Speech by Nir Barkat: Anselm Kiefer on Jerusalem and the Kabbalah

“What has been divided can be brought back together again—not in the form of a reunification, but in a way that we cannot yet define”


The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, introduced Anselm Kiefer at the opening of his exhibition in the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (see p22) with the reverberating words: “A German and a Jew.” Kiefer has faced up to the painful history of Germans and Jews in his work and has gone on to study Judaism, particularly in its mystical aspects, with deep empathy. This is what he told the assembled company that night:

The first time I came to Israel, in 1983, was for an exhibition at the invitation of Martin Weil, then the director of the Israel Museum, and [the curator] Suzanne Landau. However, it seems wrong to speak of that visit as a first time. Having grown up immersed in Christian iconography, specifically Catholicism, so many of the sources of which are to be found in Judaism, it was more of a rediscovery than a first experience.

I remember clearly, even to this day, the shock I felt when, from a window of the King David Hotel, I discovered the desert to the right, and the Mount of Olives to the left. This intense emotion has never left me. This shock has determined the nature of my work, my thoughts and feelings. I felt myself suddenly propelled into a crossroads where the strata, the layered sediments of a 4,000- year-old universal history, superimposed themselves upon my own modest personal history.

I had the feeling of finding myself in a passage of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, where the narrator hears the sound of wooden shoes against the ground in the Guermantes way, immediately reminding him of the echo of footsteps on the cobblestones of San Marco in Venice. In reality, there is no logical connection between the Guermantes way and Piazza San Marco. Nonetheless, a kind of short-circuit occurs, a collapsing of time and space, like the sort of thing I experienced looking out the window at the Mount of Olives. Time dissolves in this melding of different places lacking real affinity.

I grew up in a small village in the Black Forest. Behind our house was a hill softly opening onto a view of dark pines stretching to the horizon. This hill was called Ölberg (Mount of Olives) by the local Catholic population. Of course, this landscape had nothing at all to do with the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Quite the contrary. Just as the Guermantes way, in turn, objectively had nothing to do at all with San Marco, the two Mounts of Olives have no point in common. Even so, the moment I looked at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the two superimposed themselves, as if by magic, fusing past and present.

The shock I experienced from my association of the two Mounts of Olives has remained with me. It has given me ceaseless energy and it nourishes my work as an artist.

The direct consequence of this experience kindled my interest in Kabbalah, and especially, the enigmatic, mystical Jewish writings of Isaac Luria, my understanding of which was greatly enriched by [the late, German-born Kabbalah scholar] Gershom Scholem. And, in another way, by Martin Weil, who guided me through Jerusalem. Unforgettable still, was our Friday night together in an Orthodox neighbourhood.

Since then, I have been drawn to create paintings in a way that eludes representation, in the same sense that it is impossible, and even forbidden, to call God by name. For centuries, people have invoked the name of God, only to hear the cryptic response: “I am that I am.” A heart-wrenching and cynical reply. Edmond Jabés, the Jewish poet, explains this feeling in a marvellous way: “The blackness of writing says nothing of the white spaces in between. God’s real name is hidden, covered by the illegible whiteness that cannot decipher any black flame without lying.”

The impossibility of depicting on a painting that which cannot be seen recalls another impossibility: attempts to reverse the rupture between two halves of one culture, the German and Jewish, since those who carried this culture have perished by the hands of the other. I try in my way to reverse this irreversible and brutal self-mutilation, knowing that this, too, is impossible.

When, in 1990, I was asked—and I was already on my way to live in France—about my view of German reunification, I responded that my thoughts were taken up with a reunification that was much more necessary, but alas, impossible.

What is history? History does not exist in an objective manner. It is purely subjective. It is in the hands of artists, as it was in the hand of God in Genesis. It is that thing which must, in the first instance, be given form. What does the artist do? He draws connections. He ties the invisible threads between things. He dives into history, be it the history of mankind, the geological history of the earth or the beginning and end of the manifest cosmos. Art has no tangible use for science or politics. Yet, without art there is nothing. If we are blind to the artist’s works and the poet’s words remain unread, we know that when all is cast to the winds, art will endure. It will remain still, the origin of everything that is.

History speaks to artists. It changes the artist’s thinking and is constantly reshaping it into different and unexpected images. Not content, but the road the artist takes is the interesting part.

The in-between, how individual events are superimposed, one upon the other, how they react together, both chemically and alchemically, form a palimpsest whose layers are constantly shifting like the continents themselves.

In the same way, looking at the different paintings Monet created of haystacks, you observe how they are not paintings about the individual objects; rather, they are about the space between the paintings when you see them hanging together. The eye follows this from one work to the next. It is the empty space, these intervals that make us think. Their repetition hints at the cosmic void within the universe: infinite, inaccessible, defying representation in any direct way.

Having grown up with Christian mythology, Celestial Jerusalem has always had a special meaning for me. It is a fantastic landscape of images, an inspiration, a mirage, a utopia, a “not-yet” in the sense of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. Heavenly Jerusalem is a subject of deep inspiration, as you can see from the titles of my paintings: Euphrates becoming a dry riverbed, opening a path for Israel’s adversaries; Gilgamesh; Lilith, at the edge of the Red Sea; Melchizedek; Cain and Abel; Nineveh; Uruk; and the painting with pyramids inscribed Your Age and My Age and the Age of the World [1997]. I have used these titles in my work for decades and they all derive from the term Celestial Jerusalem.

We are here in Israel, on this holy land, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, this centrepoint, where mankind first became sedentary. It has been home to many empires, reigns and kingdoms—the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Parthians, the Hattians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Arameans, the Seleucids, the Bactrians, the Saka, the Agrippeans, the Achaemenids, the Sassanids. And, yes, it is here that I have planted my studio: the space where the “chosen people” have travelled throughout their history, coming from Ur in Mesopotamia—the land of two rivers—crossing the Fertile Crescent, then Palestine, later fleeing Egypt and returning to Canaan.

When I observe Israel, wedged between the sea and hostile powers, as if hanging from a small cord to the north that pulls tightly across the middle and could easily cut this small country in two, I think of Samson, brimming with great strength, yet he is a frightened and fragile soul.

During the preparations for this exhibition some confusion was created by the work Samson [2011], which you can see in the exhibition. The story of Samson is an image taken from art, and contains both conflicts and contradictions. In this sense, the Old Testament is a work of art on its own: a poem, an intermediate space, a transcendental space between the history reconstructed by archaeologists and the Old Testament itself, with its many interpretations. For example, the cities conquered by David, according to the Old Testament, no longer existed at the time that he was supposed to conquer them. The Old Testament has its own intrinsic design, which, at the same time, devours its own origins.

We must never interpret or misconstrue these mythologies as a set of instructions. My paintings are not lessons; they do not give advice, nor can I help people. I cannot offer the kind of roadmap my compatriot Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, did.

There is a curious fragment from Heraclitus that says: “Even those who are sleeping play a role in whatever takes place in the cosmos.” One could interpret this as saying the subject is everywhere, ever-present and responsible for things in a mystical sense. Ingmar Bergman, the legendary director, once said: “We all carry a God in us, everything is a pattern that we can sometimes read, especially in the moment of death.”

The work of art, it is certain, exerts an action in the world, but it does not function in this world as a guide to daily life. I cannot provide any advice, I cannot help. So what can I do?

I can observe, and, with Anaxagoras, I can say: “We are on this earth to observe.” And it is in observing that I can bore straight through the sediments of history, through the history of mankind, both the geological and the cosmic, while observing. The process gives me a core sample that I can analyse and comment upon.

What, then, do I see when I examine this sample? I see that things haven’t always been the same. I see that the East and the West were once multicultural. Spain is a good example. Communities lived harmoniously there from the tenth to the 15th century, until Isabella drove out everyone but the Catholics.

Our knowledge of Greek philosophy—of Aristotle, the pre-Socratics, Plato and others has come to us via Arab transcriptions. This is why I built two houses in the museum in Tel Aviv. One represents Shevirat Ha-Kelim, this wonderful, mystical idea of breaking the vessels, which Germans still adopt, presumably without knowing, in their wedding rites, when they shatter the dishes. The second house is devoted to Goethe, who, in his collection “West-Eastern Divan”, uncovered the poetry of the Orient for us. Here, the tulips symbolise the Arab culture.

What has been divided can be brought back together again—not in the form of a reunification, but in a way that we cannot yet define. And, in any case, not in the form of a eschatology essentially influenced by Christian thought. The New Testament designs a straight line ascending. I see more circular movement, because there is no end to history, no final judgment, as believed by Christians and communists.

Nor will there be a Tikkun [Hebrew: “repair of the world”], although we cannot live without this idea. Songs shall be sung beyond mankind.