Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kiefer meets Kleist

On December 10, I visited an art exhibition at the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden devoted to Anselm Kiefer. It so happened that on December 13, the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland) awarded the artist the Leo-Baeck-Medal honoring his efforts in the reconciliation between Jews and Germans. Gay Guido, our foreign minister, handed the medal to Kiefer during a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

The exhibition at Burda's is already impressive because of the sheer size of the paintings. In fact, painting is probably not the right word as the large canvases exhibited are mostly covered with thin lead sheets on which paint is distributed such that one wonders how these monumental collages hold together.

Most impressive from the year 2010 is Kiefer's picture of the Tower of Babel measuring 7.6 x 4.6 m that he had named The Fertile Crescent since his interpretation of the tower in shambles differs from the classical bible story. Looking at Kiefer's picture Pieter Breugel's painting comes right to my mind showing the unfinished tower as a symbol for the hubris of mankind subsequently separated by their different languages. Kiefer however says forget about languages, the base of the tower is still intact such that Occident and Orient meet in fertile Mesopotamia and fructify their cultures mutually.

Walking up a staircase I read one of Kiefer's statements on the wall: Ich denke vertikal, und eine der Ebenen ist der Faschismus. Doch ich sehe alle diese Schichten. Ich erzähle in meinen Bildern Geschichten, um zu zeigen, was hinter der Geschichte ist. Ich mache ein Loch und gehe hindurch (I think vertically and one of the layers is fascism, but I see all those layers. I tell stories in my pictures to show what is behind history. I make a hole and walk through).

Although taking photos in the exhibition was not allowed I took a shot of the wording trying hard to digest its meaning on the spot. Advancing further I discovered another monumental collage 7.2 x 4.35 m signed Wege der Weltweisheit, Die Hermannsschlacht a theme perfectly fitting to this year's Kleist anniversary. Suddenly I had my light bulb moment: Kleist is a progenitor of fascism.

Kleist wrote his drama in five acts in 1808 at a time when Napoleon had occupied all German speaking territories. Die Hermannschlacht (The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest) features battle-winning Arminius. The chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe fights against the Romans invading Germania. No fantasy is needed to read in those fiery speeches hero Hermann gives the appeal for an uprising against the French occupants. Napoleon had just defeated Prussia. Needless to say the theater piece could not be staged then. During the following restoration the liberal ideas presented in the drama did not fit at all with the period of Biedermeier. Only after the Franco-Prussian war as late as 1875 when the "Hermannsschlacht" against the Erbfeind (hereditary enemy) was won the theater piece saw some performances on German stages.

Kiefer in his collage now tells the story behind the story showing portraits of those Franzosenhasser (French haters) at the time of Napoleon I, their lower layered progenitors, the next layer of hate at the time of Napoleon III, and how this had been transported during the Weimar Republic into the upper Nazi layer: The brown-shirts never forgot the dishonor of the Versailles peace treaty, the French diktat.

Advancing in history I have chosen some key persons from those 36 portraits that I cannot show you in detail because of copyright:

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) who wrote his famous anti-Napoleonic Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die Deutsche Nation).

Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776-1810), Prussian queen considered by many as the German Jeanne d'Arc because she stood up against Napoleon calling him a monster.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819) was somewhat late* at the Battle of Waterloo but is still considered in Germany as the co-winner.
*Wellington ought have moaned: I want night or Blucher! (Ich wollte, es wäre Nacht, oder die Preußen kämen).

Christian Dietrich Grabbe (1801-1836) who not only wrote a drama about Napoleon's last one hundred days but also a remake of the Herrmannsschlacht.

Georg Herwegh (1817-1875) implored the French to stop intervening in German affairs when he conducted his German Legion from Paris into Baden to help Friedrich Hecker in the 1848 uprising.

Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874) author of the Deutschlandlied with its pan Germanic first stanza.

Albrecht von Roon (1803-1879) one of the key generals in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71.

Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913) who developed a military plan for a pre-emptive attack on France.

Walter Flex (1887-1917) a nationalistic poet and soldier during the first World War.

Albert Leo Schlageter (1894-1923) the man from Wiesental near Freiburg sabotaging the French during their occupation of the Ruhr district, being shot for that.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who perceived Schlageter as a martyr of the German cause.

Horst Wessel (1907-1930) the author of the Horst-Wessel-song, shot by the communists, an early martyr for the Nazis.

Thank God, there is no further layer.

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