Kiefer is probably best known for his works centered around what has been called "epic elegies to the human condition." (M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Philadelphia, 1987, p. 155.) In addition to themes of history, memory and national identity. Kiefer is preoccupied with the relationship between art and nature. He is particularly celebrated for his work addressing the German Romantic tradition. The Sonnenblumen are aesthetically different from the many works based on the German countryside and woods, reflecting Kiefer's relocation to the Languedoc in southern France.
Born just before the end of World War II, in southern Germany, Kiefer's works address the profound grief and trauma of recent German history. Since the mid-1970s, the scorched earth functions as both motif and metaphor in these paintings. The scorched earth also refers to Kiefer's own history, that as a German and that of his childhood after the war.
The metaphor of the scorched earth connotes not only death and destruction, but history itself. In Sonnenblumen, Kiefer refers not only to social and political history, but also to the history of art, in particular, the artist most associated with sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh. Like van Gogh, Kiefer is an expatriate artist drawn to the south of France outside the town of Arles.
As Nan Rosenthal notes, "Kiefer's sunflowers are oxymorons. Instead of capturing the brilliant hues of the sun, as Van Gogh's flowers do, Kiefer's flowers are dark and ominous, silhouetted in black against a pale sky." (N. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, Works on Paper in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exh. cat., New York, 1999. p. 28.)
The wilted sunflowers stand in great lines above the scorched earth with their heavy heads tilted down towards the ground. The sunflowers have lost both their petals, their leaves and their color - the flowers appear both to die and to mourn simultaneously. It is this image, that of wilting in the ground, head bowed, not towards fertile soil, but towards an arid, scorched earth, that makes the image so haunting.
Fig. 1 Anselm Kiefer, Occupations 1969
Fig. 2 Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, Bayerische Staatdemäldesammlungen, Munich