This text examines the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer as the second case study in this project. The subject matter and methodology of Kiefer’s art practice interrogates confrontationally the liminal spaces of forgetting and remembering and questions the collective memory of what, understandably, for many Germans is a difficult and painful experience, and one some of the WWII generation have tried to forget – namely, their alleged complicity with Nazism and its violent and savage ideology. Kiefer’s work examines and challenges the interdependence of Germany’s post-war history and identity and juxtapositions these notions with the Nationalist mythical iconography of Hitler’s Third Reich. As an important 20th Century German artist, Kiefer has been likened to his once mentor and tutor Joseph Beuys and has, like Beuys, been considered a type of prophet or mystic, whose art practice claims the primary participatory role of art is to shape society and its politics through an understanding of art as a practice of memory and equivalence. Although usually abstracted or intellectually shrouded, Kiefer’s work presents at its heart a brutal factual narrative of complicity with extreme violence, oppression and the politics of power. For some critics, however, Kiefer’s work, particularly in the earlier years, was seen as an act of revisionism, a historical remembering that attempted to placate aesthetically the cultural trauma of Germany’s Nazi past rather than, as Kiefer claims, criticism of its practices. Kiefer’s oeuvre has been built over five decades and is too vast and varied to discuss in detail here, so I have concentrated instead on providing a Hauntological reading of certain works of Kiefer’s that were inspired by Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), circa 1945.
Anselm Kiefer and Paul Celan are separated by time and reality, one is living (2020) and the other who died (1970), but they are also joined by these self-same phenomena. Hauntologically, although separated by time and space, past and present, the processes of representing death in life, artist and poet transcend into the other’s space. Though now dead, aspects of Celan’s tragic life, metaphorically and theoretically, return as a haunting presence to explain his poems and ideas. This is achieved both through Celan’s ghost that returns in his texts and through or in Kiefer’s images (see Celan, 2011 where he predicts poetry’s and art’s shared agency). We might think that Celan’s ghost returns because of the unfinished business of his experience of the Holocaust, that is so deep it refuses to heal without succour and the sharing of pathos with his other ‘I’ – Kiefer. Celan’s most famous poem Todesfuge, had a significant and consequential influence on Kiefer’s thinking and work. The poem’s significance can be seen, and perhaps sensed, as a spectral echo, a trace that soaks into the very fibres of Kiefer’s canvases and is detected in the very materials Kiefer uses in his creations. Culturally and spiritually, Celan and Kiefer are interwoven into a creative and profound substance that defies singular explanations, one Jew, one Caucasian, one German Judaic history shared by two peoples. I maintain that many of Kiefer’s works can be seen as not only materialising the spectre of violence of Celan’s poem, Todesfuge, but that Kiefer also fulfils Celan’s prophesy of a metaphoric other, the other ‘I’, that Celan writes of as a swallow that carries his poems out into the world (see Celan, 2011). Finally, I introduce and analyse Kiefer’s making of lead books, their symbolic power and ability to transmit history and knowledge into the present and future as a form of historical ‘aesthetic’ materialism. The lead books have their own transcendent materiality, because they are conventionally unreadable as traditional texts, they have their own subjective forms of appearance, and like religious texts and books they need to be studied and interpreted as a series of questions.
Paul Celan  was born in Czernowitz, Romania in 1920 into a German-speaking Jewish family. In 1942 his parents were arrested and sent to a Nazi internment camp in Transnistria Governorate as part of the ‘final solution’, and they died sometime shortly after. Celan was also interned around the same time; he was sent to various labour/work camps in Romania, but managed to survive the experience and was freed in 1944. As with many Holocaust survivors, Celan suffered psychologically from the trauma of internment. Periodic bouts of clinical depression followed, and in 1970 his body was found floating in the River Seine, after what is assumed to have been suicide.
Todesfuge, was written in 1945 shortly after Auschwitz was liberated, and the ghastly ‘truth’ of what had taken place gradually filtered into the outside world. When reading the poem and looking at Kiefer’s images one can easily imagine the grotesque scene that Celan envisions and the ghost-like figures he summoned to dance. Indistinct grey figures are slowly moving in the smoke of the chimneys, they ingest and drink the black milk of which Celan writes. The first part of the poem, translated by Karl S. Weimar, refers to the metaphoric Coal-black milk that is drunk in the morning and at night, suggesting one assumes, the thick black acrid smoke of the gas ovens . The poem speaks hauntingly of a strange reality, the uncanniness of the traumatic and awful spectral experience Celan sees as a past present. Todesfuge presents an ironic and bitter truth about the experience of death in a Nazi death camp, and the experience of being, living and dying in a time of death. ‘This poem is not only a fugue’, writes Weimar, ‘it is quintessentially a cry of pain and suffering, a choral lamentation’, a keening for lost souls (see Weimar, 1974, p. 87).
Celan manages to tell the ghastly narrative of the Holocaust death camps, to instil the hopelessness, without detailing the method of mass killing; he does this by metaphor, hidden meaning and imagination. Kiefer does the same in his art practice when he interprets Celan’s poem. In certain works, their visions, if not their disciplines, can be thought of as indistinguishable. They have a specific ‘aura’, a ‘terror and hopelessness’ that, as Barthes saw in certain images, makes one shudder over the catastrophe which has already occurred (Barthes, 2000). The work of both artists – painter/sculptor and poet/mystic – require us to imagine an other, the other, the other ‘I’ that Celan talks of and Kiefer materialises. Put simply, to understand the power of Celan’s and Kiefer’s message, we must try to understand and imagine how a great cultural hurt is communicated, where and how it resurfaces in writing and art as mediated memory. In Todesfuge there is no direct mention of Auschwitz or any other camp, or of deaths, chimneys belching foul smelling smoke, but they are there in the poem subliminally and imaginarily. In the very first sentence, the interpreters tell us, there is a sense of the taste of Schwarze Milch, Coal-Black milk, acrid and burnt, that has the sensory capacity to ‘burn’ the throat and nose of the reader, immediately bringing to mind its subject, incineration and the smell of burning bodies. Though hidden and difficult to imagine, this does not mean that the images do not exist in the artist’s mind, it is just that finding the right language to show or express the suffering is often difficult, impossible even.
In The Meridian (2011) Celan alludes to the ‘spectral’ quality of art that sees art as a conscious subject with its own intentions and optimisms, its own will and demands, separate from those of its creator. Here, art is spectral and uncanny, it engages with human life at will and at times with the serendipity of human communication. Celan said perhaps poetry, like art, moves with a self-forgotten ‘I’ toward the uncanny and the strange, and sets itself free again. What Celan appears to refer to in The Meridian is a chance meeting of ideas with another entity, the other ‘I’. The estranged ‘I’, who reads his poem, text or idea, and is not only a recipient but is also a source, a transmitter that allows the agency to emerge into the world as a new reading that then becomes a conversation.
Margarete and Shulamith - Sisters of memory in the complicity of death.
Kiefer selected the last two lines of Todesfuge as a metaphor for the German Judaic tragedy. The lines are: ‘your golden hair Marguerite, your ashen hair Shulamite’. The amalgamating of the names into a single sentence expresses the symbolism of two women, one Germanic, the other Judaic, as the embodiment of a German tragedy (Trauerspiel). This symbolic presence is sensed through the colour of their hair, one golden and one ashen, and their names, Marguerite and Shulamite, that are interwoven into Celan’s poem and into Kiefer’s works as texts that he paints on his canvas. It is as if Kiefer not only wanted to remind us of his subject, but wanted to ‘brand’, burn or ‘tattoo’ his canvases with their names so as to reinforce the idea of Nazi dehumanisation, the tattooing of a number that turned a human subject into an object . Marguerite (Gretchen in German) is a name taken from the German tragic play Faust by Goethe, circa 1892. Bonnie Roos (2006) asserts that Marguerite is tainted by filicide, the murder of her illegitimate child, and is presented to the world in Faust as a fallen woman forgiven by God. But according to Roos, Marguerite is not the ideal heroine role model; she did after all murder her own child. It is possible that Kiefer was referring to a similar or assimilated fact in his paintings, that is, Nazi Germany murdering its own children, the German Jewish community. Shulamite, however, has no such problems, her name is believed to be that given to the Jewish princess of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible and who, it was said, was beautiful with long flowing purple/black hair. The two women therefore can be seen as representing the two halves of German society that Celan and Kiefer examine metaphorically, that of filicide/infanticide and Judaism. Celan and Kiefer seem to be asking to what degree Marguerite, as a representation of the German Caucasian (Aryan) people, shared the responsibility for the Nazi brutality that is metaphorically enacted upon Shulamite, representing as she does, the Jewish people. In Your Golden Hair Margarete and Your Ashen Hair Shulamith , Kiefer focuses on the hair of the two women that succinctly distinguishes between what unites and divides the women, the colour of their hair and by inference their ethnicity. In Holocaust memory hair is an important and powerful symbol as thousands of tons of hair were removed from the heads of Jewish women and girls and used by the Nazis to produce textiles for blankets and cloth to make army uniforms. This is a chilling and sobering detail, and one Kiefer is very unlikely to have overlooked. In Dein Goldenes Haar, Margarete!!, Kiefer metaphorically references the cultural associations by using organic materials, golden yellow straw, probably wheat, fixed and glued onto a mid to dark grey background. The metaphoric strands of ‘blond’ straw-coloured hair have white blobs of paint at the tips of each stalk making them look as if they are burning, or on fire, representing perhaps candles or a candelabra, a menorah; Jewish symbols that in Kiefer’s images could be taken as a reference to Judaism and the Holocaust. The corn is also a symbol of the fertility of a bountiful land that is now beginning to burn, to darken and disintegrate. Kiefer reverts to traditional forms of art practice, virtually monotone; he paints Shulamith’s voluminous hair with thick black strokes as if it gushes out of her naked body. Could this be black blood or black milk he is thinking of? As with all of Kiefer’s work there is a sense of urgency and foreboding. Shulamith, innocently shows her bare back to society, so she is unable to see what threatens her, what is to come from the future – violence and death. We see a sense of urgency and disintegrating materiality repeated with the use of different materials where Kiefer shifts from canvas to sculptural three-dimensional forms that are likewise disintegrating.
The making of artist’s books has been an important part of Kiefer’s art practice since he began image making in the 1980s. The symbolism of books has many connotations, especially in Germany where the first books were printed commercially, and where books were burned as ‘degenerate’ or opposed to Nazi ideology. The act of book burning became a symbol for what was to follow and was famously prophesied by the poet Heinrich Heine when he wrote almost a hundred years earlier: ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings’ . Kiefer realised the symbolic power of books to German and Judaic cultures, the fragile destructibility of art objects, their associations to memory and their ability to transcend and transmit ideas, history, knowledge and belief into the present. In these final works of Kiefer’s that I examine here, his media shifted from canvas to three dimensional sculptural forms that he makes and builds using lead, detritus and organic material, industrial waste, tin and steel, concrete, stone, brick, earth, dried plants, ash and human hair. The subject remains the same, Celan’s visions of the Holocaust, symbolised by the fragmenting materials and detritus Kiefer uses in his work. As bits crumble and fall from the work, the processes of death are re-enacted as we gaze and wonder. These lead books emulate the mannerisms of the decomposition of the human body after death, they change shape and colour, and in their putrefaction and disintegration, they sublimate. The majority of Kiefer’s artist’s books are enigmatic, idiosyncratic and esoteric; they cannot be read and studied fully without the greatest of difficulty, if reading them is even possible at all other than as a concept or sense. Some of the books are very large and their pages are welded together, making the task of textual reading impossible. Even if we were able to prise open and turn their great and heavy pages to examine them in detail, what would we glean from the blank pages or esoteric messages that even if decrypted would disintegrate in our hands? Some parts of Kiefer’s books are very fragile, organic substances that are decomposing and easily damaged. Dried poppies, for example, are placed into the pages like fragile bookmarks or section dividers, positioned as if to find the page we had finished reading, until they disintegrate and the place is lost. To aid the changes and disintegration of his materials, Kiefer often leaves the metal, tin or reclaimed lead sheeting outside in the open air so that they interact with the sun, rain and wind. Sometimes this transitioning and maturing, like the processes of disintegration after death, takes many years, changing colour and texture, decaying and ageing, the materials slowly expose their inner compounds and colours. When the pages, the sheets of lead, are soldered together, the book becomes like a ‘closed text’, entombed, it needs imagination to make any sense of what the book means to convey. For the most part the books appear to have nothing to say, nothing further to disclose. But even though their pages are blank, their surfaces show and speak to us of the ravages of time, of the violence they endured, and the almost unbearable sublime beauty of the nature of time that is intent on taking back what it has given up. These are books to be read as visual texts, they symbolically represent, or allegorically contain, the invisible/visuality of memory, a memory that is starting to fragment, crumble and disintegrate. They could be seen as memory books of the dead, an account of the unbelievably tragic event of indescribable violence, the Holocaust. The books weep with the heavy burden he has bestowed on them. These tomes are tombs and containers that in Kiefer’s hands record the history of a catastrophic event, of human aspirations and failure, that remain imprisoned through unbearable silence and fortitude. In leaving his works outside, open to the ravages of nature for months or years, where they mature, disintegrate, change and grow into new or different images and forms, he works in collaboration with the ‘spirit’ of nature. Only when bringing them inside, to a gallery or museum, when they have ‘communed’ with Kiefer’s art practice, are they ready to speak to us, ready to tell us what they have seen and what they know. But, ‘[c]an one, in order to question it, address oneself to a ghost? (Derrida, 2006, p 221).
BARTHES, R. (2000). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London UK, Vintage.
CELAN, P. (1995). Breathturn, Los Angeles US, Sun & Moon Press.
CELAN, P. (1952). Poppy and Memory, Knyhy-XXI, Chernivtsi, Western Ukraine.
CELAN, P. (circa 1948). Todesfuge, Poem.
ROOS, B. (2006). Anselm Kiefer and the Art of Allusion: Dialectics of the Early Margarete and Sulamith Paintings, Durham US, Duke University Press, Comparative Literature, Volume 58, Number 1.
WEIMAR, K, S. (1974). Paul Celan's Todesfuge: Translation and Interpretation, PMLA, Volume 89, Number 1. New York US, Modern Language Association.
 Born Paul Antschel, Celan used a nom de plume after his work began to be published.
There are many translations of Todesfuge, though similar, each offers a unique reading.
 This, of course, refers to the Nazi practice of marking or tattooing a number on the arms of camp prisoners.
 The Song of Songs also known as, the Song of Solomon. It is a collection of ancient Israelite love poems found in the Hebrew Bible that celebrates the beauty and power of God's gift of love.
 Kiefer uses slightly different spelling to Celan. For consistency when discussing his work, I use Kiefer’s spelling of ‘Margarete’ and ‘Shulamith’.
 Among the works burned by the Nazis were the writings of German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who prophetically and famously warned: ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.’ From Almansor: A Tragedy (play, written 1821–1822), see True Religion (2003) by Graham Ward published by Blackwell Publishing.