Anselm Kiefer, Deutschlands Geisteshelden, 1973
We're looking at a painting by Anselm Kiefer, called "Deutschland Geisteshelden," which translates to "Germany's Spiritual Heroes." At the bottom you see a number of names; all of those names are figures in the German artistic identity.
And so, we get the sense that this room is a hall of heroes or a hall of monuments. But unlike the way that we would typically think of a hall of monuments as gilded in gold and outlaid in marble, this is a very rough-cut room. Some people have thought that this may echo the hunting lodge of Hermann Göring, the military general who actually stored looted art work during World War II in his home called Carinhall.
One of the things about the Third Reich was that it was very much an aesthetic movement as well as a political and military one. Hitler was very interested in art. And so, here is this young painter in the 70s, that is ripping open that history and demanding that we look at it. And implicating not only himself but his country in that past.
It was extraordinary. It hadn't been done before. And he did it inside of the language of the very art that became the Reich. It's the triumphal music of Wagner. These romantic landscape paintings from the late 18th and early 19th century.
There's a lot to be gained from the great careers and lives that these individuals have had. But there's also complication as well, and I think Kiefer leaves that open when you look at this extraordinary painting.
Born at the close of World War II, Anselm Kiefer reflects upon and critiques the myths and chauvinism that propelled the German Third Reich to power. With immense scale and ambition, his paintings depict his generation’s ambivalence toward the grandiose impulse of German nationalism and its impact on history. Painted in extreme perspective, Deutschlands Geisteshelden positions the viewer at the mouth of a great hall, an amalgam of Kiefer’s former studio and Carinhall, a German hunting lodge used to store looted art during the Nazi era. Burning torches line the walls of the space, which is empty except for the names of inspirational artists and writers scrawled above the receding floor: Joseph Beuys, Arnold Böcklin, Adalbert Stifter, Caspar David Friedrich, Theodor Storm, and many others. This is hardly a triumphal place; the lodge keeps vigil, housing names that have become embroiled in a painful history.
Born at the close of World War II, Anselm Kiefer reflects on and critiques the myths and chauvinism that propelled the German Third Reich to power. With Wagnerian scale and ambition, his paintings depict the ambivalence of his generation toward the grandiose impulse of German nationalism and its impact on history. Balancing the dual purposes of powerful imagery and critical analysis, Kiefer’s work is considered part of the neo-expressionist return to representation and personal reflection that came to define the 1980s. At that time, Kiefer was the centerpiece of a critical debate on the continued validity of painting, the ability of representation to heal deep historical wounds, and the legacy of fascism.
Zweistromland: The High Priestess, 1985–87, depicts the union of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as an intersection of rusted, crumbling modern train tracks, bridges, or superhighways. Water often signifies life, hope, and renewal, but Kiefer’s reinterpretation suggests thwarted ambition and broken promises. With hues of blue and shadowy passages of black and brown, the monumental painting offers a dour look at Germany’s past—a country believed by its Nazi ancestors to be a new, modern cradle civilization on the scale of Mesopotamia and subsequently revealed to be a deeply flawed force for hate.
In Deutschlands Geisteshelden, 1973, Kiefer superimposes historical meaning on a setting of personal significance, his former studio in a rural schoolhouse. Painted on six strips of burlap sewn together, Kiefer creates a textured, wooden room receding sharply into space. The work recalls both hunting lodge and a memorial hall. Fires burn on the walls, and the surface suggests that the entire scene has been singed with flame. According to art historian Mark Rosenthal, this work demonstrates that “Kiefer’s attitude about a Germany whose spiritual heroes are in fact transitory and whose deeply felt ideals are vulnerable is not only ambivalent but also sharply biting and ironical....These great figures and their achievements are reduced to just names, recorded not in a marble edifice but in the attic of a rural schoolhouse.”