Anselm Kiefer

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Painter of transition, Anselm Kiefer always finds a balance between the horrors of history and the transcendental beauty of the creative act; between the need to cover his canvases in words and symbols and the necessity of painting the unspeakable.
So this exhibition’s focus on limbs seemed entirely natural and a fertile ground for his self-expression. I asked Mr Kiefer a few questions.


Mart Engelen: What comes to your mind first if you have to give an instant reaction in one sentence to the title “Die Ungeborenen”?
Anselm Kiefer: Nothing comes first to my mind. I have been working on this for years and years and so I have a lot in my mind when I say “Die Ungeborenen”.
ME: But I am very interested in what comes to you first when you say “Die Ungeborenen” with all its significance and meaning for you.
AK: Firstly, it’s what hasn’t happened – not yet. That’s the first thing when you hear Die Ungeborenen.
ME: Do you fear death?
AK: Death? I am very conscious of the death. Because if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be alive.
ME: Now that you are growing older, is the fear of death increasing or the opposite – do you feel more free?
AK: No. I don’t feel that I am growing older. (laughs)
ME: What does the theme Ungeborenen mean to you?
AK: I have already been occupied, busy with this theme, for a long time. The first encounter was Faust with Die Ungeborenen. And the aborted are Die Ungeborenen. I was raised very Catholic and in Catholic theology there was a place where those who died just after being born and without being baptised went to. It was a big problem because they could not be sent to hell and so the church created this place called limbo. Because the ones who arrived there had done nothing wrong, they did not need to be punished but they couldn’t immediately see God. The Pope has now abolished
the limbo saying, “We still have to solve this theological question”. This is actually a very liberal point of view for the Catholic church.
ME: How is it working and living near Paris?
AK: Well, I always prefer to live on the outskirts of a city. I have thousands of square metres and my studio is also situated close to the boulevard périphérique. I think that is far more interesting because the centre of Paris is now much more a kind of Disneyland. The streets are wonderfully clean, they keep out the cars, I don’t feel too happy in such a clean environment. Everything is separate: the rich live in the centre and those who have nothing live on the outskirts. That doesn’t feel good.
ME: What binds Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer? Sir Norman Rosenthal (sitting next to Anselm Kiefer): To me, one of the things that binds these two great artists is the fact that they somehow managed to make a new legitimate romantic art. That, to me, is one of the essential points. To me, the beauty of this exhibition, seeing Die Ungeborenen next door to Iphigénie by Joseph Beuys, and the one in Thaddaeus Ropac’s Marais premises is to see all these works of these two great related post-war figures together.
ME: You once said “Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment”. When you make a work when does it becomes a work of art?
AK: Oh, that’s a very difficult moment. Very difficult. It becomes a work of art when it’s independent, far away from me. But there can be some chaos. Sometimes I think it’s finished and a week later it’s not finished at all. When you do something new, it is always on the edge, you know. It’s on the edge between ridicule and greatness. It is a very fine line.
ME: There was a lot of irritation and protest when you created your work for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The comment was: we see a work of art, we see the chair of Van Gogh, the sunflowers but it is supposed to be a tribute to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Did you foresee these
AK: No. I don’t calculate reactions. I know there are artists who ask PR agencies before they start working. I don’t say that I don’t care, but I don’t calculate.
ME: Well, you are a very intelligent man and you created this work for the Rijksmuseum. You knew it could be provocative.
AK: Yes, but do you think it shouldn’t be provocative?
ME: Yes, I think so, but maybe not always. But we are talking here more about people who were upset because the Rijksmuseum gave you a completely free rein but expected a work inspired by The Night Watch. And they got this. I think they have put it away now.
AK: They didn’t want to keep it forever. No. (laughs). But you know I have a deep relationship with Rembrandt. I think I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I wanted to copy a Rembrandt in the Karlsruher Museum but they didn’t let me. Sir Norman Rosenthal: What are your ongoing projects?
AK: You should never talk about that. When I speak about it, it’s done, it’s over. So I never talk about them.


Right: Anselm Kiefer Himmelsschlucht 2012