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Books: Latest assessment of Anselm Kiefer proves to be a book without a spine

An uncritical, adoring treatment of the artist has not served him well

This is the first full length English-language monograph on Anselm Kiefer which begins to open up the breadth and the scope of the artist’s “heroic” iconography, or, as some might say his “eclectic polygamy”: the multiple marriage(s) of sources and means which purportedly inhabit both the materials and mind of this “post-historical” German painter.

While there will, no doubt, be many more monographs to come, the writer Daniel Arasse has chosen to approach Kiefer’s art through a series of sometimes unbalanced “polysemic” divisions, using a synchronic structure that does not always work to his advantage since an evaluative and discursive chapter devoted to the ontology of “acts of mourning” is not easily commensurate with one devoted to the role of inert matter (such as lead).

Putting it in terms of traditional art-historical practice, there is in this book what Panofsky would have called the failure to distinguish iconology (the structure of meaning) from that of iconography (sources), or, in more recent methodology, a failure to clarify boundaries between the symbolic and indexical order. It does not help that some chapters are fluid and expansive, while, in others, the footnotes are more interesting than the narrative text to which they refer. Also, putting aside the fact that we are never sure whether we are reading an analytical study or evaluative monograph—the relation between such judgments seems so often out of kilter—the book does succeed in giving a sense of Kiefer’s main themes, of German history and its redemption (or lack of it), of memory and mourning, and of the threads of time, legend, and the alchemy of myth.

This non-defined and loosely circumscribed approach to the subject is defended by Mr Agasse on the grounds of the artist’s labyrinthine practice, and on the supposition that the ultimate meaning of Kiefer’s art resides in the realm of “undecidability”. But, this is a cop-out, because, by failing to position himself in relation to Kiefer, we get neither a reading of, nor a resolution to, questions of the artist’s intention or purpose.

Indeed, we get the feeling that the writer is either too close to or adoring of the artist to judge for himself. This is particularly evident in that, apart from historical or associated literary sources, Kiefer is seemingly uninfluenced by any other contemporary practice(s), or, in fact, any other previous artists, although it is clear that there are Beuysian and many other derived aspects to his work.

So much for passing by or dumping any serious analytical contemporary history evaluations (the choices made by the artist to engage with Nazi history at the time that he made them), when we have an artist whose early work attempted specifically to re-inscribe the possibility of a painter’s role in relation to German visual and poetic history; an artist questing the painted image in the wake of Adorno’s “no poetry after Auschwitz”.

Hence we are left to conclude that Kiefer—like the immortal Athena born fully formed from the head of Zeus —arrived free and detached from the mundane distractions of the human weald.

It seems to me that the necessary engagement with a polemic and with contestations around Kiefer is vital if we are to understand the sheer complexity of his sources that run from German history and Teutonic myth, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, to Isis and Osiris, to Dionysius the Areopagite, to Lilith, the Holocaust poet Paul Celan and beyond. We need to know and must dare to ask whether the huge scale and corpus of his paintings and books are no more than mere eclecticism, and I say this with a heartfelt interest in his work. Without a critical position we are unable to ascertain whether the subject matter of Anselm Kiefer is driven by intellect or iconographical shopping.

On other levels the writing is coherent and fluent, as far as it goes, yet it never abandons the position of flux between valence and ambivalence; its reading is never fixed.

As a book in itself, the quality of reproductions is very good, and it is well produced in its lay out, giving the reader a great deal of pleasure in purely visual terms, though we could well have done without the typographical errors, misspellings (Penck as Penk, Germano Celant as Germanno and several others). This said, it remains a monograph without a spine in a metaphorical sense.

Daniel Arasse, Anselm Kiefer (Thames & Hudson, London, 2001), 320 pp, 360 col. ills, £60 (hb) ISBN 0500093024