PAINTING WITH THE POETS. Born in Donaueschingen, Germany, the artist Anselm Kiefer has lived in France since 1992. He lives in Paris and Barjac, near Avignon, where he has created his foundation. He works in Croissy, outside of Paris, where this interview took place. His show Anselm Kiefer – Pour Paul Celan opened in Paris at the Grand Palais Éphémère on December 17th and ran until January 11th. Kiefer is also opening a show Hommage à un poète at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Pantin from January 9th to May 11th 2022.

Anselm Kiefer, do you need to have big spaces for your work?

Yes, I need it. My paintings are never finished, they all stay with me. I need space for my paintings in waiting.

We are in a room with very large works of yours. Are they in progress?

I leave them here for two or three years to see if they have reached the state where I can exhibit them.

Why are you showing an exhibition dedicated to Paul Celan at the Grand Palais Éphémère?

Paul Celan has been in my mind for 60 years. The first time I encountered him was in high school. It was the poem Death Fugue, quite a traditional poem. This one is helpful for learning in schools, but Celan’s later poems are quite abstract and very difficult to interpret. For the exhibition I tried to be with the poems, to say what I think when I hear them and when I see them.

Celan was a Jewish Romanian from Czernowitz who lived through the war with a lot of difficulty. What is so special about him? 

His ability with language. He knew several languages: Russian, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, French, Italian. He even translated from English to German. Czernowitz suffered drastic change of rule—first the Habsburgs, then Hitler, then Stalin.

Are your paintings for these shows completely new?

No, I have painted thinking about Celan for a long time.  There will even be paintings that I started in the 80s, because sometimes I cut paintings in two and put them together differently. So, actually they were made over the course of several years. My way of working is always a process.

You were born in Donaueschingen?

Yes, in March 1945 at the end of the war. Bombs fell on Donaueschingen, on a railway junction by our house. I was born in the basement of the hospital.

You were raised in a destroyed Germany. Was there a feeling of guilt?

In the beginning there was no demonstration of guilt. Not at all. I never heard anything about this. Can you imagine?

Neither from your parents nor their friends?

No. What was negative for me was a very authoritarian atmosphere, but they didn’t speak about this trauma, they didn’t touch the subject. My father was an officer, a captain, and the Wehrmacht was sacrosanct. I know that my father was not involved in the killing. Neither was the majority of soldiers, however today we know that many were involved in these crimes. I had no information. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know anything about it. In school we had only two weeks on Nazism, whereas Alexander the Great had three weeks.

“My paintings are never finished, they all stay with me.”

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin. Photo by Charles Duprat

Anselm Kiefer, did you want to be an artist from early on? 

When I was a child I wanted to be pope. At the time, only Italians could be pope. In young adulthood I had considered being a writer, but you cannot do both writing and painting. I was certain that I would be an artist.

Was this accepted by your family?

Yes, there were some artists already. For example, I had a great uncle who made watercolor paintings.

As a young man you studied and lived in Germany, learning from artists like Joseph Beuys. Was this period of your work very different from what you would do later in France?  

No, it was always work connected with history. I see history as a subject for artists—for me it has always been a material like clay is for the sculptor. Objective history doesn’t exist, it is often times written by the victors.

Books and literature are very much part of your work. Did you ever want to be a writer?

Yes, as previously mentioned, at a certain time of my life I was hesitating; did I want to be a writer or a painter? I had some success in writing. I got first prize for a journal I wrote when I was 17 and had the opportunity to travel for seven weeks through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Later, the German critic Walter Jens—who at the time was the pope of critics—proposed to help publish my future writings. As I had some encouragement I was always a little bit tempted by it.

Were you already painting at that time?

Yes, all the time, but after high school I studied constitutional law at Freiburg University. I thought I didn’t need art school. It was a kind of complex, I worked very much alone.

But after a while you went to art school?

Yes, then I thought, you need art school because you have to show your things to colleagues and have discussions. I thought I could work on my own, by myself, but it didn’t work.

Going back to your love for literature, why are you so interested in the connection between Paul Celan and the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann

It is a long and fascinating story. Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann liked each other so much, but they couldn’t live together. They tried in Paris once. You can find rudiments from Celan’s poetry in the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann and vice-versa. They also wrote poems for each other. 

Why do you reference sentences from their poems in your paintings?

When I’m working in my studio a lot of poems that I learned are in my head. I’m always with the poets in my studio, and I ask them their thoughts on what I make. For example, in my mind I ask Bachmann: “What do you think about this painting?”. When I ask for her critique, most of the time it’s devastating.

This is an imaginary critique?

I wouldn’t say imaginary. For me, it’s real. I am really there with the poets.

How do you work?

Sometimes I work at night, sometimes during the day. It varies. It also depends on the dimensions of the work. I make a lot of small works too, which include books and watercolors.

And then you make paintings of large scale?

Large for you perhaps, but go to the Palazzo Ducale in Venice and look at the Tintoretto! It’s 22 meters wide.

Speaking of, you will have a major exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale next year?  

Yes, I am looking forward to that.

Are you particularly attracted to Venice?

I am attracted to Tintoretto.

How many paintings will you show?

Enough to fill the room.

“Mythology explains the world even better than science, because it is open for all kinds of imagination.”

Anselm Kiefer, and how many will be in the Grand Palais Éphémère?

About 20.

You never show very many paintings, do you?

It depends. I had a show of 40 watercolors, or even more, in New York a few years ago at the Gagosian Gallery.

You said before that sometimes it takes you years to finish a painting?

I have paintings from the 70s that are still in progress.

When is a painting finished?

I don’t think a painting is ever finished. It’s in flux, it’s in movement. Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) by Honoré de Balzac is a most important book. It shows that a painting is never finished.

How about books?  

I know that Paul Celan changed his work often. He sometimes changed a poem a little bit even during a lecture or poetry reading.

How do you conceive your work? Do you suddenly have an idea?

It depends. Normally there has to be a shock: from a landscape, from a poem, from music also. It makes me restless. It makes me work.

What kind of music has shocked you?

I was shocked by Wagner when I was 14 or 15. I heard Lohengrin on the radio with my mother. In this opera, there’s the mystery of someone appearing from someplace else, and no one must ask him where he is from. When his wife asks him this question, then it’s finished. 

You are also interested in mythology, aren’t you?

Mythology explains the world even better than science, because it is open for all kinds of imagination.

Do you have a lot of imagination?

I wouldn’t say I have imagination. I am permeated by things coming through me, and am subsequently affected by them.

How do you transform something immaterial like music into something material and visual?

I don’t know, because when I hear music and I am working, something happens, but it’s impossible for me to analyze my own auditory processing. I feel it like a transition, a permanent stream of things, and this creates something in me.

Would you say that your work is a clear message in which you denounce what happened in your country?

I want to know who I am first, and then what I would have done in that situation.

Do you question your parents’ generation?

No, I question myself. I never had a discussion with my father about what happened.

In Germany you had been reproached for some of your early work? 

In 1975, the Cologne journal Interfunktionen published photographs of the Besetzungen (Occupations) action that I had done six years earlier. Afterwards some readers misunderstood these photos; I was judged as a neo-fascist and Nazi sympathizer.

How come?

Because I was doing a Nazi salute as a provocation. I met Joseph Beuys in 1971. I showed him my work and he was the first who understood my intention and thought it was fantastic. He immediately liked me and I said to him, “Germans don’t like me. They think I am a Neo-Nazi.” He said, “This is ridiculous! You look more like Charlie Chaplin.” Beuys had been in the war and showed me how the real salute is.

What happened in your career because of that salute?

I made my career in America. In Germany I would never have been known.

Who discovered you?

After the show at the Biennale in 1980 I had exhibitions in New York with Ileana Sonnabend and then with Marian Goodman, both Jewish gallerists. Later in the 80s I was asked to show my work in Jerusalem. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to stop it, as they were afraid that it would be a scandal, a “neo-Nazi” in Jerusalem!

You went to France in 1992 and bought a property near Barjac where you built numerous installations and excavated the earth to create a vast network of underground tunnels. Why were you digging underground?  

To go back to Germany! My idea was tunnels and bridges as conceptual art. The book “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, which is most impressive, also comes to mind.

In terms of your idea, it could be thought of as similar to how the Italian artist Alberto Burri made “Il Grande Cretto” in Sicily?

I like that, it is wonderful. It’s so good, what he did there with concrete.

What is the meaning of your towers in the Pirelli HangarBicocca Milan?

I did seven towers in reference to Merkabah, Jewish mysticism. It’s the story about men who get invited to go through seven palaces. First the feet burn, then the hands burn, at the end it’s just the spirit that survives.


Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, am Busento, 2021

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Daniel 3. 9-97 Schadrach, Meschach, Abed-Negro, 2021

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Berenices Haupthaar, 2020

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Fúr Paul Celan – das Geheimnis der Farne, 2018-2021

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, für Paul Celan, 2014-2021

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Im Herz des Bergs, 2021

“My paintings are never one image, they contain layers of images.”

Anselm Kiefer, does your work change over time, with different periods?

I cannot see this. No. I continue and continue, and I have always the same impetus. I need a shock when I have to do something, and so the conditions are the same.

Are you a new symbolist or a new expressionist, as they say?

No. I hope I am more than just an expressionist, because to be an expressionist is to do something spontaneously, direct, without too much reflection. I reflect all the time. I am impulsive, but this is not visible in the result.

Why do you often paint destroyed landscapes?

I cannot see landscape without war, because for me the landscape is often impregnated by the traces of war and battles.

Battlefields that mean bloodshed and broken flowers?

Flowers denounce that. They are included in this idea that landscapes are battlefields. Battlefields of yesterday, of a thousand years ago and of the future too. 

Yet you belong to a generation that came after the war?

But there was war everywhere. In the 90s, Yugoslavia was torn apart, and before that, there was the Korean War. I was a kid during that war. I remember my mother buying big sacks of sugar and flour because she thought war would begin again.

Can we say that your work is a denunciation of humanity?

I think human beings have something not well constructed. There is definitely something wrong, because our conflicts continue ceaselessly.

Has the pandemic we are going through influenced your work?

I’m informed. I regularly read and watch the news, without this immediately influencing my work. I internalize it in some way. But to say a certain event is the subject of a specific work, I don’t think that’s how it works.

You often combine words and writings that you value and subsequently incorporate them when creating an image?

Yes, but my paintings are never one image, they contain layers of images. Certain areas of the painting are revelatory of the process, much like scientific drilling extracts multiple layers of geological strata compiled over the centuries.

In front of me here I see a landscape with many different layers, materials… How do we look at a painting of yours?  

It’s a combination of different things. What you see in the lower part of the painting is a winter landscape. The little house in the center is the hut of Heidegger. That’s one idea. In the upper part, that which appears to be the sky is actually an inverted desert landscape. It’s a desert painting. Paintings are always in parts.

Sometimes you are not happy and throw them away?

I know disappointment. I do not destroy anything but I rework many paintings.

Is it difficult to begin?

No, the beginning is always nice, because you think you will do something great. All the possibilities are still open.

Do you need maestros in your life? 

I did a copy of a painting by Van Gogh when I was 14 or 15 years old. He was the most important painter for me.

Now you are a maestro?

I don’t see myself like this. I start every day anew.

How is your relationship with your country now? Are they still against you?

The critiques are at times still negative.

Are you wounded by that?

No, this would be nostalgic. I’m no longer in Germany.

Are you pleased that you have these two big exhibitions in Paris?

Not “pleased”. This word doesn’t speak to me. It’s work. I like to show from time to time, because what I did has to be brought outside, so people can see, consider, and criticize it. For this reason, yes, I like to do shows.

When there is a show do you take care of how the paintings are placed?

Yes, it’s very important. You can destroy paintings if you place different artists’ work in a space in the wrong way. One work can destroy another. You have to be careful.

Is exhibiting itself part of your art?

I cannot say that from the moment I exhibit a painting, I no longer care. I continue to follow my paintings. Sometimes after they come back from an exhibition, years later it happens that I continue to work on them.

Are there paintings you don’t want to sell?  

The works and installations in my foundation in Barjac cannot be sold.

Writers have a concentration span of a few hours and not much more. Can you concentrate on your work for many hours?

It depends. I do spend many hours in the studio. It’s true that the work of an artist is different from a writer, who has no material at hand. When you are an artist you always have some material, and if you have no inspiration it helps you to continue. The writer is without any help.

Do you ever regret choosing to be a painter rather than a writer?

If I were to do that, I would do it in the contrary case too. I would be a writer and then I would regret not being a painter. In any case, every day I write a little bit.

So you’re planning to publish a book?

A selection of my journal has already been published, but I was not too pleased—my editor did not reduce it enough. When I have time, I would like to go through my writing and edit it myself!

Which you do on your paintings?

All the time.

Thank you. It was nice to talk to you.  

We were in Anselm Kiefer’s studio outside Paris on 22 November 2021.

Images of Anselm Kiefer’s paintings at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Pantin by kind permission of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.