'Kiefer's books sustain a wide range of emotions, from mordant wit to what must be described as visionary ecstasy. They permit him free expression of an apparently endless stream of images functioning as ideas, and they provide a degree of intimacy that carries over to the larger works, making them seem more accessible, if no less demanding. But the books also stand on their own, as they reveal insights other artists usually share with us only in their drawings.' (J.H. Neff, Anselm Kiefer Bruch und Einung, exh. cat., Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, p. 8).
Unlike some painters, Kiefer does not treat the artist's book as a peripheral activity, but one whose production rests at the core of his total oeuvre. It is no coincidence that he first came to international prominence at Documenta 6 in 1977 through an exhibition dedicated to his books.
In German history, the book has conflicting associations. It is the source of knowledge and religion, as represented by such tomes as the Gutenberg Bible. It is also the symbol of free speech and 'dangerous' revolutionary ideas, and whose burning by the Nazis was as much an attempt to eradicate the history and beliefs of the Jewish people as the Final Solution itself.
Kiefer allows his books to retain a home-made quality, with their covers encrusted thickly like details from his large paintings. He pastes black and white photographs on pages of ragboard and these he coats with paint and shellac to enrich their story and mood. 'Some of them are so expansive and pictorial they seem to function as storyboards do for films,'continues Neff. 'With changing vantage points, cuts, closeups, and other techniques calculated to bring the viewer into the flow of events, Kiefer has given these books a strong cinematic feel, a quality only enhanced by the dramatic lighting, and model objects and landscapes he uses on the studio set where many of his photographs are taken.' ( op.cit., p. 9).
The title of the present book refers to the ancient Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, who according to legend, entered the Cedar Forest, Zedernwald, in search of immortality at the Tree of Life. Part human, part god, Gilgamesh had many adventures, betrayed friendships, destroyed the land and generally acted in a despotic manner. On his return home, he had to live with the guilt of his failure and his dishonourable behaviour.
In the photographs within the book, Kiefer play-acts the part of Gilgamesh himself, turning his studio set into a makeshift forest. The artifice of the location is consciously not disguised and one can clearly make out in the photographs stage lights, paint cans and tree-cuttings on stands. Mark Rosenthal writes: 'By placing himself in the role of Gilgamesh, Kiefer acts... as a religious man, that is to make the everyday world more tolerable, he plunges into the realm of myth; taking transhuman models, he imitates these legendary ancestors. In effect, Kiefer is once more 'trying on' a persona, one as paradoxical as the others in his cast of characters.' (Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Chicago, 1987, p. 89).
In Kiefer's version of the story, Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu enter the Cedar Forest, like Adam and Eve in Eden. They rest and make love under the protection of the branches. Their confidence increases, so much so that they start to man-handle the trees, riping them out and thereby destroying the balance of nature. The angelic spirit of the Cedar tree, played in the photo-story by Kiefer's blonde wife, weeps at the destruction. A painted tree stump magically appears, its age-rings representing the perpetuity and cyclical nature of life. Suddenly these rings spread out over the forest like a whirl-pool ripple, allowing the forest to regain its former energy and relegating Gilgamesh and his consort to the background.