‘I studied the architecture of the Third Reich carefully. I had all the books … [in my pictures] I transform the architecture completely. The architecture I use in my pictures is already in pieces, completely destroyed … the blood of history flows in my pictures. A real battle has taken place on the canvases ... Where the symbols used by the Third Reich were obvious, I always make them ambiguous, contradictory. For instance, I painted a building, on the canvas I wrote, “Monument to the Unknown Painter”. Obviously it’s an allusion to the tomb of the unknown soldier on the Arc de Triomphe. But at the same time it represents something ambiguous and absurd since painters are normally known. It’s just an example to show you that I never use symbols in a self-evident way; they are always “broken”’
‘The reality was so overwhelming, so incredible that I had to use myths to express my emotions. The facts were figures, places, buildings. The reality was too onerous to be real. I had to work through myth to recreate it’
‘I think in vertical terms, and Fascism was one of the levels. But, I see all the levels. In my paintings, I tell stories in order to show what lies behind history. I make a hole and pass through’
‘I was intrigued by these buildings, and I wanted to transform them. You know, normally you don’t destroy buildings ... usually you transform them, like the Christians transformed old temples or the Pantheon into Christian churches. That’s what I was doing, too ... Because you never succeed in really destroying something, it always lives, and it’s more efficient to transform than to destroy’
Painted in 1983, Grab des unbekannten Malers (Tomb of the Unknown Painter) is a major work from Anselm Kiefer’s landmark series of paintings devoted to the theme of the ‘Unknown Painter’. This epic series of architectural paintings made between 1980 and 1983 is today widely regarded as marking a defining moment in the German artist’s long and distinguished career. Radically inventive for their dramatic use of a new mixed-media painterly technique and startlingly controversial for their bold appropriation of real and imaginary monuments from the Nazi period, this famous series includes such paintings as Dem unbekannten Maler, 1983 now in the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, the vast Dem unbekannten Maler of 1983 in the Collection of Cêline and Heiner Bastian, Berlin and its alternate version sold at Christie’s in May 2011.
Both shocking and highly provocative at the time when they were made, it was this series of ‘Unknown Painter’ works, along with other, closely-associated, architectural paintings of the period that, through their overt willingness to confront the oppressive legacy and myth of Germany’s traumatic past, marked a period of both culmination and arrival in Kiefer’s work. Originating in a small, snowy landscape painting to which Kiefer gave the inscription, ‘To the Unknown Painter’ in 1974, these works of the early 1980s were to bring to full realization Kiefer’s earlier exploration of Teutonic myth, history and landscape by marking a full confrontation with the ethical, cultural and physical devastation of Germany’s ‘year zero’ – 1945. The fact that this year is also the year of Kiefer’s birth meant that these paintings were also, in some respects, intensely personal explorations for the artist of his own history and identity as a German post-war painter as well as pictures that were to lead directly to a period of great notoriety for him and severe criticism from within his own country. This was a period that culminated perhaps with Kiefer’s controversial exhibition in Albert Speer’s German pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale and only ended many years later with his gradual recognition as the leading German artist of his generation.
Grab des unbekannten Malers (Tomb of the Unknown Painter) is one of the last works on the theme of the ‘Unknown Painter’ that Kiefer made. A highly accomplished painting, it is one that both encapsulates the pervasive sense of megalomania, mourning, tragedy and hubris invoked by this extraordinary series a whole and also a picture that anticipates, and indeed was directly to influence, Kiefer’s later painterly investigations of the history, monuments and myths of the Middle East in the late 1990s.
The painting depicts an imaginary mausoleum based on Wilhelm Kreis’ 1943 plans for a memorial building for the German Panzer Division in Africa. This was a monument to fallen soldiers of the Africa campaign based on an Egyptian mastaba, that was never in fact built, but was intended to stand as an eternal shrine to the glorious Nazi dead in Egypt where it was hoped it would compare with that great civilization’s own legendary architectural relics. Displaying a masterly command of a complex mixed-media painting technique that includes the layering on and pulling off of paint over a shellac varnish ground, Kiefer has rendered his epic, idealized and also imaginary subject in an almost archeological manner. Splashing, pulling, dripping, pasting, tearing, splintering and incising his way through the paint, the artist appears to have actually dug out the scene he depicts from the material of his paint, working in an almost excavatory way that visually echoes and evokes his subject’s pervasive atmosphere of both grandiosity and decay. ‘A real battle has taken place on the canvases’, Kiefer once said of such works, ‘the blood of history flows’ through them and in this painting, as in all of Kiefer’s architectural pictures from this period, he renders its National Socialist memorial in a manner that seems as if time had stopped in 1945 and its great, idealized edifice had since been left to rot. As he was to do in the Carnegie Institute’s painting, Kiefer has adjusted Kreis’ mausoleum to make it seem even more massive than it would have been by compressing its form and disregarding all its decorative motifs. The building is also viewed heroically from below so that, like a Greek temple, it appears to stand proud on the hill – an intermediary between heaven and earth.
Kiefer’s intention in rendering the idealized architecture of National Socialism in the manner of abandoned relics was in part a deliberate confrontation with the taboo of Germany’s past and also an artistic attempt to lay its ‘ghosts’ and mythologies through a process of transformation and re-appropriation. ‘I felt as if my memory was blocked’, Kiefer has said. ‘Very few Germans studied (the Nazi period) … I therefore felt a need to reawaken memories, not to change politics, but to change myself …The reality was so overwhelming, so incredible that I had to use myths to express my emotions. The facts were figures, places, buildings. The reality was too onerous to be real. I had to work through myth to recreate it’ (A. Kiefer, ‘Interview with Bernard Comment’, Art Press, Paris, September 1998). Towards this end, and as he had done with the Teutonic mythologies and Wagnerian legends that he re-positioned amidst the scorched landscapes of his 1970s paintings, Kiefer hoped through this process to transform the tainted myths of Germany’s past into a positive force for understanding, healing and cultural reinvigoration. ‘I studied Third Reich art in secondhand bookstores and absorbed a lot of information that had come out in the 1930s’, he explained. ‘But I never found any interesting official painting. However, the architecture is quite interesting. People like Speer and Kreis made interesting things for example, Speer’s Biennale building in Venice (the German exhibition pavilion in the “Giardini publici” is a very good little museum building). I was intrigued by these buildings, and I wanted to transform them. You know, normally you don’t destroy buildings ... usually you transform them, like the Christians transformed old temples or the Pantheon into Christian churches. That’s what I was doing, too ... Because you never succeed in really destroying something, it always lives, and it’s more efficient to transform than to destroy’ (A. Kiefer, quoted in Anselm Kiefer Works on Paper in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990, p. 101).
Kiefer’s architectural series of paintings on the theme of the ‘Unknown Painter’ extended the logic of this approach into a personal direction for the artist. The series began in the form of a sequence of woodcut works made in 1980 entitled ‘Der Rhein’ (The Rhine) in which Kiefer co-joined the theme of the ‘Unknown Painter’ with the fate of Germany itself by merging an image of Wilhelm Kreis’ 1939 Hall of Soldiers - close to where Hitler ended his days - with images of the Rhine and inscribing the works ‘Dem unbekannten Maler’ (‘To the Unknown Painter’).
As Kiefer’s later painting of Wilhelm Kreis’ Hall of Soldier’s entitled Athanor of 1983-4 shows, these paintings were attempted acts of alchemical transmutation. The title ‘Athanor’ - a reference to the alchemical oven or crucible within which philosophical lead is turned into gold - and the inscription over Kreis’ Hall of Soldiers rededicating this memorial of fallen warriors to the imaginary figure of ‘the Unknown Painter’ repositions the scene as a whole into the arena of art and the potential for transformation. As Mark Rosenthal has written of this aspect of Kiefer’s work and of Grab des unbekannten Malers in particular, ‘the theme of the memorial to the unknown painter is a particularly evocative one in Kiefer’s art because art itself is such a powerful force to him. Following in the footsteps of his mentor Joseph Beuys, Kiefer believes that art is a vehicle by which to have a dialogue with history. An artist can enact a coming-to-terms with the worst transgressions of the past. The very title Tomb of the Unknown Painter is an example of Kiefer’s artistic power used to undo and correct history. In contrast to the prototypical memorial devoted to an unknown soldier, he depicts a replacement memorial dedicated to an artist: in other words, Kiefer proposes a new society and order of heroes, with the artist and art at its pinnacle. Here, is an instance of transforming swords into plowshares’ (M. Rosenthal, ‘Stone Halls 1983’, in Anselm Kiefer the Seven Heavenly Palaces 1973-2001, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2001, p. 51).
The original function of Kreis’ mastaba memorializing the fallen soldiers of the German Panzer Division in Africa was intended to reinforce what the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg had described as the ‘cult of the dead’ and to make of the site a ‘place of pilgrimage for a new religion’ in which ‘German hearts’ would be ‘ceaselessly reshaped into the form of a new myth’. This ugly myth was intended to ‘symbolize the taming of the chaotic forces of the Eastern steppes by the disciplined power of the Germanic forces of order’ (A. Rosenberg, Der Mythos des 20 Jahrhundert, Munich 1934, p. 450). Kiefer’s re-appropriation of the building and the sinister myth it embodies and his rededicating it to the new figure of the ‘Unknown Painter’ is therefore a personal intervention akin to his personal and repeated re-enacting of the Nazi salute in his inaugural artistic work of 1969 - the portfolio he called Occupations.
In addition, Kiefer’s positing of the idea of a monument or tomb of the ‘Unknown Painter’ is also a powerful symbol of all those ‘modern’ artists who were deemed ‘entartete’ (degenerate) by the Nazis and forbidden from working as well as of all those unknown victims of Nazi violence and cultural oppression whose work was lost, silenced or which never grew to fruition. In another sense too, however, such a monument is also a wider critique of artistic hubris in general, in particular perhaps, in the way in which it pertains to both Hitler (who regarded himself as a painter and propagated a myth of himself as a great artist) and to Kiefer - an artist born in 1945 who has famously described himself as neither Nazi nor anti-Nazi because, as he rightly points out, he has no way of knowing how he himself would have reacted or behaved under Nazi rule. Such a picture as Grab des unbekannten Malers with its depiction of a vast, decaying, Ozymandias-type monument standing in a desert wasteland, is therefore not just an image of the cultural megalomania of the Nazis, but also of the perils of the artistic ego as a whole. As Mark Rosenthal has written, by rendering these hubristic monuments in such a state of dilapidation and archeological decay Kiefer’s paintings ‘To the Unknown Painter’ show ‘architectural conventions’ as ‘but hollow containers, little more than superficial stylizations by which a culture celebrates its heroes’ (M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p. 106).
Ultimately, perhaps, it is this aspect of Grab des unbekannten Malers that is the most enduring. The pervasive sense of ruin and of the temporality and vanity of all monument building is seemingly inscribed into every detail of the picture’s rich and sumptuous materiality. The notion that all monuments, however ambitious, ultimately crumble to dust, is one that seems not only written into every intensely worked crater or cracked and peeling fragment of this picture but also an aspect that Kiefer was to pursue insistently in his later work. In his vast 1997 painting dedicated to the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, entitled The Sand from the Urns, for example, Kreis’ mastaba again appears to have, this time, been completely abandoned to the elements, its ‘eternal’ form slowly sinking into the clouds of a sandstorm engulfing it. As Kiefer has more recently said, ‘I think in vertical terms, and Fascism was one of the levels. But, I see all the levels. In my paintings, I tell stories in order to show what lies behind history. I make a hole and pass through’ (A. Kiefer, quoted in Anselm Kiefer. The Seven Heavenly Palaces 1973- 2001, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, p. 58).