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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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Paste your essay in here...Born in 1945, Kiefer has no first-hand memories of World War Two and Germany under Hitler’s control. However, he has been described as ‘a child of the rubble and of the national silence about Hitler's atrocities that settled on Germany after 1945’ (Prodger, 2014). On this basis, many of his works are an exploration of German identity, including the traditional founding myths and figures whose image had been tainted by the Nazis. Kiefer’s work also discusses the need to and process of remembering. In particular, his series To the Unknown Painter time the Nazi structures of the architect Albert Speer play an important role in constructing a ‘memorialising’ space (Saltzmann, 2000).  

In the series To the Unknown Painter, Kiefer appears to continue with the idea of his work as a protest against forgetting initiated by the earlier series, Occupations. Stunde Null, or Zero hour, is used to refer to the period immediately following the end of World War Two and is associated with the supposed need to make a clean sweep (Britannica) in Germany. This included an absolute break with the past and suppression of references to Germany’s traditional culture which had been appropriated by the Nazis (Arasse, 2014). This resulted in a country shrouded in silence and denial, described by Graham-Dixon (1995) as a ‘willed amnesia’. In keeping with Kiefer’s work, his 1983 painting To the Unknown Painter is of huge scale, measuring 189.9 x 260.4cm. As a result, the viewer is obliged, if not forced, to confront and play their part in facing up to and remembering the past. The painting features the ruins of the imposing Reich Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer, in Berlin. The large columns are a commanding feature, which narrow to a point just below centre of the piece. This creates a feeling of entrapment in the viewer or an entombing effect. Saltzmann (2000) suggests this may be an allegory for the burial and repression of memories associated with this traumatic period of history (p.68). Thus, a space of internalisation is created. The dark recesses of the gaps between the pillars also suggest this idea, and that this traumatic memory has been suppressed to the depths of the mind. Arguably an equally, if not more dominant feature in the painting is the dark sky which covers a large proportion of the canvas and comes to a point below centre. The overwhelming presence of dark sky, composed of decaying materials such as straw, above the viewer adds to the feeling of repression and also hints at the burden of this memory. Despite being a ‘second-hand’ viewer of the past, the viewer must use this memory space in order confront history, as part of the process of coming to terms with the past.

To the Unknown Painter evokes memories of the Nazi past not only through the image of Nazi architecture but also through the inclusion of the palette. It is highly likely that the Unknown Painter refers to Hitler himself. Having been refused by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Hitler turned to politics and declared ‘I decided to become the master builder of the Third Reich.’ (??Adam, 208) As in the painting, art, in the form of the palette, is at the centre of what is being created and, therefore Hitler, as the supreme creator, is as well (Arasse, 2014). This painting also reminds the viewer of the Nazis use and control of the arts, including architecture. The Reich Chancellery designed by Albert Speer and featured in Kiefer’s painting is an imposing, monumental structure. Even as a ruin, this structure is an allegory of power, in particular megalomania. Indeed, Speer was responsible for the ‘Theory of Ruin Value’. His architecture was designed so that the structures, “would resemble Roman models after centuries or (as we used to say) thousands of years had passed.” (Speer, 1970). Not only was this an expression of timelessness and eternity, but a claim to being on par with the great civilisation of Ancient Rome.

The Nazis appear to have been absorbed by the idea of their Empire being eternal. This is apparent in the 1936 film ‘Ewiger Wald’ (Eternal Forest), which emphasises the symbiosis of an eternal forest and a similarly eternal people. The working title is also of interest: ‘Deutscher Wald – Deutsches Schicksal’, emphasising the shared destiny of the German woods and the German people (Heinzelmann, 2016). Kiefer’s 1976 painting, Varus, reflects Kiefer’s preoccupation with how the myth of the German Forest has developed and been manipulated, particularly by the Nazis. The myth was appropriated substantially by the Nazis for their own nationalist intentions – for them the forest was the birthplace of German Nationalism and therefore key to German identity. At the root of this was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, 9 A.D., when Hermann lead the German tribes to victory over the Romans, commanded by Varus – the ‘archetypal moment of German independence’ (Rosenthal, 1987). In Kiefer’s painting, the names Varus and Hermann are placed at the base of the painting, on the forest floor, possibly indicating the integral role the played in the cultivation of this founding myth. These names are inextricably linked by white tendrils to names of German writers (top right) and philosophers (top centre). Mentioned amongst the writers is Heinrich von Kleist, whose response to external threat from Napolean included the patriotic tragedy ‘Die Hermannsschlacht’ (1808), based on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and amongst the philosophers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte whose Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808) was of a similar nature, evoking a sense of German common identity as a result of cultural distinctiveness (DO I NEED TO CITE). Both of these works incorporate connotations of patriotism, whilst many of the other names detailed have links to Romanticism, whose characteristics included heightened interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins (DO I NEED TO CITE – Britannica how??). It is perhaps for this reason the Nazis appropriated such works, using them as a propaganda tool, this time with strong nationalist overtones.

German identity has been shaped by this palimpsest of history. Varus is therefore also a question of German identity, with the forest an appropriate starting point given its long-standing association with German history and culture. …?…… Whilst Varus, written in burnt-charcoal black, is banished to the forest, Kiefer has painted Hermann and the names of the German thinkers and writers in white, suggesting that though tainted, it is possible to reclaim them. In this way, we see the beginnings of a reconstruction of the German identity. However, Kiefer creates the effect of an arboreal tomb; the viewer is trapped in a timber vault and the exit is blocked by another tree trunk (Schama, 1996). Perhaps this is a Kiefer’s reminder that the current path, whether it be the misuse and appropriation of figures, or wiping of collective memory, results in a dead end and therefore no progress can be made. In keeping, however, with the white used to represent the reclamation of famous German writers and philosophers, Kiefer has used a light blue at the end of the path, beyond the dead end. Perhaps Kiefer is suggesting, that if we rethink our approach, a ‘Lichtung’, or clearing, lies ahead, whereby an identity which acknowledges history can be established and the burden of traumatic history lifted.

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