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Anselm Kiefer
Born (1945-03-08) 8 March 1945 (age 78)
Nationality German, Austrian
Known for Painting, Sculpture, Mixed media
Notable work
The Hierarchy of Angels (painting)
The Secret Life of Plants (sculpture)
Grane (woodcut)
Spouse(s)
Monika Kiefer
(divorced)
Renate Graf
(div. 2014)
Awards Praemium Imperiale
'Grane' by Anselm Kiefer. Woodcut with paint and collage on paper mounted on linin, Museum of Modern Art (New York City)
Grane, Woodcut with paint and collage on paper mounted on linen, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Anselm Kiefer (born 8 March 1945) is a German painter and sculptor. His works incorporate materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac. The poems of Paul Celan have played a role in developing Kiefer's themes of German history and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Kiefer has lived and worked in France since 1992. Since 2008, he has lived and worked primarily in Paris. In 2018, he was awarded Austrian citizenship.

Personal life and career

The son of a German art teacher, Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen a few months before the end of World War II. His city having been heavily bombed, Kiefer grew up surrounded by the devastation of the war. In 1951, his family moved to Ottersdorf [de], and he attended public school in Rastatt, graduating high school in 1965. He studied at the University of Freiburg, studying pre-law and Romance languages. However, after three semesters he switched to art, studying at art academies in Freiburg and Karlsruhe. In Karlsruhe, he studied under Peter Dreher, a realist and figurative painter. He received an art degree in 1969.

In 1971 Kiefer moved to Hornbach (Walldürn) and established a studio. He remained in the Neckar-Odenwald-Kreis until 1992; his output during this first creative time is known as The German Years. In 1992 he relocated to France.

Kiefer left his first wife and children in Germany on his move to Barjac in 1992. From 2008 he lived in Paris, in a large house in the Marais district, with his second wife, the Austrian photographer Renate Graf, and their two children. Kiefer and Graf divorced in 2014.

In 2017, Kiefer was ranked one of the richest 1,001 individuals and families in Germany by the monthly business publication Manager Magazin.

Kiefer is the subject of the 3D documentary film Anselm (2023), directed by Wim Wenders.

Artistic process

Generally, Kiefer attributes traditional mythology, books, and libraries as his main subjects and sources of inspiration. In his middle years, his inspiration came from literary figures, namely Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. His later works incorporate themes from Judeo-Christian, ancient Egyptian, and Oriental cultures, which he combines with other motifs. Cosmogony is also a large focus in his works. In all, Kiefer searches for the meaning of existence and "representation of the incomprehensible and the non-representational."

Philosophy

Kiefer values a "spiritual connection" with the materials he works with, "extracting the spirit that already lives within [them]." In doing so, he transforms his materials with acid baths and physical blows with sticks and axes, among other processes.

He often chooses materials for their alchemical properties—lead in particular. Kiefer's initial attraction to lead arose when he had to repair aging pipes in the first house he owned. Eventually, he came to admire its physical and sensory qualities and began to discover more about its connection to alchemy. Physically, Kiefer specifically likes how the metal looks during the heating and melting process when he sees many colors, especially gold, which he associates to the symbolic gold sought by alchemists.

Kiefer's use of straw in his work represents energy. He claims this is due to straw's physical qualities, including the color gold and its release of energy and heat when burned. The resulting ash makes way for new creation, thus echoing the motifs of transformation and the cycle of life.

Kiefer also values the balance between order and chaos in his work, stating, "[I]f there is too much order, [the piece] is dead; or if there is much chaos, it doesn't cohere." In addition, he cares deeply about the space in which his works reside. He states that his works "lose their power completely" if put in the wrong spaces.

Work

Anselm Kieffer - 'Glaube , Hoffnung, Liebe'
Faith, Hope, love by Anselm Kiefer, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Kiefer is best known for his paintings, which have grown increasingly large in scale with additions of lead, broken glass, and dried flowers or plants. This results in encrusted surfaces and thick layers of impasto.

Since 2002, Kiefer has worked with concrete, creating the towers destined for the Pirelli warehouses in Milan, the series of tributes to Velimir Khlebnikov (paintings of the sea, with boats and an array of leaden objects, 2004–5), a return to the work of Paul Celan with a series of paintings featuring rune motifs (2004–06), and other sculptures.

In 2007, he became the first artist to be commissioned to install a permanent work at the Louvre, Paris, since Georges Braque some 50 years earlier. The same year, he inaugurated the Monumenta exhibitions series at the Grand Palais in Paris, with works paying special tribute to the poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.

In 1969 Kiefer began to design books. Early examples are typically worked-over photographs; his more recent books consist of sheets of lead layered with paint, minerals, or dried plant matter. For example, he assembled numerous lead books on steel shelves in libraries, as symbols of the stored, discarded knowledge of history. The book Rhine (1981) comprises a sequence of 25 woodcuts that suggest a journey along the Rhine River; the river is central to Germany's geographical and historical development, acquiring an almost mythic significance in works such as Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs. Scenes of the unspoiled river are interrupted by dark, swirling pages that represent the sinking of the battleship Bismarck in 1941, during an Atlantic sortie codenamed Rhine Exercise.

Collections

Kiefer's works are included in numerous public collections, including the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; the Tate Modern, London; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and the Albertina, Vienna. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns 20 of the artist's rare watercolors. Notable private collectors include Eli Broad and Andrew J. Hall.

Recognitions

In 1990, Kiefer was awarded the Wolf Prize. In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded him the Praemium Imperiale for his lifetime achievements.

In 2008, Kiefer was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, given for the first time to a visual artist. Art historian Werner Spies said in his speech that Kiefer is a passionate reader who takes impulses from literature for his work. In 2011 Kiefer was appointed to the chair of creativity in art at the Collège de France.

  • 1983 – Hans-Thoma-Preis [de] of Baden-Württemberg
  • 1985 – Carnegie Prize
  • 1990 – Wolf Prize in Arts
  • 1990 – Goslarer Kaiserring
  • 1999 – Praemium Imperiale
  • 2002 – Officer of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
  • 2004 – Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2005 – Austrian Decoration for Science and Art
  • 2008 – Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
  • 2009 – Adenauer-de Gaulle Prize (Paris, France/Berlin, Germany)
  • 2010 – Chair of Artistic Creation at the Collège de France
  • 2011 – Berliner Bär (B.Z.-Kulturpreis) [de]
  • 2011 – Leo Baeck Medal, Leo Baeck Institut of New York
  • 2014 – honorary doctorate in Philosophy, University of Turin
  • 2015 – Honorary doctorate in letters, University of St Andrews
  • 2015 – Honorary doctorate for general merit, University of Antwerp
  • 2017 – J. Paul Getty Medal Award
  • 2017 – Honorary doctorate University of Freiburg
  • 2019 – Prize for Understanding and Tolerance, awarded by the Jewish Museum Berlin
  • 2020 – Honorary Doctorate in the Communication and Teaching of Art, Brera Academy (Milan, Italy)
  • 2023 – Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • 2023 – German National Prize [de]

Materials

Due to the spontaneous nature of his creative process, many of his works have issues regarding stability—a concern shared by collectors, dealers, and curators alike. He acknowledges the issue, but says change is part of the process and that their essence will ultimately stay the same. This idea of transformation has a kind of appeal for Kiefer and thus is featured in many of his works. This fascination for the process may have stemmed from the artist's keen interest in alchemy. He often chooses materials for their alchemical properties—lead in particular being chief among them. In the case of lead, he specifically likes how the metal looks during the heating and melting process when he would see many colors—especially that of gold—which he thought of in a symbolic sense as the gold sought by alchemists. He is also particularly fond of the oxidation of white on lead. He would often try to induce oxidation artificially with the use of acid to speed up the process. Lead was also associated with the alchemical concepts of magic numbers and represented the planet Saturn.

Shellac, another material popular in his work, corresponded to lead in terms of how he felt about its color and energy possibilities. He also liked that while being polished it takes on energy and becomes warm to the touch.

The use of straw in his work is also in part the result of this common theme of energy. Straw again features the color gold and gives off energy, heat, and warmth when burned. This would make way for new creation thus continuing the cycle of life through the transformation process. In 2011, Christie's set a new worldwide record of $3.6 million for the artist, when it sold To the Unknown Painter (1983) to an American private collector.

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