills infants and endangers women in childbirth."1

    At first the painting seems almost completely abstract: across the top is a rough field of gray where the title is written in large letters that emphasize the work’s flatness; in the middle of the canvas is a strange geometric grid pattern; at the bottom, strands of copper wire curve across the surface like Jackson Pollock’s ropes and threads of paint. At one point the wires bulge out from the canvas, blurring the line between two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture. The surface is so interesting, and the size so overwhelming, that only after a minute or so do I begin to read the grid patterns as recognizable images. And suddenly, in a split-second of illumination, I see in the middle of the canvas a cluster of city buildings viewed from above. Staring at this wall of paint, I peer down into an urban landscape. I feel disoriented and exhilarated, uplifted, raised miraculously above the clouds. I must have made some kind of exclamation in the quiet gallery, because the guard cleared his throat to signify his presence. He looked concerned.

    Lilith is a Superman’s-eye view of Gotham, a modern city seen from the sky and partly obscured by clouds and pollution. It’s actually based on a photograph Kiefer took looking down from an upper floor of a skyscraper in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but the extremely high angle suggests that we are hovering, suspended in air. We are seeing one of the last things a suicide sees after leaping from the ledge. Our vision of this urban world is clouded by a choking haze of Kiefer’s materials: paint, dirt, dust, ashes, wire and probably other things as yet unidentified are laid onto the canvas. The artist takes the waste products, the refuse, the valueless junk of the economy that built this city, and transforms them into the symbolically rich components of a different system of value, an aesthetic economy. (Then in a final ironic twist, the paintings produced according to this economy are inserted into the capitalist one as commodities to be bought and sold–and, possibly, displayed in one of those city buildings below us. Are the works somehow corrupted by these transactions? Perhaps. But how else is a painter to live? Anyway, it’s odd to speak of the corruption of something built from impurities. Since I am neither dealer, collector nor painter, the commodity value of these works is completely irrelevant to me; the aesthetic value is everything.) Lilith is a vision of a city drowning in its own waste, tangled in the wires of its own electrical networks. This place is being destroyed by its own creations. Junk and ugliness will win the day.

    This connection between creation and destruction is most dramatically reflected in Lilith’s passages of black ash, places where Kiefer has burned his own painting. He both destroys what he has created and destroys in order to create a different and more meaningful image. While Kiefer’s destruction is an alchemical transformation that creates an original work of art, the processes of the city seem only to create its own destruction, a slow suicide. The title that hangs over everything like an enigmatic piece of skywriting also comes into play here. For in Kabbalistic demonology, Lilith is both a strangler of babies and a mother of demons, both a destroyer of new creations and a creator of destroyers. Kiefer’s city exists under her sign. And the painting’s final and most important shock comes when we realize that we, the viewers, are in the position of Lilith. We are flying. We are the demons who hover over the city. We, the human race, are the destroyers and creators. We build cities and despoil environments. We build the machines that rain gray death from the skies. We are Lilith. This painting is pointed at us.

    Born in 1945 and raised in a postwar Germany characterized by the ‘economic miracle’ and extremely selective memories of the Nazi era, Kiefer often returns in his work to the multiple traumas inflicted on the human psyche during his birth year. (In this he bears a strong resemblance to his countryman and contemporary W.G. Sebald, the last great writer of the twentieth century.) The multiple horrors of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the massive aerial bombardment of cities mark 1945 as a turning point in human consciousness. Optimistic humanism died in the death camps. No longer could any worldview ignore the almost unimaginable cruelties of which human beings are capable. And the atomic bomb–philosophically even more significant– unleashed the specter of total annihilation, the end of everything human, the death of all meaning in a vast, planetary suicide.

    This is the context in which we should see Kiefer’s 1983-84 work Athanor, now in the Toledo Museum of Art. Executed on a blown-up photograph of a courtyard in Albert Speer’s Nazi Chancellery, the work is composed of a simple, insistent perspective grid that leads our eye to a central black doorway, above which we see the painting’s title. ‘Athanor’ is a name for an alchemist’s furnace, so again Kiefer shows us a place of destruction and creation, a site of transformation. But this particular alchemical process is blacker than night: the Nazi project to create a ‘pure,’ Aryan reich by destroying entire populations of Jews, Gypsies and others deemed undesirable and incinerating their corpses in crematory ovens. The burned, ashen sky of Athanor is the product of those ovens, the result of the most horrendous mass murder of a horrible, murderous century. All of the lines of this painting, the rigid, Neoclassical lines of Nazi architecture, lead us to the fact of this crime.

    Looking at the lines can also lead us to another realization. As transformed by Kiefer, the Nazi courtyard is a diabolical inversion of the perspective scheme used by Leonardo da Vinci in the Last Supper. If we mentally turn Athanor upside down, we see a room that resembles the one in which Leonardo sets Christ and the Apostles. At the back of Leonardo’s room, two windows and a central doorway open onto a distant landscape; Kiefer likewise shows us three openings, but they are images of nothingness, passages into the black void of death. And just as Nazi art perverts the Renaissance science of perspective, so did the Nazis generally pervert the technologies that are the fruits of science and reason. Railroads delivered people to the death camps; chemistry provided the deadly gas Zyklon B; primitive punch card tabulating machines (the ancestors of today’s IBM computers) sorted SS records. Everywhere in the irrational reich, rational efficiency was a paramount virtue. The Nazi death factories made corpses the way Henry Ford made cars.

    And the end result of all this rational madness is the blackness in Kiefer’s doorway, the blackness in the sky. In place of the fantasy of alchemical transformation, we have the pure black reality of annihilation. The truth of Nazi rule is the truth of mass graves and crematoria, and this is the truth that Kiefer lays bare by setting fire to Albert Speer’s big lie. He burns this painting, too–and more intensely than Lilith. Here there are burn holes, tears in the photograph. The thin veil of fascist imagery melts away, and the emptiness–the nothing underneath–is revealed.

    Five years later in Lot’s Wife these burn holes become gaping wounds. They tear through another image redolent of the Holocaust: railroad tracks crossing a blasted Kiefer landscape. Moving diagonally into the painting–and thus activating the work, giving us a feeling of being thrust into the midst of things–these tracks diverge in the middle distance but appear to merge again near the horizon, at the vanishing point. We can only think of these as the tracks that transported men, women and children to their deaths in the camps, a destination we cannot see, hidden over the horizon. I am reminded of Jorge Semprun’s The Long Voyage, a Holocaust novel that details the train journey to Buchenwald but ends at the entrance to the concentration camp. Beyond the gates is a reality only those who experienced it can know. It’s as if the camp walls are an epistemological limit, and we cannot truly appreciate at second-hand the horrors contained within. Some truths are so terrible they cannot be satisfactorily expressed; they can only be experienced. The camps are a vanishing point of human understanding, a vanishing point of reason, as well as the literal vanishing point for millions of human beings.

    On top of the tracks in the foreground, a metal heating coil has been attached to the painting. Like the copper wire in Lilith, this is another example of Kiefer’s transvaluation of industrial junk into objects of darkly poetic significance. But it doesn’t represent global warming, as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s walltext trendily suggests. The heating coil is a symbol of the railroad’s final destination: the crematory ovens at the end of the line, the final heat that–like the fire Kiefer applies to his canvas–burns and destroys.

    The tracks take us to the horizon, and then we leap off of the canvas and into the sky. This is a large, flat abstraction created by pouring salt solution onto a sheet of lead. The shape of the large, white stains is vaguely reminiscent of Robert Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies, another work of anti-fascist art. But the shapes and suggestions of imagery that result from Kiefer’s aleatoric procedures are less important than the material he uses. Salt, as even atheists know, was the final fate of Lot’s Wife, a woman whose own name is significantly lost to us, vanished down the memory hole. She disobeyed the angel’s arbitrary injunction, looked back at the burning city of Sodom–destroyed more completely than Dresden or Hiroshima–and was transformed into a pillar of salt. What does this story say to us in the context of Kiefer’s painting? It is in the interest of the powerful in any society (especially powerful Nazi perpetrators in the Germany of Kiefer’s youth) to ensure that the citizenry focuses on the present and future and doesn’t look back at the past: at the burning cities, the populations destroyed, the terrors and crimes of arbitrary power. But if we are to know the truth about our world, about the processes that led to the present (the truth that power doesn’t want us to know), we must look back. We must dare the pillar of salt, the wrath of authority and the punishments it can inflict. For unless we look back, we cannot live in the truth. We will be exiled to a state of historical amnesia where the propagandistic lies of the powerful are more readily believed.

    We must look back. But what exactly do we look back upon? History often comes down to human memory, and the tattered fabric of memory is a patchwork with as many holes as Kiefer’s canvas. The great Italian writer Primo Levi, once a prisoner at Auschwitz, has written in The Drowned and the Saved of the "drifting"2 and stylization of individual memories of the Holocaust. He also reminds us that the mind will sometimes mercifully block memories of the most terrible things. Along with these factors, time and death drain away our connections to the past as the memories of first-hand witnesses– those who passed beyond the vanishing point and returned–fade and disappear. When this second-hand connection (the only kind we can have) is lost, the full truth of the past seems even more unreachable. We have recordings of memories (often recorded decades after the fact), photographs, archives full of documents, incontrovertible evidence of the truth of genocide, but our picture is inevitably incomplete. There were horrors in the Nazi years that we will never know, because the victims were murdered and the perpetrators never spoke of them. All the investigation and all the technology in the world can never fill these memory holes. We must look back, and we must also appreciate that the past is a Kiefer landscape: blasted, vague and forbidding. It can be as difficult to read as a damaged manuscript, as hard to understand as this burned canvas full of holes that open onto a sheet of solid lead.

    "This is the Hour of Lead,"3 writes Emily Dickinson in one of her best poems (the one that begins "After great pain..."), the hour of emotional emptiness, of numbness in the aftermath of trauma. Memories of a terrible past can be blocked by a mental force as strong as solid metal. Kiefer’s use of lead as one of the backings for this work (the lead itself is mounted on a wooden support, like protective armor) brings to mind the death-dealing lead bullets of war and also alludes to those other mind-altering tragedies of 1945, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lead might offer protection against the radiation of nuclear weapons, but sheets many times thicker than these would hardly shield us from the blast that destroys a city in a second. Human beings have now gone so far down the track that we are capable of the annihilation of our own species. We have arrived at a point where the "end of history" is not an ideological cliche but a material possibility: an absolute end, the death of everything. The Auschwitz crematorium enlarges astronomically until it encompasses the entire earth, and we all end as smoke in the sky. The threat and effects of global nuclear war are much less common media topics today than in the 1980's when Kiefer painted this work, but the fact that terrorism has now replaced nuclear annihilation as our era’s defining fear doesn’t seriously affect the power of Lot’s Wife. Kiefer’s best paintings are poetic rather than propagandistic, so their power is not dependent upon the news cycle. The artist’s symbolism is open enough to permit multiple interpretations, to evoke the many ways in which the human race often seems to be rushing to its own final vanishing point.

    Kiefer’s works should be hung in huge nineteenth-century galleries built for the display of enormous history paintings, like those rooms at the Louvre where David’s Coronation of Napoleon and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa hang. Kiefer is a monumental history painter for our terrible time, working in an age when so many popular assumptions about both history and painting have been overturned. He paints after Auschwitz and the Bomb and after Pollock and abstraction. Up close, the thick, heavily worked surfaces of his canvases enclose us like landscapes, hover over us like threatening skies; and at the same time, his images tell the kinds of truths that only poetry can reach for. Kiefer’s paintings are a Waste Land for the other end of the twentieth century, fragments shored against our collective ruin. Poetic, enigmatic, symbolically complex, radically self-questioning, his works repeatedly raise the issue: how can we make art out of unimaginable horror? It is obviously impossible for any work of art to be equal to the horrors of history. The most that art can do is to approach the truth asymptotically, to evoke a sense of the past through the poetry of images. The past will always be another country, but with the help of artists like Kiefer, Paul Celan, Primo Levi and W.G. Sebald, we can peer across the border and study its scarred landscape. There is a profound moral imperative here. If we wish to live authentically, we must try to look back beyond the event horizon of our own lives–all the way back to the truth.
 
 
NOTES

1. Scholem, Kabbalah, 357.

2. Levi, Drowned and the Saved, 32.

3. Dickinson, Complete Poems, 162.

 
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