In this episode, an interview with German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer doesn’t go as planned. But all is not lost. Despite—or perhaps as a consequence of—the disruptions, a candid and thoughtful conversation ensues. Kiefer’s work confronts controversial issues from recent history, including the power of war and the cycle of destruction and renewal. He is co-recipient of the 2017 J. Paul Getty Medal, an award that honors extraordinary contributions to the practice, understanding, and support of the arts.
More to Explore
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANSELM KIEFER: When I see photos of these destroyed cities of Germany, for me it’s not depressive, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because I saw it as a child.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer.
Not every interview on this podcast turns out as planned. Typically, before I speak with a guest, I do all the reading I think relevant to the topic—books, articles, what have you. And then I formulate questions I think might propel the conversation forward in some kind of clear narrative arc.
But sometimes I try too hard. And my questions become leading questions. And the guest, quite rightly, is reluctant to follow my lead.
Take the case of Anselm Kiefer, the celebrated German painter, sculptor, draftsman, and bookmaker.
Earlier this year the Getty announced that the 2017 Getty Medal would be awarded to Kiefer, along with Nobel Prize-winning novelist and cultural and political critic Mario Vargas Llosa. The Getty Medal is given annually to notable artists, scholars, and philanthropists. I had interviewed Vargas Llosa for an earlier episode of this podcast, and was working with Kiefer’s studio to find a time to speak with him.
Since I was already traveling to Europe to meet with colleagues, Kiefer and I agreed to meet at his studio in Croissy-Beaubourg on the edge of Paris.
I was scheduled to fly overnight from Washington and to arrive in Paris early in the morning. I planned to go straight to the hotel, take a quick shower, have breakfast, and get an hour or two of sleep before making may way out to Kiefer’s studio.
But as my plane taxied out to the runway at Dulles, it began to rain, then to rain heavily, then rain accompanied by lightning, thunder, and gale-force winds, forcing my plane to return to the gate where we sat for on the plane for the better part of five hours waiting for the storm to pass. It was clear that I wouldn’t make it to Paris in time for my interview as scheduled. This meant that either I’d miss the interview altogether, or Kiefer would have to change his schedule to meet my now new schedule.
We finally took off and I arrived in Paris six hours late. I went straight to the studio, was greeted warmly by the artist, and I began the interview.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: So. I’m with the painter, draftsman, book and object maker Anselm Kiefer…
CUNO [voiceover]: I started hesitantly and sleepily by setting the stage for our conversation, reading raggedly from my notes.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: …a studio that occupies the former warehouse of the Samaritaine Department Store…
CUNO [voiceover]: From time to time, Kiefer had to correct my misstatements and pretend to listen appreciatively to my operatic overstatements. Sometimes it was comical; often it was humbling. He’d correct me and then explain what he thought I should have said and I’d lose my place, give up, and start a new line of questioning. And after all this time preparing for our interview, I thought I’d blown it and would have nothing for this podcast.
But when I listened back to the recording, I thought his comments were worth preserving because they were so smart and honest, and they offered interesting insights into the man and the artist. He was patient and thoughtful. And his replies were always revealing of the meaning of his work.
I’ll play our conversation for you now, along with some commentary so you can picture the scene.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: …Let me begin by saying hello, Anselm, and thank you very much for [KIEFER: Hello, Jim.] taking the time to speak with me on this podcast…
CUNO [voiceover]: Kiefer’s studio is in a large industrial building, actually a few interconnected industrial buildings, fenced off by chain link. As I approached the studio, tired and confused after my delayed, thirteen hour overnight flight, I noticed bits and pieces of the artist’s large sculptural installations lying around outside, fragments of lead-colored airplane sculptures that seemed suddenly to come alive as a real airplane flew low over my head. There is, in fact, a small airport near the studio. There were also small horses and donkeys munching on grass poking through cracks in the asphalt…
CUNO [with Kiefer]: …why did you move your studio from La Ribaute, in the South of France near Avignon, to Croissy-Beaubourg, here?
KIEFER: You know, all my life, I was working in the desert. So in Germany, I was in a very remote place where I had no friends. I was completely alone and working. South of France, I had only friend who was the mayor of the town who helped me a lot to do what I wanted to do. But there was no other people I was communicating with.
So I thought at the end of my days, I want to be somewhere I can communicate with other people. And in addition, the children had to go to school, so I thought in Paris, it’s better to go to school.
CUNO: So what is La Ribaute like for you now? Is it a place to go to do work? Or is it a place to go to revive yourself after all the concentration of work that you do here in Croissey—?
KIEFER: It’s still my studio there, too. I go [CUNO: It’s a working studio.] regularly there. I have people there working.
CUNO: So tell me about your working process. Do you come into the studio every day, seven days a week? And do you have a working routine? How do you start your work day?
KIEFER: Normally, I—I was very impressed always when I was very young by the sentence of Rodin, “Il faut toujours travailler.” “You have to work everywhere [everyday].” Because if you wait for a moment where something special arrives, something surprising, it doesn’t come if you sit on a chair. You have to prepare the runway where things can land, you know? And this you do with quotidian work. Normally, I, in the morning, I get up and I go through my bibliotheque and I look for a book to read something, to be inspired by something. And then I go in the studio and I’m working.
CUNO: You’ve got an exhibition up in New York at Gagosian Gallery, and you recently had larger retrospective at the Pompidou Centre. So do you work to deadline? Do you work to projects? Or do you constantly work independent of exhibition projects?
KIEFER: No, I’m working what I want to do in the moment. And then if a[n] exhibition is to do, then I see what I have. But I don’t work especially for the exhibition. But it doesn’t mean that the stress you have when the opening comes helps you. Perhaps for some. But I don’t work just for an exhibition. But nevertheless I’m inspired by the date of the exhibition. You understand what I mean?
CUNO: Yeah. Of course. Now, walking around your studio…
CUNO [voiceover]: I then turned to a theme that interests me, and I thought by the evidence in his work that it might interest him—the question of identity and especially national identity.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: …Now, German national identity has long been rooted not only in the state, but in the territorial place—the dark, romantic German landscape—as if German identity is almost a primordial condition, at one with the ancient Hercynian forest…
CUNO [voiceover]: You can hear, by my stumbling, as I’m reading my notes, that I’m trying to be precise but I’m struggling all the same.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: So landscape has always been important to your work. And has that—is that landscape, because it’s of a place, because of Germany, is that part of the attraction to the national identity question for you?
KIEFER: You mean how I see landscape? Or what do you mean now?
CUNO [voiceover]: And time and again, Kiefer had to correct me, asking me to clarify my questions.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: When you see the landscape, does it—does it—is it—early on, at the very least, until you’ve come to work so long in France, you were painting a place that was evocative of a national identity…
CUNO [voiceover]: Sometimes you couldn’t understand me at all. I was trying my best and failing, miserably, sometimes going down a blind alley and giving up and asking another very different question.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: So after that, in the early seventies, you made a number of landscape watercolors, often of northern wintry landscape paintings. One of them, painted in 1971, includes an image of yourself dressed in a gown standing deep within a forest of trees. We see only the trunks of the trees. They’re like a prison cell. The trees are like prison bars, four times or so your height, surrounding you such that we can’t see the sky. We see only you set within this small clearing holding a branch in your right hand, which is on fire. What did you mean by that image?
KIEFER: This is a romantic painting because it’s me in relation to the landscape. I am—I give something to the landscape. It—I give the fire. I give the color to the landscape, through my torch. And the color of the—of the forest comes back to me. It’s a circular situation, you know?
CUNO: But at the same time you were making other pictures, one of them called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. An image of a similar dense forest is joined with a second image of a barren wooden room. The pronounced woodgrain of the room recalls the trees from which the room boards were cut, and in which there are three chairs—father, son, and holy ghost, I presume. And they’re on fire.
KIEFER: There is fire on the—on the—on the stairs, because it’s the eternal energy. It’s energy, you know? Father, son, holy ghost, it’s the triumvirate, who rules the world.
CUNO: But is—the fire, of course, is both life-giving and live-taking.
KIEFER: Yes, but you know, burning things is not to destroy them; it’s just to transform them in another essence. And you know, I burn very often my paintings. And they get better.
CUNO: [laughs] There’s another painting in which fire is important, and that’s one you’ve titled Germany’s Spiritual Heroes. [KIEFER: Yeah, yeah.] It’s painted across the top, suggesting that—some have said, the Valhalla of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen.
KIEFER: This is just a collection of things I was obsessed with.
CUNO: But is it just that or was there—because the critics at least have tried to make a case that you’re revisiting the legacy of the German national identity. And whether that’s in the Occupation photographs that you did or whether it’s in the— [KIEFER: No, it’s the…] the portraits of heroes, or the association of them in the landscape itself, or the evocation of the landscape.
KIEFER: Yeah, I think there is no innocent landscape. That it happened so much on landscapes, on countries, on states, that you can find everywhere the die spur—the traces. So for this reason, I’m—I discover the traces in the landscapes. Landscape is for me not only beautiful for itself. It’s a container for traces. For history, for—
CUNO: Some of that history is operatic scale, like the Wagner; but some of them is a much smaller scale, like a nursery rhyme. And one of the paintings that you made of these kind of barren fields, Cockchafer Fly and March Heath.
KIEFER: Maikäfer flieg. Der Vater ist im Krieg, Die Mutter ist im Pommerland, Pommerland ist abgebrannt. Maikäfer flieg.
CUNO: Yeah. So it’s cockchafer fly, my father is in the war, mother is in Pomerania, Pomerania is burnt up. Tell us about that painting. Was that—that nursery rhyme, was it important to you as a child? You heard it often?
KIEFER: [over Cuno] Yes, my grandmother sung it to me. Perhaps every day. It was like rhythm, you know? She sang the—she had other songs, too, but this is one I remember very well.
CUNO: Was it alarming to you that my that father is in the war, mother’s in Pomerania, [KIEFER: No, no…] Pomerania’s burnt up?
KIEFER: For a child, I think nothing is alarming. A child takes the things as they are, you know? They have no categories to do bad or good or—it’s, it’s—all is innocent for a child. For me, for example, the ruins was a playground. And ruins was normal, you know?
CUNO: Ruins from the war.
KIEFER: From the war, yes. I lived in the ruins. You mean the dark aspect of this song or—? [CUNO: Yeah.] Yeah, but a child, it’s not dark. You know, it’s just as it is.
Maikäfer flieg. Der Vater ist im Krieg, Die Mutter ist im Pommerland, [phone rings] Pommerland ist abgebrannt. Maikäfer flieg.
That’s my daughter, I think. [phone rings; Kiefer picks up phone] Hello?
CUNO [voiceover]: We broke for a minute while he talked on the phone. When he finished, I tried to take the interview in another direction, toward my interest in failure in making works of art. Again, we started and stopped, trying to understand each other.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: So in another painting, 1981, called Icarus, March Sand [read: Ikarus – märkischer Sand (Icarus – Sand of the Brandenburg March)], you have an image of the figure of Icarus falling into a sand, barren, March landscape as if to remind us that human ambition is only vanity, and that it, like the painting itself, or like painting itself, is doomed to fail, doomed to fall short of its goal to represent or signify meaning.
KIEFER: Icarus, it’s also a symbol for to go very high up and to fall down again. But I wouldn’t stay down; I would go up again and down again. And so I see it like this. And it’s also a symbol for to go on and on to the impossible, what we want.
CUNO: Is that an ambition that is emblematic of vanity? That to presume that one could, in fact, go up and up and up and to achieve this? Is it an emblem of overstepping one’s bounds?
KIEFER: It’s both. But for me, vanity is not—it’s not nonsense. We are all vain. We want something, but we never can achieve. We do something for what we don’t know [what] the source is. We don’t know where we come from. We don’t know why we do this. So it’s all vain. It’s normal.
CUNO: Now, I’m struck by the similarity between your landscapes—the paintings of landscapes—and your attraction to the ashy gray of lead in these landscapes, this kind of condition of the materials. And—
KIEFER: But you know, the lead comes from the earth. They found it down. And it’s part of the earth and you have to extract it. It’s not surprising.
CUNO: [he chuckles] Surprising, surprising. But in Beckett’s barren landscape—for example, in Waiting for Godot, one hears his characters’ frequent admission of their failure to do something, to achieve what they wish to achieve, most often in, for example, Worstward Ho, the fiction work that he did, where the figures say, “All of old, nothing else ever, ever tried, ever failed. No matter, try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
KIEFER: Yes. It’s completely normal to fail. And Beckett shows this very well. You know, it’s even funny to fail, because it’s a reality. You cannot do other than fail.
CUNO: There’s so much ash in your work and so much lead in your work. Or maybe it’s not actual ash, but it—there’s burning, there’s evidence of burning, there’s—
KIEFER: No, no, sometimes I paint with ash.
CUNO: So there is this sense of kind of a return to this concept, this theme of destruction, of failure. Or at least it reads as a failure.
KIEFER: No, ash is transmission. It’s not only destruction, it’s transmission. If you burn something, you get ash, and ash is—you know when they burn the forest. [CUNO: Yeah.] They do it in small parts. Not today, they do it in miles and miles, you know? But the old cultures, they burned part of it. And the ash made the field fertile again. [CUNO: Yeah, yeah.] So it’s not the—[phone rings]. It’s not the end point.
CUNO [voiceover]: The phone rang again. The children called. I looked down at my notes and then we resumed. I wanted Kiefer to about the way he uses history. I recalled the writings of the historian and art historian Simon Schama. We continued on.
CUNO [with Kiefer]: So Simon has written eloquently of your work in his book Landscape and Memory. And he sees in your work a “landscape of forests permeated by the ghosts of human inhabitants—poets, philosophers, politicians—and the noises,” he says, “of ancient slaughter, the clash of armies.” [KIEFER: Yeah, yeah.] He once called you, admiringly, “The undertaker of history.”
KIEFER: Yeah, sure, sure. I told you before, I think landscape is not alone, it’s not pure. It’s always charged with our history, with events, with battles, with reconciliation, with all kind of human being. And you know, it’s also—I eat history. You know, I eat it like grass. And then I—it comes out again and then it fertilizes.
CUNO: In a review, a 2007 review of your exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in London, Simon saw something else in your work, something more optimistic. He saw, in his words, your “vast rutted wastelands germinating brilliant resurrections, pastel blooms, spikes of verdure spouting irrepressibly through the skin of a hard-backed earth rime or peach-pink poppies trembling atop spindly black stalks that climb gawkily from bituminous slag.” He says you were in a redemptive mood, a hopeful mood. Was he right? Was there a change in your work at that time?
KIEFER: I don’t ask me about my mood. I do what has to be done, and my mood is something else. Yeah.
CUNO: This is about the same time as you moved to Paris and the studio, the Croissy-Beaubourg, 2008. You were given at this time, a peace prize by the German Booksellers Association.
KIEFER: Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
CUNO: And in your acceptance speech, you wrote, “Rubble represents not only an end, but also a beginning. Rubble is like a plant’s blossoms. It’s the radiant high point of an incessant metabolism, the beginning of rebirth.”
KIEFER: Yeah. Sure. That’s—you know, when I see photos of these destroyed cities of Germany, well there are a lot. You know, they was nearly all destroyed. For me, it’s not depressive—it’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful because I saw it as a child. And as a child, you don’t judge it, if it’s beautiful or not; you take it as it is. Well, I thought beautiful also because I use it as material for reconstruction. I did houses, you know? When I was a kid, I constructed houses with these bricks. It was fantastic. Our house, the house of my parents, was bombed the night I was born and then the bricks was everywhere. It was ruins.
CUNO: Does the place in which you work and the conditions in which you work, does that affect the paintings that you make? The landscape is different for you than it was in Germany, different associations—
KIEFER: It’s not at all different because, you know, I never did a painting who has the starting point of a French landscape. France is really beautiful, you know? And it’s very different, it’s fantastic. But it was never the starting point of a painting. You know, when I was in Barjac, in the South of France, I used the photos. I have so much photos and the photos what I did before in Germany.
CUNO: Mm-hm. In the same speech, you ended it, or near the end of it, you said, “What is a work of art? I can only describe the process of how a work comes into existence. It begins in the dark, after an intense experience, a shock. At first it’s an urge, a pounding. You don’t know what it is, but it compels you to act. And at first it’s very vague. It must be vague; otherwise it would be just a visualization of the shock experience.”
KIEFER: Yes. It’s this starting point. But then after a while, I have something in front of me. I have a painting—unfinished painting, but a kind of painting, you know? And then I get in the conversation with this painting. The painting tells me something. I ask it, why this—there is this lake there, and why these colors and so? And then after this conversation, after this analysis, I go back to the painting. And that’s—it repeats several times, until the painting is finished.
CUNO: You say that a disappointment immediately follows. “Something is missing,” you say. “This something is not something that I have not seen, that I have perhaps failed to uncover. No, I cannot find what’s missing. And at this point the war in the mind begins. There are so many opportunities, and each option not taken is a loss, and at the same time, a reflection of all the internal contradictions. At some point, the inner war becomes an outer peace.”
KIEFER: Yes, it’s always a big war. You know, Klee said some—once, “For one painting, I gave up 100 other paintings.” Because you have more it continues to—the work continues. You have more possibilities, more options to go in this direction or in this direction or you do this or you cover this and you do something other on it. You see it with the Old Masters, too. Sometimes they move the hand and so on. It’s difficult to decide them. And you can do always forced decision, you know? Perhaps it was better before than after, you know? And this is really a war in your head.
CUNO: And it’s a war that you reenact every time you take on a painting. Every time you start a painting, it’s—you know that it’s going to be—
KIEFER: Not in the beginning. At first, it has to be something there, where you can—who gives you the options in different directions. But when it’s open for these options, then it’s a war.
CUNO: [chuckles] How do you know when a painting is finished?
KIEFER: It’s never finished. No, sometimes the gallerists come and take a painting away, and sell it. But it’s—it’s not really logic.
CUNO: In your mind, it’s not a logical progression of ideas, yeah?
KIEFER: It’s not logic to take a painting away to sell—it’s not logic. Logic is to continue the painting.
CUNO: Okay. Thank you for all of this and putting up with all of these questions, these silly questions.
KIEFER: Oh, have you got it?
CUNO [voiceover]: As we wrapped up the interview, I thought I had made a mess of it and blown my chance to get some meaningful conversation with Kiefer about his work. There were so many false starts and dead ends, interruptions and misunderstandings. Perhaps our conversation would have been better as something more casual, prompted not by what I had read, but what we were seeing together.
We kept the microphone on after the formal interview was over, capturing our casual conversation and Kiefer’s thoughtful remarks about his work and the work of other painters and sculptors he admires.
KIEFER: …Two years ago I discovered in Munich in the Neue Pinakothek, I discovered these German painters like [Max] Slevogt, [Lovis] Corinth, [Max] Liebermann, there’s more. And I thought they are good painters. First I didn’t take them serious so much—the Impressionism is in France, you know, it’s not in Germany.
CUNO: Speaking of things French—and the current exhibition in Gagosian makes this very clear, but you even say it very early on, when you were a young boy, that you were attracted to Rodin, the work of Rodin.
KIEFER: Yeah. You know, when I was seventeen years old, I made a big travel, auto stopping, you know, to Belgium, Netherlands, France. I came to Paris. I saw Rodin in the museum. But what I didn’t see were the drawings, you know? And some of the drawings was never showed. Just recently, they were showed, because they are really, really explicit, yes. But my drawings, and all the drawings of Beuys, they look like Rodin. But I didn’t know the drawings of Rodin when I did these in the seventies, you know? The—these women watercolors, yes. Yeah.
CUNO: So what you knew were photographs of the sculpture, but not the watercolors.
KIEFER: Yes, I saw photographs of the sculptures but not the drawings. I didn’t know when I was seventeen.
CUNO [voiceover]: So that was my interview with Kiefer. As I said at the beginning of this episode, not every interview on this podcast turns out as planned. And in fact, many don’t. But even so, experiences like these reveal the truth about dialogue and conversation: words can still be illuminating and worth sharing.
We’ll be taking a break over the holidays and will be back on Wednesday, January 10th, 2018. Happy holidays.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANSELM KIEFER: When I see photos of these destroyed cities of Germany, for me it’s not depress...