Beginning in the early 1980s, Anslem Kiefer shifted his attention away from the landscape to make monumental architecture his primary motif. As a result, it is no longer nature which plays a central role in his works, but rather culture, civilization and the creative-intellectual achievements of man. These achievements of man are, however, frequently two-sided, since most of the buildings and architectural features the artist employs in his large scale paintings of this period are appropriated from the Nazi era or other military-related monuments. The architectural form employed in Des Malers Atelier is, for example, evokes similar structures used in other paintings of the same period bearing titles such as Bunker or Tomb.
The theme of the artist’s studio plays a central role throughout Kiefer’s entire oeuvre. Here, a white painter’s palette can be seen surrounded by a sea of red poppies. Do these flowers represent the possibilities of new life, or is this all meant as a true monument to the victims of Hitler’s purging of modern art in the 1930s? Is the unknown painter in fact a “degenerate” artist? As with many of Kiefer’s paintings and photographic works, the artist’s stance, or his own interpretation of the work’s contents, remains ambiguous.
Significant to any event is the fact that, in nearly all of Kiefer’s works relating to the artist’s studio, the artist himself is absent. A companion painting to the present work is titled To the Unknown Painter, 1983, (Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh). In both works, the monumental architecture is set in the far background and is thus “overpowered” by the enormous field in front of it, as though the powers of human creativity were no match for the forces of nature. “Like the architects of the Nazi era, Kiefer conflates a variety of Egyptian and primitive sources to universalize the archetypal tomb of the unknown painter. His frequent identification of the artist with the soldier, whose professions are conventionally opposed, suggests that he considers both to be men of action who fight for ideals” (M. Rosenthal, Anslem Kiefer, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987, p. 115). Thus, the bunker-like building in Des Malers Atelier can indeed be seen as a bunker, a place of shelter on the front, that is to say in the avant-garde.. But here as well, Kiefer’s message is ambiguous, since the comparison of the artist with the soldier might also lead one to the conclusion that the artist is equally destructive—an interpretation which is underscored by the role of artists and architects in Nazi Germany.