Alchemical symbolism in the art of Anselm Kiefer
Czernik, Michele L.
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This thesis discusses the alchemical dimension in the works of German artist Anselm Kiefer (1945-) from the 1970s to 1990s by examining selected works that focus on alchemy through the use of materials, symbols, terms and elements related to the ancient practice. Kiefer?s art represents a return to the grand tradition of history painting and Expressionism. His works are monumental in size and scope, complex in iconography and full of symbolism culled from a variety of sources: religious, mythical, philosophical, and historical. His art is unlike that of any other artist today. Particularly prevalent are symbols of transformation, regeneration and change derived from the ancient art of alchemy, an early form of chemical philosophy (with apparently magical powers and spiritual concerns) whose chief aim was the conversion of base metals into gold. The rich symbolism of the ancient practice of alchemy is a recurring theme that manifests itself clearly in Kiefer?s art through direct references to phases (Nigredo), symbols (Ouroboros serpent, staffs, stones, ladders and fire), alchemical colors (red, black, white, gold) and materials (lead, copper, iron, silver), actual apparatus (athanor-fumace) and elements (earth, air, fire, water). Present from the works of the early 1970s, and perhaps introduced to Kiefer through his mentor Joseph Beuys, Kiefer?s interest in alchemy reveals itself directly in the large-scale paintings of scorched earth and books of the 1980s onward. It is at this time that he also begins to adopt a more forceful relationship with his materials, primarily through the forging of lead. Highly Germanic from the start, and arousing deep questions of grief and remembrance of his countiy?s past, his works are at heart Expressionistic. The artist asks us to ponder the question: Which is worse - remembering a terrible part of past history as a way of explaining the present, or forgetting/ignoring the past? Remarkably dense, with surfaces built up of such collage elements as paint, photographs, once-molten lead, sand, straw and ash, his art also evokes the question - can art be a catalyst for change and transformation that possibly effects something larger?