'Always construction and deconstruction together...I use fire, I burn the surface of the painting...I don't illustrate at all, I create history, I do history, history is my mud... to work with and to give form'
(Kiefer, 'Interview', 2009 at www.whitecube.com/artists/kiefer/video/14/)
A haunting and provocative presentation of a Reichstag-like building as a vast, ruined and burnt-out brick oven, Athanor - painted by Kiefer in the period soon after German reunification - is a monumental and highly important work that offers both a warning and an image of hope and possibility to the German people. Taking its title from the self-feeding furnace used by alchemists to maintain a uniform temperature in the creation of their hermetic 'work' of turning matter into spirit and lead into gold, this epically themed painting serves as an icon of the perpetual cycle of destruction and regeneration so inherent to the turbulent history of German art and culture. It was painted in 1991, at a time when Kiefer was engaged with the first major exhibition of his work to take place in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, held in Berlin's Nationalgalerie, and its powerfully evocative imagery is therefore both especially fitting and timely. Conjuring an entire sequence of images in the memory - from the infamous Reichstag fire of 1933 and the destruction of Berlin in 1945, to, in 1991, the renewed hopes and fears that gathered around a re-united Germany - this powerfully resonant archetype marks, in many respects, the culmination of the important series of historic monument paintings Kiefer had produced throughout the 1980s.
A vast and imposing canvas thickly encrusted with dark, earthy chunks of oil paint and ash, delineating burnt ground, charred brickwork, smoke and an oppressive sky, the dense, highly material nature of this work is also an hermetic expression of the perpetual processes of creation and destruction always taking place within the world. To signify this, Kiefer has, in places, embedded into the dense chthonic surface of the painting glittering flashes of gold leaf and lead foil, each element representative of the alchemist and also of the artist's powers of transmutation and of their pursuit, turning matter into spirit, earth into heaven, and base metal into gold. Symbolic of a fusion of the earthbound cycle of destruction and decay with a more heavenly sense of spiritual hope and regeneration, these 'spiritual' symbols of alchemical transmutation embedded within the earthy material nature of the painting are also reflected in the painting's iconography. A symbol of the hope and destiny of the German nation and its people, this dramatic image of the burnt-out shell of one of its most iconic architectural monuments is also a major statement by Kiefer (born at the end of the war in 1945) of his own personal sense of intertwined destiny with both the past and future of the German 'Volk'.
The title of the work Athanor, is one that, periodically, Kiefer has given to other major works: to his vast 1983-84 painting of the colonnades of Hitler's Chancellery in the Sanders Collection for instance, and more recently to his vast 30ft high painting of 2007, for one of the alcoves in the Musée du Louvre. Like the crucible, the athanor is a symbol not only of the transmutability of all things but also of the Gnostic and transmutative power of the alchemist and the artist - two practitioners whose work Kiefer has always pictorially asserted as being closely related. Indeed, for Kiefer, the concept of the athanor - the creative furnace of the alchemist - is also a metaphor for the artist's studio - the architectural housing of the artist's own 'work' and so often depicted by Kiefer in the 1970s as a wooden building enclosing a lone fire or a sacred flame. At the heart of this equating of the artist and alchemist, athanor and studio, is Kiefer's mystical understanding of fire and burning as the primary force of change in the world - a force that is, for him, closely equated with painting and his belief in the artist's ability to effect cultural change. 'Malen = Verbrennen' ('Painting equals Burning') for example is the title of a 1974 painting in which Kiefer made this point by super-imposing a painter's palette over a field of scorched earth.
In the 1970s Kiefer's interest in the role and fate of the artist had been expressed through his repeated use of the palette as a symbol often seen materialising over scorched fields or forming the basis of a sacred fire burning on the floor of the Teutonic forest. In a series of works on the theme of Donauquelle (the source of the Danube) for example, the palette had often taken a spiralling form as if it were a pool or an eddy filling or, alternatively, disappearing into the floor. Closely related to Kiefer's deep sense - as an artist born near the source of the Danube river at the end of the Second World War - of self-identification with the fate of Germany, this spiralling palette-form referred to an ancient mystical understanding that the rise and fall of the Danube was integrally connected to the rise and fall in the fortunes of the German nation. At the foot of Athanor too, a spiralling palette-shaped form incised into the earth below the ruined building can also be seen. It too, in the context of the Reichstaglike building above it, probably signifies this sense of the rising and falling destiny of Germany as well as of the integrally connected nature of the painter's art to this perpetual flux and change in the world. It is indeed, Kiefer told Michael Auping, this spiralling sense of a constant moving up and down, that is also 'important to the way I organize my pictures. I work with the concept that nothing is fixed in place and that symbols move in all directions. They change hierarchies depending on context.' (Interview with M. Auping, 5 October 2004, Barjac in Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exh. cat., Fort Worth, 2005, p. 172). Here, seen connected by an incised line leading to the entrance of the burned-out monument above it and over which Kiefer has written the word 'Athanor', the spiral/palette in this work seems clearly to indicate the interconnectedness of the painter's practice with that of the building.
In the mid-1980s, Kiefer had moved into a vast new studio in an abandoned brick factory in Buchen - a move that coincided with his increasing interest in the architectural aspirations and ruined monuments of Germany's National Socialist past and also with the fate of the artist under the Nazi regime. In his paintings these monuments became twin metaphors for both the fate of Germany and that of the artist, and were presented in his work as if they were architectural linchpins connecting the spiritual aspirations of heaven and the dark and often tragic realities of earth. Often converted in Kiefer's art into 'Tombs for the Unknown Painter' - symbolized once again by the presence of a palette - monuments to Hitler's hubris and to the 'glorious dead' were transformed into symbols of the painter alchemist attempting, through the spiritual nature of his artistic enterprise, to bridge the divide between heaven and earth, micro and macrocosm, and the ruptured nature of Germany's past.
The uncomfortable presence of Germany's National socialist past also pervades Athanor which, in this darker context, must also be seen as an oven, a device used for destruction and disposal, as well as a furnace of creation. Aligned along the walls of Kiefer's brickworks studio in Buchen was a progression of ovens formerly used in the making of bricks. Bricks, made by burning, are seen by Kiefer as the earthbound equivalent of stars - the fiery, burning building-blocks of the heavens - and by this rule too, architectural monuments are, for him, terrestrial constellations of the human spirit.
In Athanor Kiefer has painted the image of a building that appears to fuse the brickwork architecture of his Buchen studio with the architectural exterior of either the former Berlin Schloss or the Reichstag. A kind of approximation of all these buildings it is evocative of all three. Part location of the German people's political representatives, part artist's studio and part symbol of a destroyed but now reunited Germany and a reunited Berlin, this monument is here also shown as a wrecked and burnt-out furnace. Inscribed with the word 'athanor' in the sky above it, the haunting concept of this furnace of both art and history and also of destruction is presented as an archetype - a meditation on both the horrors of Germany's past and, through the artistic/alchemical process of transmutation, on that most Beuysian of concepts, the potential for its healing. Painted precisely at the moment of his first exhibition in Berlin since the country's reunification and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Athanor, as its title indeed suggests, is itself a major monument to Germany's scarred past and to its hopes for the future.
'Plowing and burning, like slash and burn agriculture, is a process of regeneration, so that the earth can be reborn and create new growth toward the sun. Burning is a method to take out spirit. There is the alchemical reference to nigredo, but it goes deeper than that. Burning is absolutely elemental. The beginning of the cosmos that we have conceived scientifically began with incredible heat.The light we see in the sky is the result of a distant burning. You might say heaven is on fire. But also our bodies are generators of heat. It is all related. Fire is the glue of the cosmos. It connects heaven and earth.' (Kiefer quoted in, Interview with Michael Auping, 5 October 2004, Barjac, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exh. cat., Fort Worth, 2005, p. 172)