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Books: Anselm Kiefer's engagement with the poetry of Paul Celan

“I myself would like to be a poet”

Poetry, as Joseph Brodsky said once—with the arch mixture of regret and understatement that defined him—“is an incurably semantic art”. In other words, however much exterior attributes such as beauty and pattern might come into things, in the end you are ­talking about meaning, and as a poet you are esteemed ­according to the quantity of meaning you are able to ­dissolve into your poems. At the far end of this semantic spectrum, at a point where words that do not really exist—rare geological words, made-up words, bits of doublespeak and halfspeak, words shattered into their constituent phonemes—serve as a code for terrible and tragic contents, stands the Bukovinan Jewish poet, Paul Celan (1920-70). It was Celan’s unwilled distinction that he—whose family was deported and killed by the Nazis, whose homeland in Romania was resettled—had no other ­language in which to write but that of the murderers, German.

One does not think of painters operating in the same way—with paradox, with ­negation, with vicious quotation. After all, painting is not an incurably or any other sort of semantic art at all—but it is striking how much draws Anselm Kiefer and Celan together: their desperate ­originality, their persistence bordering on obsessiveness, their granular quality, their ­multiple broken surfaces. It is strange to think that the man who said: “Whatever is devoid of germs, aseptic, constitutes an assassin; fascism today lies in formal design” was not the painter, with his belaboured, organic scum of surface, with his haunting war-cauldron of ingredients—lead, fire, straw, sand, brick, hair—but the poet. As Andrea Lauterwein ­beautifully puts it, truly it is like “throwing the bottle into the sea a second time”.

This excellent, if very demanding, book begins with the casual revelation that Kiefer wanted to be a poet, and goes on from there. He turned out instead a learned painter, a ­pintor doctus. It is ­occasionally said that the time we know least about, and that most ­interests us (that, literally, ­“preoccupies” us) is the time immediately before we are born. This gives Kiefer, who was born on 8 March 1945, in the “zero hour” of Germany’s defeat and ­occupation, full title to the Third Reich. (His father, one learns, in a spare but ­electrifying biographical detail, was a Wehrmacht officer and art teacher.) Kiefer’s first works, or the first that are ­discussed here, were a ­scandalous series of ­photographs of 1969, of ­himself in front of various European ­settings with his right arm extended in the Hitlergruß, the Nazi salute. They were called, with ­thoroughly ­literary if not Celanian ­ambiguity, Occupations.

From there, Dr Lauterwein traces his progress through ­various other sequences of work—Kiefer is one of those artists who continually invents new tropes, and hammers away at them in obsessional clusters. There is his work on the Hermannsschlacht, the battle in which German power first ­manifested itself to the world, when Arminius (Hermann) defeated the Roman legions; on Wagner and various Wagnerian myths; and finally to the artist’s first engagement with Celan in 1981. This was the series of gravely lovely ploughed ­landscapes, some titled Margarete, others Shulamith, from the final ­disembodied ­couplet of Celan’s “Death Fugue” (his chef ­d’œuvre ­written the same year as Keifer’s birth): “Your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Shulamith” in the translation of the late Michael Hamburger.

The strength of these formidable paintings is the absence of the literal, the ­illustrational (almost a reliable constant). To put it another way, the imaginative gap between painting and title. The paintings—just like the poem—are full of absence. Everywhere and nowhere. As Dr Lauterwein observes, Kiefer even denies himself the ­somewhat consoling ­presentation of both figures; no, there is only ever one, either the German woman or the Jewess, but at the same time the other is conjured—a sort of double absence—out of ­agonised twists of straw, out of Kiefer’s generally black and grey palette. A template behind them, a sort of speaking Ur-lament, is Van Gogh’s Crows over a Wheat Field, the black and the gold, a painting that simultaneously makes and obliterates itself, as indeed “obliteration”, putting words or letters in the way of, is the quintessentially Kieferesque way.

What Dr Lauterwein—­perhaps merely disdaining the obvious—fails to comment on is the contrast between the word-bound poet and the ­enviably protean painter, ­ramping his way through ­materials. What solace there must be in the alternation of lead books, glass, withered straw, fire, brick, sand, ­kindling, photographs, star-charts. She does, though, quote a wonderful phrase of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “the ­imagination of materials”.

This is very close to the miracle of Kiefer’s mnemonic and monitory art, the fact that the lead he uses in some ­paintings came from the roof of Cologne Cathedral—400 years ­unfinished, and then ­undestroyed, a bubble in the Allied bombing.

Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer/Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory (Thames & Hudson, 2007), 253 pp, £39.95 (hb) ISBN 9780500238363

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “I myself would like to be a poet”