German painter. He studied law in 1965–6 at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg, before starting to study art there in 1966 as a pupil of the painter Peter Dreher (b 1932). In 1969 he studied under Horst Antes at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe, and in 1970 he moved to the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where he met Joseph Beuys. From this time onwards history and myth were the central themes in his work: he was not concerned with reviving the history painting; rather, he attempted by means of drawing and symbols to expose the many-layered quality of historical processes, in order ‘to approach in an unscientific way the centre from which events are controlled’ (Kiefer, Art, 1990). On a journey through Switzerland, Italy and France in 1969 Kiefer produced the photographic series Occupations (see 1991 exh. cat., pp. 93–4), in which he photographed himself saluting in a pose that imitated Hitler. In this and in later books he presented his personal way of coming to terms with German history, literature and art history. His central concern was to experience history as a prerequisite for understanding it.
Following his move to Hornbach in the Odenwald in 1971 Kiefer produced his first large-scale landscape paintings, such as Heath of the Brandenburg March (oil, acrylic and shellac on burlap, 1.18×2.54 m, 1974; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.), and from 1973 he produced painted wooden interiors that created a monumental effect, as in Parsifal III (oil and blood on paper laid on canvas, 3.00×4.34 m, 1973; London, Tate). His preoccupation with the spirit and forms of Nazi rule in Germany is seen, finally, in his pictures reflecting the architecture of the 1930s and specifically the buildings of Albert Speer. In a similar way, from 1975 he concerned himself with the Nibelung legends, pointing beyond the German epic to its adaptation by Richard Wagner and to the Nazis’ use of it for nationalistic purposes. Kiefer then moved progressively away from this subject-matter. Figures and events from mythology, as well as Old Testament subjects (after a journey to Israel in 1984) and the campaigns of Alexander the Great, were depicted in repeated variations. Instead of concentrating on oil painting, he made increasing use of materials such as sand, straw, wood and photographs, as well as sewn material and toy soldiers, which resulted in increasingly fragile works. In the 1980s he used lead for large-format pictures and sculptures, such as The Women of the Revolution (acrylic on lead with wood, glass, maiolica and roses, 2.8×4.7 m, 1986; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.).
From 1969 Kiefer also worked on book design, producing artist’s books that were painted and formed from a collage of very diverse materials. For example he assembled numerous lead books on steel shelves in libraries, as symbols of the stored, discarded knowledge of history. He developed another motif in three-dimensional aircraft sculptures, which allowed him to approach his themes through the metaphor of flying. From 1974 the motif of the palette became a symbol of Kiefer’s passage through the strata of history. Painted or made of lead, floating above the landscape or as a sculpture with wings, it indicated that Kiefer was its creator, while at the same time transcending the relationship (e.g. Nero Paints, oil on canvas, 2.2×3.0 m, 1974; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst). Apart from the symbolic use of materials, extensive titles usually inserted in childish writing are an important part of his work. These give rise to an overlaying and intertwining of formal hints and associations with those relating to content. The emotional effect combines with Kiefer’s historical recollection to produce a dialogue with history. The reminders of tabooed historical signs and symbols, as well as the juxtaposition of hero-worship and irony, helped to split reactions to Kiefer into two camps. The enthusiasm his work aroused, above all in the USA, was matched by violent criticism, not least in Germany.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press