'I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite… To bring fire like Prometheus' -A. Kiefer
'I choose these personages because power has abused them' -A. Kiefer
Lining up statesmen and poets, assembling commanders, politicians and philosophers within an allegorical forestscape, Anselm Kiefer’s Wege (1980) confronts the romantic mythology and violent history of German national identity. Drawing upon key motifs from the artist’s oeuvre from the 1970s, Wege uses the icons of the Third Reich to explore the intertwining of German history and culture, ruthlessly exposing the political ambiguity at their heart. This work is part of the momentous Wege der Weltweisheit series, three of which were exhibited at Kiefer’s breakthrough exhibition at the 39th Venice Biennale in 1980, Verbrennen, verholzen, versenken, versanden, where the artist represented the Federal Republic of Germany alongside Georg Baselitz. A testament to the importance of this work to Kiefer’s career, others from the same series are held in museum collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Guggenheim, Bilbao, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Working on a monumental scale, Kiefer thickly layers the surface of Wege with paint, which rises and twists in blackened welts and licks at the surface of the canvas with creamy flames. The sumptuous surface retains the movement of the artist’s brush, its accumulations, undulations and trails echoing the force and energy of his hand. Emerging from amongst the snaking tree roots, nineteen faces look solemnly out, their features roughly suggested by the rudimentary hatching and cross-hatching of pasted woodcuts. With each mark carved by force from the surface, their haughty brows, chiselled noses and hooded eyes seem to rise from the gloom, interrupted by the stuttering stripes of the woodgrain. The medium of the woodcut, closely linked to the notion of primitive, authentic Germanic identity revived by Expressionists such as Die Brücke in the early 20th century, transforms the monumental, dignified portraits of great statesmen into crude folkish depictions.
At the left of the canvas, his eyes gazing blankly into the centre, Kiefer places Arminius, the legendary hero symbolic of German liberty won through military might. Arminius, who united the Germanic tribes against the Roman invasion in 9 A.D., leading them to a victory against three Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald, was transformed into Hermann in the imaginations of German artists, poets and historians in the 19th century. The battle in the Teutoburger Wald, the Hermannsschlacht, became a potent symbol of national unity in the face of the Napoleonic threat, and the subject of popular plays and poems by Heinrich von Kleist and Christian Dietrich Grabbe, whose portraits are included in Wege. By the early 20th century, the romantic mythology of Arminius and the nationalism of mainstream German intellectual life were inextricably linked, and Arminius was eventually co-opted as the prototypical German hero in National Socialist ideology. In Wege, Kiefer underlines the prominence of violence in the myth of national identity by including portraits of military commanders: August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, who led the Prussians to victory in the Napoleonic wars; Carl von Clausewitz, general, military theorist and author of Vom Kriege; Albrecht von Roon, a successful Minister of War; and Alfred von Schlieffen, who gave his name to the Schlieffen Plan, the strategic invasion of France by the Germans in WWI.
Setting this thundering, grandiose genealogy within the forest, Wege draws on the tradition of the Romantic German landscape, a recurring motif in Kiefer’s oeuvre. Kiefer was particularly inspired by the sublime nationalism so powerfully expressed in in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings use the forest as a cipher for the transcendent and the divine: 'I very much liked Friedrich… and all the Romantic poets such as Eichendorff… Some people think Friedrich is too Romantic in a clichéd sense, but I think this is not the case. He was a philosopher' (A. Kiefer, quoted in C. Weikop, ‘Forests of Myth, Forests of Memory’, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014, p. 32). In the early decades of the twentieth century, this image became highly politicised, the forest having become the spiritual dwelling-place of the German Volk. In Wege, the forest, dense with mythological and historical associations, bears the marks of violence and war: flames kindle among its roots. In part, this image directly recalls the catastrophic events of the Third Reich; in another, it is a mourning for the devastation caused to the beloved German landscape. Yet for Kiefer, the symbolic fire is also a ritual of cleansing, which destroys the venerable lineage of German heroes, immolates the icons of National Socialism, and reduces the ideology of national identity to ashes. 'I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite…” the artist has stated, 'To bring fire like Prometheus' (A. Kiefer, quoted in C. Weikop, ‘Forests of Myth, Forests of Memory’, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014, p. 30). In Wege the idealist past is consumed by fire: both the seductive romanticism of victory and vainglory, and the melancholic mourning for the disaster of German history are overwhelmed by flames.