The gloomiest apocalyptic painting in Anselm Kiefer's new exhibit beckons from behind a glass box near the atrium at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. "Winterwald," a massive oil landscape that invokes Greek mythology and the Holocaust, shows a smoky forest crusted in snow, with synthetic teeth dangling from burnttrees. The base of the box is filled with snapped branches, ash and more teeth. A snakeskin is draped over the branches.
The setting, which nods to the Book of Genesis and the dragon's teeth in the Jason and the Argonauts myth, also suggests Kiefer's childhood, says Bonnie Clearwater, the NSU Art Museum's executive director, on a tour of the exhibit "Regeneration Series: Anselm Kiefer From the Hall Collection." Born March 8, 1945, more than a month before Adolf Hitler shot himself in a bunker, Kiefer lived in a small town in the Black Forest of Southwest Germany. After Allied Forces dropped bombs on his house, Kiefer played in the ruins, stacking the charred bricks like toys. "There were lots of bricks," Kiefer told the Financial Times in 2009. "Ruins are wonderful because they are the beginning of something new, you can do something with them."
Kiefer has been making totems of destruction and rejuvenation ever since, says Clearwater, also the show's curator.
"Out of destruction and World War II came his creations," Clearwater says of Kiefer's works, on view this week in the museum's first-floor main gallery. The paintings and sculptures are stuffed with symbolism, she says, especially "Winterwald," a personal favorite. "The forest scene suggests death, but the snakeskin shows regeneration. The Earth must be destroyed, he's saying, so that it can start anew."
Since 1969, Kiefer and his installations have plowed into Germany's troubled past, the Holocaust, the rise of Nazism and his family's own hand in the atrocities. The earliest of those probes focuses on Kiefer's father. His "Occupation" series of photos and paintings stirred controversy in 1969 when he shocked Germans with self-portraits in which he delivers Nazi salutes while dressed in his father's green Wehrmacht uniform. Kiefer, then 24, with a receding hairline of curly, black hair, appears despondent in these portraits. His salute looks half-hearted, his wrist bent forward, not pointed with authority, Clearwater says.
"He was being accused of neo-Nazism at the time," Clearwater says. "But he's wearing his father's guise for a reason. Because Kiefer grew up in a climate of cultural amnesia and guilt about Nazi Germany, but without any memory of it, it's like he's trying to investigate the whole of German culture, and come to a conclusion about how a proud nation could be motivated to commit war crimes."
In other paintings, Kiefer references Kaballah, the Jewish mystical movement, along with Egyptian and Teutonic myths. In his 1978 woodcut-on-paper print "Wege der Weltweisheit - die Hermannsschlacht," a collage of portraits of German philosophers and influencers frame a roaring bonfire — fire and ash appear frequently in his works — as Kiefer's way of probing the radical thinking that inspired Nazi Germany.
Kiefer even plunges as far back as the birth of civilization in his 31-foot-long painting "The Fertile Crescent," which closes the exhibit and nods to the Middle Eastern basin thought to include the Biblical Garden of Eden. Kiefer here paints a crescent-shaped brick factory, which was destroyed and rebuilt with the same bricks it now manufactures. Rows of bricks stretch from the foreground to the horizon.
"The idea of regeneration is embodied very sweetly, I think, in this painting," Clearwater says. "It's a cycle of death and rebirth, destruction and regeneration. It ties back to [Kiefer's] childhood, when he played with bricks."
"Regeneration Series: Anselm Kiefer From the Hall Collection" runs through Aug. 13 at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd. Admission is $5-$12. Call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.
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