Books

Parsing Anselm Kiefer’s Digressive Notebooks

Anselm Kiefer, "The Book" (1979–1985), oil, lead, photographic paper, straw, and fabric on canvas, 330.2 x 552.7 cm, at the Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Anselm Kiefer, “The Book” (1979–1985), oil, lead, photographic paper, straw, and fabric on canvas, 330.2 x 552.7 cm, at the Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Anselm Kiefer bears a burdensome relationship to the written word. In a 2014 documentary first aired for the BBC, the German-born artist himself expressed this tension as a “problem” long in the making, beginning with his adolescent indecision whether to be a writer or a painter. Kiefer’s own acknowledgment that there is no turning back understates the fact that not since Paul Klee has a painter broached so powerfully the topic of his own disappointment at striving, hopelessly, for poetry in the physical.

Spanning just two years of the artist’s professional life at the end of the 20th century, the nearly 400-page publication of Kiefer’s journals, Notebooks (Volume 1: 1998–1999), provides an enchanting, if selective, glimpse of the artist’s thoughts, which range over the symbolisms of ash, feces, flowers, and human ejaculate, to sophistic reflections on art and meaning, artistic method, culture, and the metaphysics of space and time.

(image courtesy Seagull Books) (click to enlarge)
Cover of ‘Anselm Kiefer: Notebooks (Volume 1: 1998–1999),’ translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books (2015) (image courtesy Seagull Books) (click to enlarge)

Dates and timestamps situate the entries, which are mostly composed of stream-of-consciousness style digressions, in linear time — though even this choice is afforded critical reflection by the artist:

3/7/98

6.35 P.M. writing down the time at which entries are made is as pointless as recreating the floor plan of each hotel room you stayed in while travelling. there might be a point to indicating an entry’s date but the time? it makes no difference later if this or that was written in the morning or in the evening. because before anyone ever, anyone ever might read it, it will have to be read through and reordered. that’s clear.

The majority of entries describe Kiefer’s experiences of his studio surroundings in southern France, La Ribaute (also the focus of a 2010 documentary by Sophie Fiennes), while the middle portion of the text covers the artist’s travels in India. Kiefer frequently writes in the second person, resulting in a conscious alienation of the artist from himself:

29/10/99

12.50 P.M. […] Strange, addressing oneself as ‘you’. Started a few years ago here, when the ‘I’ stopped. A view of oneself without the naïve ‘I’. No longer a dialogue with another as in Greece, but with oneself. But what, after all, is the ‘self’—the same?

A shorthand, enigmatic quality permeates the whole of Kiefer’s notebooks, often leading to confusion about otherwise banal, this-worldly events in the artist’s day-to-day. Such confusions become trying in that Kiefer’s writings usually overflow with logical contradictions and self-corrections that become difficult to reconcile.

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Spread of of ‘Anselm Kiefer: Notebooks (Volume 1: 1998–1999)’ (click to enlarge)

But Kiefer’s strength as an artist has always been his honest appraisal of history, humanity’s place in the stars. Here, too, deeply personal expressions concerning the artist’s body, ego, success, and purpose redeem the Notebooks of its faults:

10/1/99

11.15 A.M. […] Last summer the credit you procured for yourself with the belief: you’re the best painter. Curiously, when others (in the USA) said: ‘The best painter on both sides of the Atlantic’ the credit slowly disappeared, because when it’s no longer a belief, but a plain fact (in the newspapers), the credit vanishes and you need a new ‘higher’ (?) belief. Where could that be?

It could be there, where you claimed you’d found the most comprehensive contextual formula for the world in a painting. Problem: Must it be a painting? Is the production loan tied to a profession or can it be freely applied where, according to its nature, there is a constriction (à ≈ house in the cosmos).

The striking intimacy of such passages differentiates the Notebooks from the epic, sometimes impersonal touch of Kiefer’s visual output. The Notebooks may come to be seen as the most innocent characterization yet of his work, expressed in the artist’s own words.

For some, Kiefer’s freely discursive method will verge on a mental diuretic (Trinie Dalton in the LA Review of Books, for one, couldn’t decide whether “this deep level of journaling” was “total Buddhism, or consummate narcissism”). The fact that Kiefer goes back to his earlier journals over and over again to take stock, perhaps even updating their contents along the way, raises concerns about the transparency of the artist’s notebooks. (In reality, the medium of the private journal in general is in question, cf. Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.) Does Kiefer have an audience in mind beside himself? What, if anything, is he out to prove? Is his journaling a result of his undeniable prolificacy, a seemingly infinite, irrepressible urge towards creation? Or, are his writings a portrait of the artist searching to justify his subject?

TheUnborn _ Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer, “Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn)” (2001), oil, acrylic, and plaster on lead on canvas, 193.0 x 309.9 cm, at the Yale University Art Museum (click to enlarge)

As translator, Tess Davies copes with Kiefer’s style to provide a relatively comprehensible read. The text is masterfully annotated with an appendix of 200 notes that provide the necessary context. However, I still wished for an introductory essay clarifying those influences most relevant to Kiefer’s journals. In particular, the ideas of the British philosopher and physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637) have perhaps still not been totally appreciated for their prominence in Kiefer’s thought; throughout this volume, Kiefer engages with Fludd’s proto-Romanticist notion that “each [flower] has a corresponding star in the sky,” which undoubtedly affords him much sustained artistic inspiration. At the same time, however, it conjures up in Kiefer the greatest angst about the potential failure of his project.

Has too much ink been spilled on Kiefer’s behalf? Should his artworks now be left to speak for themselves (see his entry on 13/8/99)? The current volume is a welcome addition that gives Kiefer — the painter, the sculptor, the artist, the individual, and, yes, the writer — a new platform from which to join this conversation.

Anselm Kiefer: Notebooks (Volume 1: 1998–1999), translated by Tess Lewis and out from Seagull Books (2015), is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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