When I tell Anselm Kiefer that my favourite work in his forthcoming Royal Academy retrospective is “Tándaradei” – a monumental new painting in oil, emulsion and shellac where pink, red and mauve blossoms seem to burst into life, fade, wilt, all at once – the artist looks apologetic. “I put it out of the exhibition because it’s too beautiful. It’s too much. I couldn’t allow it.”
Painters have been quarrelling about beauty for centuries but Kiefer, born in southern Germany in the last months of the second world war, has rooted his life’s work in the urgent postwar anxiety about art’s role and future: Theodor Adorno’s claim that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.
“You cannot avoid beauty in a work of art,” says Kiefer. He waves at a room full of richly textured works with scorched, barbed surfaces – built up from ash, lead, shards of pottery, battered books and broken machines – that evoke war-ravaged wastelands but have lyricism etched into the violence of their making. “You can take the most terrible subject and automatically it becomes beautiful. What is sure is that I could never do art about Auschwitz. It is impossible because the subject is too big.”
This is a conversation stopper because Kiefer has rarely made art about anything else. In the 1960s he made his debut as a performance artist: dressed in his father’s army uniform, he photographed himself making the Nazi salute in iconic European locations such as Rome’s Colosseum, confronting what his fellow artist Joseph Beuys called Germany’s “visual amnesia” about the Holocaust. Half a century later, at this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, he displayed a new painting “Kranke Kunst” (“Sick Art”), a lovely willowy reprise of a 1974 watercolour of the same name in which a landscape of the kind idealised by the Nazis was dotted with pink boils.
Kiefer explains: “I like the double sense, first ‘Kranke Kunst’ is negative, it comes from Nazi censorship of entartete Kunst [degenerate art]. And then, it’s completely true because all is ill, the situation in the world is ill . . . Syria, Nigeria, Russia. Our head is generally ill, we are constructed wrong.”
What can art do?
“Art cannot help directly. Art is the way to make it obvious. Art is cynical, it shows the negativity of the world, it’s the first condemnation.”
Can art be celebratory?
“Matisse, he celebrates, but I see through this – to desperation.”
Kiefer says all this to me cheerfully, deadpan, over vodka at three in the afternoon in his 30,000 sq metre Paris atelier, a former warehouse of the department store Samaritaine. Another studio in Barjac, southern France, occupies a 200-acre estate but even the Paris one is so extensive that you need a car to cross it, past rusting tanks, containers with paintings left out to the chance elements of weather, and rose bushes planted by the artist. At one point we nearly collide with a crane hoisting a slab of lead. “For me, huge doesn’t exist,” Kiefer admits.
Tall and greying but lean and swift in white shorts and open shirt, the 69-year-old has fled preparations for the show in London – “It’s boring for an artist to do a retrospective” – but he offers a tour of the work here. Sculptures wrought from damaged bomber planes are strewn across one studio. Styrofoam towers from his nine-storey set for the Bastille Opera’s In the Beginning tumble and crumble in another. Hundreds of bleached-out resin sunflowers at three times life size, a comic homage to Van Gogh, stand guard at the gated entrance.
Sunflowers like these are coming to London, part of an installation, entitled “Ages of the World”, of unfinished canvases stacked horizontally into giant rubbish heaps that will occupy the RA’s opening central hall. I had interpreted an allusion to German history, the unhealable rupture imposed by the Nazi attack on degenerate art. Kiefer, however, points to monochrome gouaches that will surround his fallen canvases, which are scrawled with words referencing stratigraphy, palaeography, geology.
“Archaikum, mesozoikum,” he recites, drawing out the syllables like a line of poetry. He speaks English well but relaxes into real pleasure of expression when lapsing into German. “I like these words! How many million years are we old? You don’t know? You don’t know our age! I have all this catastrophe in my biography. That is what you see in ‘Ages of the World’. We go back much before our birthday. In our mind is inserted all this stratigraphy. Three hundred and fifty million years ago a meteorite touched the earth and 95 per cent of life was extinguished. Three hundred and fifty million years ago the dinosaurs – and lots of people – died. German history? It starts with Archaikum.”
In one of the most affecting paintings in the exhibition, “The Orders of the Night” (1996), there are also giant sunflowers, blackened, lined up in rows, menacing as soldiers, looming over a self-portrait of Kiefer as a corpse. And dried sunflowers mix with ash, clay and oil in the sombre, tapering interior, “The Ash Flower” (1983-87), the show’s largest painting at nearly 26ft wide.
At the Royal Academy, such ghostly interiors, echoing with references to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, such as the chancellery in “To the Unknown Painter” (1983), will hang alongside desolate versions of the forests and fields of the German romantic imagination: landscape destroyed in “Painting of the Scorched Earth” (1974); deathly in the shimmering straw of “Margarethe” (1981), representing the blond camp guard; paired with the dark straw ashes of the victim of the furnaces “Sulamith” (1983); or inscribed with the poems of Paul Celan and studded with charred books in the more recent furrowed “Black Flakes” (2006).
When I got an early glimpse of the show, these struck me as the dark heart of Kiefer’s achievement I ask him if he feels that these were the works he inevitably had to make. “No, no. Perhaps I should have been a poet or a writer. You can never be sure because you make mistakes but the mistake becomes reality.” Poems, he says, “are like buoys in the sea. I swim from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.” He says Celan, a Holocaust survivor, “is the most important poet since the war. He puts words together as no one did before. He made another language, he’s an alchemist concerning words.”
Is alchemy a metaphor for what Kiefer does? “It is what I do,” he corrects. “Alchemy is not to make gold, the real alchemist is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual thing more than a material thing. An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context. My bird is about that . . . ” He points out “The Language of Birds”, a new avian sculpture whose body is composed of burnt books, also to be completed for the London show. “It’s made with lead and strips of silver, gold. Its wings are lead and can’t fly, the books can’t fly, the metal is solid, but it changes.” He loves lead because “it has always been a material for ideas. It is in flux, it’s changeable and has the potential to achieve a higher state.” He grins: “And then, my paintings have a certain value, so I’m an alchemist.”
Kiefer’s auction record is $3.6m, achieved for “To the Unknown Painter” in 2011, and he is represented by blue-chip dealers Gagosian, White Cube and Thaddaeus Ropac; indeed, in 2012, both Gagosian and Ropac launched massive galleries in Paris with rival Kiefer shows, flaming criticism of overproduction and repetition. “Kiefer has become better and better at making Anselm Kiefers. In them grandiosity rarely takes a holiday,” wrote Roberta Smith in The New York Times of a 2010 Gagosian Manhattan show. In that exhibition, Next Year in Jerusalem, Kiefer’s references to Jewish mysticism and history, a strand in his work since the 1980s, attracted protesters against Israel’s blockade of Gaza; wearing T-shirts inscribed with the show’s title, they asked to stay in the gallery to continue discussions raised by Kiefer’s work. The gallery called the police, saying, “This is private property. We’re here to sell art.”
Was this a betrayal of Kiefer’s seriousness, an admission that 21st-century art is primarily a commodity? I can think of no other contemporary figure who operates at the interface of art, money, politics and history as prominently, and with such confident equilibrium, as Kiefer. It is undeniable, and borne out by unpredictable auction results, that the quality of his prolific output is uneven, sometimes top-heavy with portentous theme or occult narrative. On the other hand, the cohesion of ideas and tone in the RA show, Kiefer’s first retrospective, dramatises how the conceptual impetus underpinning his material endeavours mean that all his works belong together as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk – or even as a performance piece in progress, which began with his solitary Sieg Heil in Rome half a century ago.
At his Wagnerian stretch, Kiefer is a very German artist, though he left the country in 1990, after reunification. He says: “Since I live in France it seems that I am more German. Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks in Rome: when he was in Italy he became aware of being German. It’s clear that I am in the tradition of German art, Holbein, Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich, but national character is no longer so present. The last time there was real distinction between French and German art was impressionism, which was French, and expressionism, which was German – then it was clear who was who. Now it’s not global but it’s European – if I take America as part of Europe, though they will not like that! In America and the UK it’s about the work. In Germany it’s always linked to some moral issue.”
It seems to me that there are two things that make the Royal Academy show significant beyond an account of one man’s vision. This autumn Kiefer is being shown alongside two German near-contemporaries, Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern and Gerhard Richter at Marian Goodman’s new Mayfair space. Each came of age in a morally fatherless culture and had to negotiate positions vis-à-vis German history: Polke’s was fundamentally absurdist, Richter’s ironic, and Kiefer’s is broadly tragic. All are valid responses to Adorno.
But an RA show is also an institution boasting a centuries-old history of debate about the formal nature of painting. Kiefer follows exhibitions devoted to Anish Kapoor, who in 2009 drove a “paint train” through the galleries and shot pigment at the walls from a gun; and to David Hockney, who in 2012 challenged traditional painting with iPad sketches enlarged to enormous scale and film. Both artists proved that painting could rival younger media as spectacle, theatre, performance; this show will do the same.
Before I leave Paris, Kiefer shows me a group of green-gold paintings, encrusted with metal, polystyrene, shellac, sheaves of wheat, paint layered over photographs, a shoe, a pair of scales. This is the Morgenthau series, begun in 2012 and named after a leaked, abandoned wartime American plan to deindustrialise Germany. “A big present to Hitler,” says Kiefer, “because he was able to say, ‘If you don’t fight, this will happen to you. Fifty million Germans would have died – though that’s nothing [compared] to Mao.”
Kiefer has made some new Morgenthau paintings especially for Burlington House. Altogether there are a lot of them: an obvious glitzy currency for a widening collector base. They are also rather beautiful.
“I came to the title,” Kiefer explains, “because I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’, in a cynical way telling that Germany would be so beautiful without industry. This way of turning it round, it tells you the ambiguity of beauty.”
A smart conceptualist’s marketing strategy or an artist making peace with the tradition of painting? Kiefer pauses to marvel at an emerald hue while fingering the gold leaf, which he has layered on to sediment of electrolysis, an industrial galvanisation process to which he submits the works – a modern alchemy. “You cannot produce it, it’s such a powerful green, that’s the electrolysis, it changes the painting and when I see it, I am surprised. And that’s what I live for: to be surprised.”
‘Anselm Kiefer’ is at the Royal Academy, London, September 27 to December 14, royalacademy.org.uk
Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic. Read her review of Constable at the V&A
Photograph: Howard Sooley