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  • Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz
  • Daniel Morris
Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz, by Lisa Saltzman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 173 pp. $40.00.

Compared to literary studies, the discipline of art history has been slow to theorize the complex relationship between historical reality and its representations. In part through the incorporation of film theory, however, art historians have begun to incorporate post- structuralism into their work. Developing an eclectic model indebted to psychoanalysis, feminist film theory, and narratology, Lisa Saltzman places a leading German artist, Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945 to non-Jewish parents), in the sociohistorical matrix of the haunted environment of contemporary Germany. His art is a symptom of the difficulty contemporary Germans have had in moving from a stagnant state of melancholia to a [End Page 163] psychologically productive mourning of Hitlerism. Her work resituates Kiefer as a post-war artist who may have more in common with filmmakers such as Wim Wenders and Werner Fassbinder, and with novelists such as Günter Grass, than with the “neo-expressionist” artists to whom he is usually compared.

For Saltzman, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the most influential essay in film theory. Although Mulvey describes how the male gaze dominates the female body in film, Saltzman interprets the essay as an example of a post-modern ethics based on the Mosaic injunction against the worship of images. She argues that Mulvey writes in the tradition of a prior classic of post-modern ethical criticism, Theodor Adorno’s “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949), in which he wrote that “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” Saltzman’s point is that Kiefer represents a visual trace of his own theorization of the hebraically inflected ethical issues of representation that informed Adorno and Mulvey. Unlike the strict injunction against iconography in the paradigmatic essays by Adorno and Mulvey, however, Kiefer registers ambivalence about the prohibition against image making. He plays out the desire to witness the Holocaust while framing silence in a way that represents the world of the past and the struggle to remake the German self after Auschwitz. Kiefer pivots between a wish to mourn the past and, therefore, to work through his belated relationship to Hitlerism, and a melancholic realization that forgetting the past is impossible for him.

Saltzman succeeds in making her case for Kiefer’s ethical imagination, especially when she pays close attention to the aesthetic (formal) elements of his art. Her attention to his technique of burning, charring, or cauterizing his surfaces in works after 1975, for example, enables her to theorize his painting as “the concrete trace of historical wounding.” His art becomes a site to visualize the wound of an historical reality that is unrepresentable, except as an erasure. Because Kiefer is in a belated relation to history, he is in the impossible situation of trying to come to terms with events that shattered his identity, but that he never experienced directly.

When Saltzman moves away from a close scrutiny of the texture of his work, her readings of his intention to mourn the Shoah sometimes feel strained. I was not convinced by her argument that political trauma was Kiefer’s motivation for entitling his obscure paintings with Kabbalistic titles. Gershom Scholem has demonstrated that messianic movements tend to be a reaction to social and political catastrophe, but must the general category of mysticism, which fits Kiefer, necessarily be tied to historical trauma, as Saltzman suggests? Saltzman’s thesis is based on a historical understanding of Kiefer, and so it is important to her argument to link Kabbalah to political trauma. At the end of the book she mentions that Kiefer has also developed an interest in Hinduism. How does this new interest in the myths of Hindu culture relate to German catastrophe?

Because Saltzman is dealing with so many issues and theories in a short study, and because Kiefer’s pictures are mysterious and opaque, her book is valuable for opening [End Page 164] up questions about the meanings of his art, rather than for answering them. She describes Kiefer’s interest in Jewish culture as a form of “German Orientalism” but does not...

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