Painted in 1980, Todtnauberg beautifully demonstrates Anselm Kiefer’s compulsion toward capturing the mythic histories of the forest. Combining sensuous materiality with conceptual rigor, the work encapsulates Kiefer’s larger engagement with the structuring motifs of German history and identity, motifs which the artist elegantly interweaves with references to philosophy, theology, and his own personal biography. Referencing a healing poem by Paul Celan and the process of natural alchemy that is snow thawing, Todtnauberg injects the weight of history and myth with lightness and new hope.
In the present work, a dark and richly textured canvas replete with lovely tonal complexities is host to abstract anthropomorphic forms. Kiefer’s gestural brushwork and profuse application of paint onto the canvas create a turbulent and psychologically complex surface. The image that emerges is that of a surreal and highly charged scene of nature. Through powerful and deliberately untamed brushstrokes, Kiefer emphasizes the sublime energy of a primordial landscape; the artist’s distinctive approach to abstraction engages with and heightens the mystification of the Germanic forest. In the work of Romantic German painters, trees symbolized German pride and patriotism. During the Kaiserreich and National Socialism a repeated metaphor was that of “a forest of different trees, encapsulating the togetherness of all German lineages” (C. Weikop, “Forests of Myth, Forests of Memory,” Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2014, p. 35). The representation of trees in Kiefer’s oeuvre is a critical one that takes into account the appropriation of German landscape (and particularly of its forests) for politicized ends.
Todtnauberg makes reference to a poem of the same title written by one of the leading post-war German-language poets, Paul Celan. Like many of his contemporaries, Celan was deeply invested in philosophy and concerned himself with relevant literature. The title of Celan’s poem refers to the name of the German village in Black Forest where German philosopher Martin Heidegger took residence while completing his major work, Being and Time. The poem chronicles a meeting between Celan, a Jewish poet, and Heidegger, a renowned philosopher whose remembrance is occasionally compromised by his political affiliation with the Nazi party. Despite this circumstance, the poem opens with Celan’s description of the natural environment in a tone that has been interpreted as full of hope and healing.
On one level, Todtnauberg portrays Kiefer’s interest in capturing the landscape in an instant of natural alchemy. Similar to Kiefer’s
other depictions of snow-covered landscapes, Todtnauberg is not depicted in the moment when the snow is falling nor when the
snow accumulates a solid white blanket in the thick of winter, but rather when the snow has begun to thaw. The metamorphic
process of thawing snow conjures a symbolically invested allusion to a state of dissolve and reform, a process of rejuvenation. One
can consider the landscape of Todtnauberg as a site through which Kiefer is able to at once confront Germany’s recent past
and promote the prospect of healing the German cultural psyche.
Kiefer’s painting serves as a means by which the artist investigates the curious ontology of human existence. Kiefer’s depiction of the forest speaks beyond the outlines of the landscape: the work returns to a fundamental investigation of the transience of boundaries in which the natural landscape is understood as a bridge that divides the heaven and earth. Through the language of abstraction, Kiefer captures the peculiar qualities that transform our understanding of nature and provide its capacity to be meaningfully connected to the spiritual realm. Throughout Kiefer’s illustrious career, the artist has embraced this theosophy and the transcendental expressions of Nature’s sublimity. These themes have become preconditions of some of the artist’s most meaningful works. There is also an element of the personal in Kiefer’s use of iconographic material. The artist was raised in a small village near the Rhine’s eastern bank, located in the region of the Black Forest. Deeply influenced by the political and social turmoil that proscribed the environment during his youth, Kiefer developed an inclination toward philosophical and humanistic themes.
The symbolic depth of the present work’s title can be further developed by the literal bisection of the word so that it may be understood as “Todt,” meaning death, and “Berg,” which means mountain. In this context, Kiefer confronts the myths and chauvinistic theosophies that ultimately propelled the Third Reich to its supreme power in Germany. Todtnauberg presents a hauntingly beautiful landscape that challenges Germany’s ambivalent nostalgia and the controversial impulse of German nationalism, conveying Kiefer’s unique ability to insert a powerful and critical narrative into an abstract vocabulary. Consequently, Kiefer’s painting represents a duality between visually compelling imagery and critical reflection of the past and its significance in the present.