A key tenet of Kiefer’s practice is the notion that architecture and landscape are marked by their history. Redefining the meaning of ubiquitous symbols of German identity, he questions the very meaning of German-ness, as well as the value of such an identifier in the wake of one of history’s most disastrous waves of blind patriotism. Duly, at the beginning of the 1980s, Kiefer turned to one of the most ancient and important German symbols: the Rhine. For hundreds of years the Rhine was indelibly linked to German history and identity. Goethe, Heine and von Arnim all sung its praises as the symbol of German brotherhood, and Wagner immortalised it as a symbol of godly hubris and excess in The Ring of the Nibelung. It proved the site of some of Germany’s most catastrophic military defeats, such as the annexation of the Rhineland by Napoleon and the pivotal Rhine crossing by the Allies in the Second World War, and some of its most infamous conquests, such as Hitler's invasion of the area in 1936, and the triumphant repulsion of French forces during the Franco-Prussian War. Songs paid tribute to its role as a placeholder for German national identity, and swore to defend it from outsiders. The river thus served a peculiar and unique role in the German psyche, not only as a signifier of national identity, but as a symbol of aggressive patriotism and, by dint of its constant changing of hands, of both loss and gain.
Suspended above this very real and tangible natural symbol of German identity Kiefer places a second woodcut, this time a signifier of what might have been had history been different. Wilhelm Kreis’ Soldiers’ Hall, designed under the direction of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, was one of the centrepieces of Germania, the city designed to replace Berlin and serve as the capital of Europe. The monumental centre of an ascendant and triumphant Third Reich, Germania epitomised the Neo-Classical pomp and circumstance of Nazi Germany. By transposing Kreis’ design from the centre of a theoretical city to the banks of Germany’s most famous natural landmark, Kiefer associates the nineteenth-century patriotic infatuation with the Rhine with the madness of the Third Reich as a manifestation of twentieth-century partisanship. One is borne of the other, and neither can be entirely excused.
This superimposition of images has another function; it creates a monument to the unknown painter: Dem unbekannten Maler. Relatively forgotten in the wake of the incomprehensible loss of human life as a result of the Second World War, the repression of artistic instinct by both the Nazi Party with their labelling of artists as Degenerate, and the Soviets with their Purges, remains a vital part of the history of twentieth-century art. Inverting the triumphalism of the Soldiers’ Hall and channelling the rich artistic history of the Rhine, Kiefer creates a monument to the pernicious effects of dictatorial rule on the creative arts.
Ferociously confronting issues of national identity and history, Anselm Kiefer’s Dem unbekannten Maler typifies the thematic concerns that have preoccupied the artist throughout his career. Locating Germany as the land of Goethe and Goebbels, Heine and Heydrich, Kiefer creates a complex allegory of history and nationhood that constitutes a stinging rebuke of the nationalistic history of Germany.
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