//literary & arts//
The Role of Memory in 2018
Anselm Kiefer at the Met Breuer
In the later decades of the 20th century, German artist Anselm Kiefer devoted a section of his oeuvre to discussing post-war German identity and memory. In their online introduction to Provocations: Anselm Kiefer at The Met Breuer, the Met Breuer curators describe Kiefer's work as aimed at provoking “a kind of collective amnesia that had taken over West Germany in the 1960s and 70s.” They add that this “amnesia” came about as a result of the denazification programs led by the West German state.
Today, another type of problematic engagement with the memory of World War II is taking place in a neighboring European nation. Much fanfare has been made about the Polish government's controversial “Polish Death Camp Law,” which criminalizes the implication of the Polish nation in the atrocities committed at the extermination camps in Polish territory during WWII. This piece of legislation is part of a complex revision of the Polish nation’s past that goes beyond simple party politics.
Kiefer’s work at the Met Breuer offers powerful insight into the nature of memory, and how Kiefer thinks one ought deal with it. These insights can comment on the Polish and West German projects, not only as a critique, but also as an aid for understanding the complex and fraught tensions relating to the memory of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Second World War in these national communities. How, then, does Poland’s re-envisioning of its history relate to the stated “amnesia” that Kiefer criticizes in his work?
When one enters the exhibit on the fifth floor of the Met Breuer, one immediately stands on a road. The road is Kiefer’s Bohemia Lies by the Sea, a massive unnerving painting of a walkway through a field of poppies. This 1996 work—dated far later than most of the works in the exhibition—is a brilliant choice not only for its captivating content, but also because it is a later work. The poppies that surround the worn path blazing into oblivion are a common European symbol of war. The pathway upon which the viewer imagines herself to be standing invites her to examine the ravages of war. She stands on the path, but may also step back and view the path taken; memory is the path taken through the field of poppies, through the troubled past. This moment expresses the fact that while one is already immersed in memory, one can also take a critical and thoughtful pose towards it. One is always on the path but can also look back on it. That is why this piece must be a later work, it is indicative of what this exhibit is--a retrospective. It is a reflection on Kiefer’s reflections on memory.
Kiefer’s work from the late 1960’s to 1980 presents a gradual process in which the artist crystalized a thesis on how one ought relate to memory. The process begins at the start of Kiefer’s provocations towards West German society and ends with a clear statement on how one ought relate to her past. Both in narrowing down his focus from the societal level down to that of the individual, and also by forming a more focused and explicit technique, Kiefer shows his hand and reveals his philosophy on the matter. By following this narrative arc in Kiefer’s work, his nuanced thesis is understood and asses the outlooks of both West Germany then, and Poland today.
A part of Kiefer's Heroic Symbols series rests an untitled watercolor painting. The painting depicts a faceless figure in a puddle on a rolling country road. The only notable detail is the figure’s Nazi salute, which breaks the calm fog above the figure’s head. While such an image may be unnerving for a contemporary American viewer, the importance of this work for its initial German audience cannot be understated. The Nazi salute was not only illegal in Germany at the time, but Kiefer further provokes anti-Nazi German attitudes by including the salute in a series entitled Heroic Symbols. This work reminds the viewer that only fourteen years before the painting’s release, that salute would have indeed been considered heroic. The salute was an unwelcome reminder of the Nazi past that West German society was attempting to bury. West Germany felt that the only way it could move forward was to block out and erase the past. Living with the skeleton of Nazism in the closet may have been a more appealing option for West Germans rather than bringing Nazism into the open in order to process it. By causing shock and horror in the German viewer, this artwork reveals the latent trauma and anxiety inherent in his culture’s psyche. The fact that this image was a real provocation proves that there were still open wounds which the culture was attempting to cover up.
Kiefer believes that this complete neglect of the past is wrong. This is why he released the untitled work, and the whole Heroic Symbols series. This work proclaims, “THIS IS REAL, NAZISM OCCURED, WE WERE ALL A PART OF IT.” It makes clear that fewer than 15 years later, the Nazi salute was a poignant symbol within West German society. Kiefer directs his work against an unhealthy relation to memory within his culture. Yet the work is only a critique of a certain cultural attitude—it does not propose any solutions.
Only a year after Heroic Symbols was released, Kiefer released a new work, entitled Everyone stands under his Own Dome of Heaven. This work presents a figure within a clear dome, almost as if he were in a snowglobe. Kiefer states that the work bears a relativist message—that all individuals occupy their own enclosed space which contains their own set of beliefs. Whereas Heroic Symbols challenged a collective culture, Own Dome of Heaven highlights the individual as a locus of accountability and a receptacle of ideologies, beliefs, and memories.
In his reflections, Kiefer rejects the idea of a universal theory of meaning such as Marxism or Christianity. A universal erasure of memory functions just like a chauvinistic ideology in that it unfairly flattens and distorts human experience. Own Dome of Heaven offers a more complex development of Kiefer’s original idea. Whereas Heroic Symbols presents a blunt provocation of a national phenomenon but offers no guidance, Own Dome of Heaven indicated what types of ideologies are wrong. By making this mass amnesia the object of an anti-totalitarian critique, Kiefer makes the claim that the post-Nazi suppression of the past follows Nazism in that both enact the same types of ideological violence. However, neither of these pieces offer any wisdom as to how memory should be dealt with in society—that type of work comes into focus for Kiefer in 1980.
Kiefer’s 1980 series of reworked self-portraits represents the artist’s most profound commentary on memory. The series posits a clear thesis not only on how our treatment of the past can go wrong, but precisely how to properly reckon with it. This thesis offers a viable alternative to the West German collective amnesia, and also stands in opposition to the Polish Death Camps law. From 1980 to 1981 Kiefer began harvesting pre-existing black and white self-portraits to serve as the basis for new works. These reworked self-portraits focus on themes of German cultural identity, personal growth, as well as cultural commentary in contemporary West Germany. The Met Breuer presents three of these pieces (though there may be more) at the center of the exhibition, one of the most thoughtful curating decisions present in the whole exhibit. These pieces represent the culmination of the development of the artist’s work from mere provocation to sensitive ethical wisdom.
The German epic poem, the Edda, represents the world as a giant tree called Yggdrasil. In one of the self-portraits Kiefer draws over his original portrait, a depiction of himself as he stands and holds a branch so as to appear to be part of the tree’s trunk. In standing upon the trunk and holding a branch (a detail from the original portrait), Kiefer appears to continue the tree’s growth. This is even more apt as a self-portrait, as the name Kiefer in German means pine tree. The curators describe this piece as thematizing human growth, decay, and personal evolution. Yet the aesthetic content of this one work is not nearly as exciting as the method of revision it presents. Through revision, Kiefer shows that a bare picture can gain greater significance. Not only does the past photo evolve into something far more meaningful, but the revisional work itself is only able to gain coherence and grounding through the past. Here the past literally serves as both backdrop and centerpiece to the whole work.
In a piece entitled Broken Flowers and Grass, the artist riffs on the German poem of the same name in which lovers fall asleep in a field. The original portrait makes Kiefer look asleep, just like the lovers in the poem. Later later drawings on top of the original make the artist look buried, with flowers not serving as his bed, but growing out of him. Here too the artist portrays the past as being part of the same organic structure as the future. The future work does not hide the past but rather works with it to create a vivid contemporary image.
In the final image of the three, Kiefer adds a political edge to these statements about personal growth. In Big Iron Fist, Germany, Kiefer references a debate in West German society as to whether the West German government should contribute tanks to NATO. This issue was highly contentious, as such a contribution would represent Germany’s first involvement in a non-defensive army since World War II. This piece stands in conversation with Kiefer’s studies on memory and Nazism. The image depicts a seemingly confused Kiefer, who is surrounded by smudged black paint that covers most of the image. The lower portion of the subject’s body is, in fact, not a photograph at all, but a re-painting of what would have been in the original image. Why does Kiefer paint the same image?
For Kiefer, German remilitarization is a recurrence of the sins of the past: it proceeds under the guise of heralding a new German future, but is really a sloppy repetition of a tragic evil. He suggests that if West Germany had not so readily forgotten the sins of past militarism, they would be less inclined to repeat them. The artist had criticized forgetting the past in his earlier work, and now the culture he monitors is falling into the same mistakes of which they so resolutely attempted to purge themselves. According to Kiefer, a present state of affairs that does not grow out of, or in communion with the past, will fall into the trap of Big Iron Fist, Germany. The cultural amnesia that Kiefer critiqued in Heroic Figures, has brought about the sins depicted in Big Iron Fist and Germany. Perhaps, suggests Kiefer, if the West Germans had accepted their past instead of suppressing it, they would not fall prey to repeating the same mistakes. For Kiefer, the past constitutes the present. Because of this, Germany must attune itself with its past when attempting to address its present. Just as the tree and the field of flowers in the self-portraits grow naturally out of the subjects in the originals, so too the present must be treated as an organic outgrowth of the past.
Decades after Kiefer’s self-portraits were revised, another European nation is on the brink of committing the same ideological violence as Kiefer’s West Germany. Earlier this year, the Polish senate passed a bill proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party that “calls for up to three years in prison or a fine for accusing the Polish state or people of involvement or responsibility for the Nazi occupation during World War II.” I became ever more interested in this law as I travelled to Poland with Columbia/Barnard Hillel earlier this March, and met with journalists, activists, and young Polish citizens. The very wording of the law, referring to the Polish state and people clearly, indicate that this law is an exercise in legislating collective memory.
What sets the Polish law apart from West Germany’s amnesia is that supporters of the law claim that they are not trying to forget anything. This may be true, but they are certainly imposing a memory on others. Further still, while the Polish legislature may claim to simply be affirming history, they are in fact erasing the region’s past. While they may argue that individual Poles—however many thousands of them aided the German government—do not represent the Polish state or people, this does not reflect an authentic representation of the region’s past, but a legalistic obfuscation.
I remember the words my tour guide said as we toured the Krakow ghetto: “one person could not have stood up to the Nazis,” he said. “They needed a community to support them.” If this is the case, then how can having a distorted view of past communities allow present ones to avoid their mistakes? How can present Poles, Germans, and Jews learn from the Holocaust if we can only recall a tendentiously construed memory of it? We are constituted by our memories, and so to slant them is equally unjust as to erase them. Just as West Germany could not escape its past through erasure, Poland cannot escape its own past by remaking it to their own design.
One can imagine why this is happening. Most of Nazism’s crimes were committed outside of Germany, perhaps making Germans think they could leave them behind after the war. Poland is full of the scars of war: scholars estimate “that the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II,” making it understandable why Poles may see themselves as victims. Unfortunately, these Poles are often forgotten or passed over in Jewish spaces, as are other gentile comrades who perished in the Holocaust. Kiefer’s artwork instills within the viewer an understanding of the deep connection between honest memory and present reality. It convinces one that to truly be on steady ground now, we must be at terms with what truly occurred then. Whether German, Polish, Jewish, or other, this exhibition challenges all to realize how we are organic products of our histories, and that the memory of our past is ours to protect and preserve. To do otherwise would only be to betray our own selves.
//YONA BENJAMIN is a sophomore in List College and Columbia's School of General Studies . He can be reached at email@example.com.