The Aesthetics of Ruin in Anslem Keifer’s Artworks

I can’t remember when I first stumbled across Anslem Kiefer’s “The Angel of History” but I’m sure it was when I was researching Paul Klee. Kiefer’s artwork is a triumphant reckoning with one of Germany’s darkest hours. He re-introduces “chaos" in the minds of those who perceive his artworks with straws, sunflower seeds, chunks of concrete falling off his canvases. Some have pondered the meaning for the use of concrete in his art. Some have said his use of concrete represents a solid connection between spiritual forces and intellectual strivings and with modern architecture such as Le Corbusier.

The themes in his art are of the aesthetic of Ruin and the motif of the forest. Kiefer grew up near the Black Forest in Germany and his work often revolves around ruins and rubble, forest, trees, and wood grain.

Most of his artwork is pre-occupied by the poetry of Ruin and, as fate would have it, his youthful experiences were with the aftermath of Allied bombings following World War II which left his neighbor’s home completely destroyed. In the remnants of the ruins and rubble of that home, Kiefer would often play. Hence, the term Ruinenwert or “ruin value". And as I said, rubble also piles up in Kiefer’s artwork. What makes Kiefer so profound is his endless attempt to recoup the Ruin, to salvage its meaning and beauty, and add something deeper.

Kiefer once described the art of painting as “a ceaseless shuttling back and forth between nothing and something.” Ruins in Kiefer’s imagination operate similarly to that incessant movement. To be conscious of Ruin represents a deeper human dispensation and one that is further away from perverse Nazi logic which his critics often accuse him.

According to Georg Simmel, author of the 1911 work “The Ruin", Ruin represents a deeper reality than the pristine and perfect cut of sharp angles, perfect round shapes, and vibrant color and tones in the aesthetics of ageless beauty. If art or architecture is “the most sublime victory of spirit over nature,” as he wrote, the Ruin represents the shift in a balance of power between those two opposing forces — in which nature regains the upper hand. In the Ruin, nature transforms the work of art “into material for HER expression, as she had previously served as material for art.” The Ruin, for all its poetry, was a reminder of the limits of aesthetics, limits Hitler never recognized: he wanted his fascist aesthetics to enter into every field of endeavor, especially military endeavor.

When we perceive aesthetically, we are effectively demanding that the contrary forces of existence — nature and spirit, be frozen in equilibrium. But such equilibrium is an illusion, because life is always in flux. And if we perceive in terms of “nature and spirit,” we perceive the feminine and masculine forces we would be correct in that perception.

In Kiefer’s work, by embracing decay and toying with rubble, he exposes the problem with the human condition. That is, aesthetics can never be frozen for very long. The human condition dictates our frailty, vulnerability, decay, and ultimately OUR ruin: Death. For these are the conditions we are born into and Ruin is what we must face periodically from time to time, from season to season, as we move through this thing called life, and to which binds us all together with Fate, until the final farewell of our last final breath.

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