How do we live with history? What effect does it have on our imagination and our ways of thinking about the present? These are two key questions that the artists Anselm Kiefer and Bernd and Hilla Becher ask in their work. As Germans, they have to deal with a particularly destructive history, but their way of incorporating the past into their view of the present can be read more generally.
Both make use of realism and figuration in their work, both often depict landscapes – yet their work is very different. Kiefer’s paintings have a (German) romantic attraction to the forest, religion and heroic individuals. The Bechers focus on the architecture built during Europe’s industrial golden age. In this room, you can see the two artists together and make up your own mind about who represents history better.
In his works, Kiefer refers to themes from German history without glossing over its darker pages. According to Kiefer, ‘art has to be disturbing’. This uneasiness is underlined by his technique, which is harsh and restive. His work is often dominated by a sense of disease and destruction, literally made of dirt: sand, wood and straw combined with thick layers of roughly applied paint. As Kiefer says: ‘Malen ist Krieg’ (‘Painting is war’), and he sometimes attacks his paintings with fire, causing blackened sections. The words in the paintings allude to German history and stories from Christianity, complemented by depictions of tanks and figures from (Germanic) mythology and history. The many different layers thus created illustrate that historic events can be open to multiple interpretations and different approaches. Kiefer’s ‘disturbing’ works will prey on your mind, keeping the ‘big issues’ he wishes to expose on the surface lest they be forgotten.
In addition to Kiefer’s paintings, work by Bernd and Hilla Becher is also on display: a series of photographs of the abandoned Zeche Hannibal coal mine in Germany. They record German history in a totally different manner. The emotion that is so prominent in Kiefer’s works has been replaced by an almost scientific observation, avoiding any semblance of drama. They use photography as a means of recording ‘reality’. While this mechanical working method omits the artists’ expression, there is no denying that the photographs have their own unique appearance, as determined by the artists.