Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Morgenthau Plan’ and Expressionism

This essay will be discussing
one painting from Anselm Kiefer’s series ‘Morgenthau Plan’ (Figure 1). This
essay will be evaluating how Kiefer’s painting relates to the Expressionist
movement, which peaked between 1905 and 1925, predominately in France and
Germany. The title of the work refers to a plan put forward by the United
States Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. in 1944. The proposed scheme
involved dividing Germany into three states, North and South Germany, then one zone
to be deemed internationally owned. The end goal was to weaken by Germany
ridding it of industry, military and returned to depending on agriculture. The
plan never came to fruition but unsettled many citizens of Germany.

 

Definitions of Expressionism have been widely debated and
have led to definitions of later movements such as Abstract Expressionism.
Initially, Expressionism was seen as a radical response to Impressionism, a period
of time (1872- 1892) where artists aimed to capture a moment in time with loose
brushwork that recreated very literal forms. However, Expressionism demanded
more creativity and opened a realm for artists to create something that was
more poignant to viewers. In the key period of Expressionism, industrialisation
was increasing at a rapid pace and was often the subject or influence of
artists work. For example, 1906 saw the invention of radio broadcasting which
became an important way to communicate news and a main source of entertainment.
In 1908, assembly line production massively increased the amount of products
that could be made in a shorter period of time. This meant that goods were more
affordable to accessible to a wider range of people. At the other end of the
period, in 1925, the television was invented and has since been of major
importance in broadcasting information and culture. Expressionism brought
another perspective to such a rapidly evolving period of time and made society
consider the environment they were living in. Additionally, photography was
becoming a more mainstream media and was affordable enough for the average
person to pursue. This meant there was less desire to capture that split second
of life that the Impressionism movement focussed on. Alternatively, in our
modern age, Anselm Kiefer often pulls us from the developed world we are so accustomed
to, to think about forgotten parts of history.

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As a native German, Kiefer’s work could be seen as a response
to the anti-expressionism regime of the Nazi Party during WW2. In response to
hearing speeches given by the Nazi leaders, Kiefer states ‘the sound goes right
through the skin. Not only through the ears and head. I was simply shocked. And
that’s how it began’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg. …..). Being born just at the
end of the war, Kiefer has strong personal connections with the lasting effect
of the social context of that time. A running theme through his work questions
how German artists could redeem themselves after being criminalised by leaders
of their own nation. Kiefer describes this investigation through art as ‘an
attempt to get to the centre of truth’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg…..).

As stated earlier, there are many ideas surrounding a definition
of Expressionism, a movement that began a tendency towards abstraction. Herwath
Walden, founder of a German Expressionist magazine ‘Der Sturm’, described
expressionism as ‘art which gave form to the lived experience that lies deep
within oneself’ (1910, quoted in Richard, 1978, pg. 9). This is true of
‘Morgenthau Plan’ which reflects Kiefer’s experience as a German citizen post
WW2. The dark, textured background brings a sense of desolation and abandonment
which reiterates how Kiefer felt discriminated against for a number of years –
Kiefer’s own ‘lived experience’. The recurring motif of the forest in many of
his works, appears to be heavily influenced by the shelter the woods provided
Kiefer and his family during bomb raids. Walden goes onto add that the artists
‘own life is his most important consideration: what the outside world imprints
on him… He conveys his visions, his inner landscapes, and is conveyed by them’.
In a literal sense, Kiefer is replicating a desolate landscape which relates to
the idea of his ‘inner landscape’, formed by his emotional experience. He often
returns to the optimistic view of nature when describing the ‘ripening process
of work’. Kiefer ‘summon[s] nature to help me finish the painting’, which may
involve leaving the paint to be roughened by rain and wind, or layered with
acid and earth.

Although Walden also suggests ‘naunces of style were not
important’ when contributing to the classification of Expressionism, the visual
characteristics of these paintings at the time tended to employ gestural brush
strokes and heavily applied, textured paint. ‘Morgenthau Plan’ definitely falls
within this style but offers a different angle by using shellac, fragments of
paint, plaster, straw and sediment to add additional texture. To Kiefer,
introducing unconventional materials to the surface of the piece is not just a
visual aspect, ‘When I use objects and substances such as straw and lead I
distil from their spirit… I discover the spirit that is within these
substances. I upheave it and display it’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg….). In this
way, Kiefer has a deeper connection to the materials he is using and allows
them to add to the stimulus of the work. Expressionist paintings also hinted at
abstraction with gestural shapes and lines. Kiefer’s work also has these
tendencies; forms are still visible and identifiable however the greater
context of the image is not clear – open to interpretation. There is a strong sense
of emotion, a ‘mystical’ quality as the viewer attempts to unravel the impact
the work is portraying. This comes from the complexity and disorientating
surface of the canvas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Morgenthau Plan’ could be compared to Vincent Van Gogh’s
‘Wheatfield with Crows’ (Figure 2). Although his work fell outside of the key
period for the Expressionist movement, Van Gogh was labelled as an early
expressionist as ‘all those who reacted against the impressionist aesthetic
were labelled expressionists’ (Richard, 1978, pg.9). He also fell into this
category by becoming the subject matter for his own work; presenting himself as
a tortured individual, ‘the artist does not try to succeed in rendering what
others consider beautiful, but to express what is essential for him’ (Richard,
1978, pg. 10). ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ is not an accurate depiction of a
landscape but rather how Van Gogh interpreted it. Like ‘Morgenthau Plan’, Van
Gogh depicts a forsaken landscape with the detail being in the sweeping
brushstrokes and layered paint. Both paintings present a foreboding sky by
using darker tones towards the top of the canvas. The paintings share
similarities as they both present a connection between man and nature. In Van
Gogh’s case, this has a more figurative form of crows which are identified in
the title. Whereas, for Kiefer, the dark shapes are more abstract. This could
be Kiefer’s way of interpreting Van Gogh’s crows but with a more cynical
attitude. In contrast to Van Gogh’s figurative wheat fields, Kiefer has
physically embedded straw into the canvas. ‘An initially rigid substance, straw
softens into a Materia prima and, combined with animal excrement, its dazzling
colour changes into a dark matter ready to be received by the earth’. It is suggested
that, ‘like his Dutch predecessor [Kiefer] seeks to create an empathetic link
with the natural world’ (Heinich, 2003, pg. 21), ‘Morgenthau Plan’ emulates
human kind’s mark on the land by the histories we can create through war and
the division of nations. Being part of a latter generation, Kiefer has
witnessed the great devastation man can cause on the landscape. Comparatively,
Van Gogh looks at the bond between man and nature in a more positive view ‘for
him, agricultural labour was a parable of the just and unspoiled life, in
harmony with divine Creation’ (Heinich, 2003, pg. 21). In other words, Van Gogh
is expressing the potential fruitfulness of the land. For Kiefer, the depiction
of a field would signify the yet unfulfilled rebirth and the regrowth that
fruitful land has to offer in a post-industrialised world.

Kiefer’s contemporary way of working could also be seen as a
take on ‘action painting’, a term that became mainstream by the work of Jackson
Pollock. Pollock famously shared, ‘I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to
the hard wall or floor… On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a
part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four
sides and literally be in the painting’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36). Kiefer
too utilises this way of working at the ground level to engage with the
materials and expression of the work. Visually, the two artists have a similar
aesthetic of layered complexity and a raw application of the medium. In ‘Full
Fathom
Five’ (Figure 3), Pollock also
embeds other materials in the way Kiefer uses straw, sediment, plaster, for example
in ‘Morgenthau Plan’. It has been noted that both artists are deeply immersed
in the creation process but once the art is completed, they feel a detachment
and disappointment. For Pollock, ‘It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’
period that I see what I have been about… It is only when I lose contact with
the painting that the result is a mess’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36). Similarly,
it has been recorded that ‘once a painting has been completed, he [Kiefer]
often feels disappointed, by something that is missing’ (quoted in Davey, 2014,
pg…..). In this way, both artists share the understanding of allowing the
painting to guide its creation process, to connect with the materials, and to
appreciate the ‘easy give and take’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36) between the
piece and the artist. But ultimately, Pollock’s paintings in this dripping
style are far more abstract than Kiefer’s depictions and require a different
level of interpretation to tap into the discourse of the paintings.

To conclude, Anselm Kiefer could firmly be described as a
neo-expressionist as his work is a thoughtful combination of his own
experiences and the history that drove them. As a cynical but truthful
representation, ‘Morgenthau Plan’ is a prime example of how Kiefer enables us
to engage with the link between human behaviour and nature differently. Van
Gogh’s world would today be considered small, with little opportunity to travel
and connect with other cultures. Whereas, Kiefer is dealing with more global
issues that will affect and be seen by a much broader audience. Because of
this, Van Gogh put himself at the forefront of his work by presenting himself
as the ‘tortured artist’, whereas ‘Morgenthau Plan’ gives something we can all
take. What makes Kiefer different from the original Expressionist painters, is
how he is dealing with a paradox of self and history, whereas painters of the
time would be influenced by their surroundings. The early 19th
century was a time of looking forward. In the 21st century, we have
reached a point of looking back.