Since the 1960s, Anselm Kiefer explored themes of loss, memory, and collective guilt, confronting the legacy of Nazism in Germany, seeking possibilities for a society coming to terms with its past. His Dem Unbekannten Maler (To the Unknown Painter) explores two motifs central to these explorations that recur throughout Kiefer's work: architecture, and the role of the artist. In this monumental painting, a palette - a symbol for the painter that appears throughout Kiefer's oeuvre - is poised at the center of a grand but ominously desolate courtyard. Kiefer's architectural monuments served as powerful symbols of history, destruction, and memory. As art historian Mark Rosenthal notes, "Melancholy and elegy are Kiefer's principal leitmotifs and inform an understanding of his work. But Kiefer's examination of grieving is oblique; he seeks metaphors for his profound sense of loss and for the ways this emotion is enacted. In particular, architectural monuments play a powerful role in his pictorial world" (M. Rosenthal, "Stone Halls 1983", in Anselm Kiefer: The Seven Heavenly Palaces 1973 - 2001, exh. cat., Basel, 2002, p. 51).
This important work is one of a celebrated series of paintings Kiefer executed between 1980 and 1983. They depict looming stone edifices, referencing famous examples of National Socialist architecture, particularly buildings designed by Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis. These architects famously recycled ancient architectural styles, and the square columns in this painting are typical of this reinterpretation of classical structures. The grand plaza in To the Unknown Painter specifically refers to the outdoor courtyard for Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, designed by Albert Speer in 1938 in honor of the Unknown Soldier. It was also, notoriously, the site of Hitler's bunker and where he would eventually commit suicide towards the end of the Second World War. The irony of Kiefer's title is not lost in the fact that Hitler- himself famously a failed painter - exists in parallel to the millions who died at his hands. Speer originally intended this imposing edifice to inspire awe and respect and lend legitimacy to the Nazi regime, but here it appears desolate, abandoned, and obsolete. Kiefer heavily reworked its surface and incorporated organic elements such as straw, his image of hulking stonewalls conveying fragility, weakness, and ghostliness rather than strength and indestructibility. Fire and burning deeply interested Kiefer -he associates this process with alchemy and transformation - and the building pictured in To the Unknown Painter appears to have suffered an inferno that has left behind only a smoky, hollowed-out shell with gaping black windows, forgotten by those who used to populate its halls. By portraying a symbol of Nazi values and power in this way, Kiefer injects his depiction of history with the legacy of pain and loss that history inflicted upon Kiefer's moment in Post-War Germany. The emptiness and desolation of the building also suggests that not many care to revisit this moment in history, a memory repressed.
At the time he produced this work, many German critics condemned Kiefer for what they interpreted as his ambiguity: they claimed that Kiefer's portrayals of Nazi monuments were not critical enough and revealed admiration and nostalgia for the period's grandiosity. However, his paintings were immediately popular with the American and European intelligentsia, and Kiefer explains: "I completely transform architecture. The architecture I use in my paintings is already in pieces, completely destroyed ... where the symbols used by the Third Reich are visible, I always make them ambiguous, contradictory" (A. Kiefer, quoted in Anselm Kiefer: Merkaba, Milan, 2006, p. 49). He transforms Nazi symbolism even more explicitly in another of his works from this series: in Shulamite, also from 1983, Kiefer portrays Kreis's Funeral Hall for Great German Soldiers in the Hall of Soldiers in Berlin as a memorial for the mythic Jewish heroine Shulamite, the painting's namesake.
Within his larger body of work depicting Nazi architecture, his To the Unknown Painter series play a particularly poignant role, in which Kiefer inserts the palette - the symbol of the artist that reappears constantly in his art - into the spaces of these historic monuments. Kiefer skewers the palette on a stick at the center of the scorched and abandoned courtyard, recalling the display of decapitated heads stuck in the ground during the French and Russian revolutions. The palette has been interpreted as a representation of Kiefer himself, "a memorial to Kiefer's own sense of victimhood, his painterly response to his own sense of a threatened, eroded or untenable identity" (L. Saltzman, Anselm Kiefer and Art After Auschwitz, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 67-68). In addition, the memorialization of the 'Unknown Painter' speaks to the rebirth of painting itself during this period. German painters, such as Kiefer, played a key role in re-establishing painting as a medium in which young artists would be excited to work. Kiefer deeply believes in the artist's power to affect change in society, the palette at this desolate monument's center has also been understood as its only hope for renewal, the key to its salvation. The symbol of the artist stands alone in the empty building that all others have abandoned, reaching upright to touch the swirling sky, connecting earthly and heavenly realms and testifying to the redemptive power of art.