Thursday, July 9, 2015

Art Matters: Asking the Questions No One Can Ask

We recently watched a German mini-series (English subtitles) called Generation War, the story of five young friends in Berlin and what happens to them from 1941 to 1946. Two are brothers, soldiers in the Wehrmacht, sent east to fight the Russians. One girl is a cafĂ© singer with dreams of a singing career. Her boyfriend is a Jewish tailor with his own dreams of fashion design. And the fifth wants to be a nurse, “representing German women” and helping to tend the soldiers wounded at the front.

It was a riveting series. When it first aired in Germany in 2013, it caused no end of controversy, including a protest by the Polish ambassador over the anti-Semitic depiction of Polish partisans fighting the Nazis. Overall, the series renewed a public conversation lying rather dormant over German war guilt.

The series, and the conversation it inspired in Germany, might not have been possible without the paintings of Anselm Kiefer.

Breaking of the Vessels by Anselm Kiefer (1990)
Until 2014, the sum total of my knowledge of Kiefer and his art was limited to a multi-media sculpture in the St. Louis Art Museum, entitled “Breaking of the Vessels” (photograph above). Few St. Louisans know the work’s official title, but ask anyone who’s been to the art museum “Where can I find the broken glass?” and they know exactly what’s being sought. It’s currently in the main entry hall of the museum. Kiefer created it in 1990.

Last year, I was able to see a major exhibition of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (“Breaking of the Vessels’ wasn’t included; I can’t imagine anyone shipping all that broken glass, and there’s a lot of broken glass). His work is overwhelming and often overpowering. It was the kind of exhibition, and the kind of art, you can leave as a changed person. I walked out with the exhibition catalog and a biography of the artist.

Kiefer was born in 1945, not the most auspicious time to be a baby in the wreckage of Nazi Germany. He grew up in southwestern Germany, and graduated from the University of Freiburg in 1969; he began his studies in law and romance languages but switched to painting. Through a series of art installations and also artworks presented as books, the artist asked the question that no one in the German art world was asking or even wanted to ask: what does it mean to be a German artist after the Third Reich?

Anselm Kiefer
Kiefer’s art essentially forced Germans to consider that question. It was part of a broader question: What does it mean to be a German after the Third Reich? That was the conversation Kiefer started. And it was a conversation that had to happen, or Germany and Germans would have forever lived in the dark shadow, and the dark sin, that was Nazism.

The Royal Academy exhibition included numerous striking works: A large oil and acrylic painting entitled “Interior,” representing a rather decayed and ruined version of Albert Speer’s Mosaic Room in Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery; “Man in the Forest,” a man in a nightshirt holding a burning bush in the deep forest; and “Iron Path,” showing railroad tracks through a muddy, gray landscape (railroad tracks have a special meaning in our understanding of Nazi history).

This is what art can do, and this is one of the reasons why art matters. It isn’t just about beauty and the creative act. Art can take us to places we need to go, but that may be politically or culturally difficult if not impossible. Art can force us to acknowledge that “there’s an elephant in the room.” And art can keep asking the questions, which is what Kiefer continues to do with his art today.

More on Anselm Kiefer:

Anselm Kiefer by Matthew Biro provides a good overview of the artist’s works and development.

Anselm Kiefer by Richard Davey and Kathleen Soriano, the book produced for the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Related to the theme “Art Matters:”

The High Calling has a community linkup with the theme of “Art Matters.” To see what others have to see, please visit The High Calling.

Top painting: “Interior,” oil, acrylic and paper on canvas by Anselm Kiefer, 1981; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.


Kelly Chripczuk said...

"Art can take us to places we need to go . . . " Yes, especially the one's we don't know how to get to or may not even know exist.

Jerry said...

When we stop asking the questions the conversation ends and so end the relationship. This touched me Glynn. Thank You.

elizabeth said...

I never took time to think of the many powerful ways that art has been used to speak profoundly, to call attention to atrocity or injustice, but you are so right.

Brock Stephen Henning said...

I enjoyed this, Glynn. It amazes me the power of how art speaks without words, especially on a large scale such as Kiefer's work (I had not heard of him until reading your post). This made me really think about that. For people who think art is a waste of time, they clearly haven't read stories like this.