Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer: German Postwar Artists

The reconstruction era sought to repress the memory of Nazism. Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, however, addressed their country’s recent atrocities through their art.

Apr 12, 2021By Anna Sexton, BA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progress
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Kiefer in the studio in front of “For Paul Celan, Stalks of the Night” by Paolo Pellegrin, 2020; with a portrait of Joseph Beuys


Postwar German reconstruction culture sought to normalize the past. It wanted to forget the horrors of Nazism and thus suppressed any memory of its politics and ideology. Instead, Germany embraced “safer” ideals of expressionism in art and consumerism in society, both of which were imports from North America and therefore untainted by the memory of fascism. Joseph Beuys saw a Germany which shifted from fascist wartime mythologies to a “safe” corporate-consumer culture. Anselm Kiefer experienced a Germany in denial, a nation that refused to mourn its recent past. Both of these points of view are reflected in their art.


By comparing the approaches made by these two artists, we can get a glimpse of a nation in transition: where two generations are in the process of coming to terms with the recent past.


Postwar Germany: A Nation In Denial

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Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, US Army against East German Police, 1961, via US Army


The Second World War left many countries shattered, none more so than Germany. Its nation was occupied by two opposing forces, the US and the Soviet Union, and its very capital was divided into four separate zones. Allied Forces and the Soviet Union both undertook the task of nation-building, creating the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. The collective effort of denazification, along with the American-funded Marshall Plan, meant that Germany was rebuilt by outsiders.


These outsiders rebuilt Germany in the likeness of their own ideologies. To the West, the United States instituted capitalist policies in an effort to rebuild the Federal Republic of Germany’s economy, and with these policies came a new era of consumerism and looking forward. It was, therefore, much easier for the majority of the population to repress the collective memory of the Holocaust and the horrors of the Second World War. The American-funded transition to a “safe” capitalist society made it possible to do so.


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Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, American and Soviet Tanks Facing Off, 1961, via US Army

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Some scholars describe this period as the “big silence,” where the population of a destroyed nation guilty of atrocious war crimes sought to bury the past as a means of coping. In a US Military survey taken soon after the end of the war, 83% of Germans believed that their country’s crimes were only to the same level as those of other nations.’


However, this left many without a clear or healthy way to cope with the collective memory and guilt experienced after the war. As early as 1952, the German government was already heading large-scale reconciliation efforts: Chancellor Konrad Adenauer proposed around 4 billion German marks to Israel as reparations for the Holocaust. However, the steps toward reconciliation were mostly a top-down approach and not necessarily felt by the German population at large. In addition, the “big silence” also meant that those born during and just after the war were raised in a splintered and grieving nation silent about its recent horrors.


Germany Through The Eyes And Works Of Joseph Beuys

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I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys, still from monitor, 1974, via Centre Pompidou, Paris


The Germany that Joseph Beuys lived in looked only at the ever-changing present: a country shifting from fascist mythologies of national pride to embrace an emerging capitalist consumer culture. 


As an artist, Joseph Beuys was a part of the German Fluxus movement and created happenings, performance art, paintings, sculptures, and installations. Much of his work is spiritual and delves into the concepts of humanism, social mythologies, and anthroposophy (the use of natural means to optimize physical and mental well-being).


Born in 1921 in Krefeld, Beuys was an only child to merchants and raised under the Third Reich. He was a member of the Hitler Youth and, in September 1936, participated in the Nuremberg rally, a propaganda event created to showcase the power and popularity of German National Socialism. After graduating from school in 1941, he volunteered for the Luftwaffe and became a member of the German military.


On March 6, 1944, Beuys’ plane crashed on the Crimean front. What happened next changed his life and greatly influenced his work.


Fat And Felt: How To Heal A Traumatized Nation

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Felt Suit by Joseph Beuys, 1970; with Fat Chair by Joseph Beuys, 1964-85, via Tate, London


Fat and felt are incredibly significant media that Joseph Beuys used in many of his works. To him, they represented healing on opposing planes: fat infiltrates and is gradually absorbed while felt absorbs everything it contacts. After his plane crash, Beuys claimed he was rescued by Tatar tribesmen who wrapped his body in felt and fat in order to nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, His encounter with the tribe was later proven not to be true. Nevertheless, Beuys’ story explains how these media came to be symbols of healing in his works.


Joseph Beuys’ mythological experience with the Tatar tribe changed his life, prompting him to become a “shaman-artist.” He concerned himself with the process of transformations of matter, as well as the idea that chaos can be a means of healing. In this way, Beuys’ spiritual exploration with earthly material comes into play when reflecting on his memory of German oppression. 


Because Joseph Beuys lived through Nazism and fought in the Second World War, he experienced first-hand the attempt to heal a war-torn society. A lot of his works are therefore centered around the concept of healing and the need to address the past in order to come to terms with the present.


Too Soon? Auschwitz In Beuys’ Art

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Auschwitz Demonstration by Joseph Beuys, 1956-64, via the Wall Street Journal


Joseph Beuys conceived of healing and exorcistic performance as a means to reconnect the conditions of his past experiences with sudden dramatic or grotesque representations of the present. In his first vitrine, Auschwitz-Demonstration (1956-64), Beuys placed objects symbolizing transformations from order into chaos into a new type of assemblage sculpture. In the case, there is, among many things, a photo of Auschwitz, two blocks of fat on a hot plate, the remains of a dead rat, two sausage rings, and a cookie lying like a Eucharist next to a Christ figure. 


In fact, Joseph Beuys is one of the first artists who attempts to create art in commemoration of the Holocaust. The vitrine Auschwitz-Demonstration articulates the necessity to remember such atrocities as well as the difficulty of representing them. He shows remnants of a twisted transformation, a systemic routine of turning life into death.


Beuys stated: “The human condition is Auschwitz, and the principle of Auschwitz finds its perpetuation in our understanding of science and political systems… we are now experiencing Auschwitz in its contemporary character.” 


Anselm Kiefer: A Child Of The Postwar Generation

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Kiefer in the studio in front of “For Paul Celan, Stalks of the Night” by Paolo Pellegrin, 2020, via The New York Times


While Joseph Beuys participated in the Second World War, witnessed the partition of Germany, and lived through its recovery, Anselm Kiefer only saw half of this process. He is an artist of the next generation, one who only knew a Germany rising from the rubble, and never the Germany of Nazism and the Third Reich.


Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945, two months before the end of World War II, to an officer in the Wehrmacht. He was raised in a silenced and traumatized nation. 


He initially studied pre-law and romance languages at the University of Freiburg but switched to art after three years. At the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Kiefer studied informally under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys.


Unlike Beuys, who focuses on the healing process after a collective trauma, Anselm Kiefer instead uses his art as a means to confront the complicated issues which arise from the legacies of Nazism


Germans did not want to address the atrocities of their recent history. For this reason, the new postwar generation was raised in a sort of secrecy.  Anselm Kiefer belonged to this generation and thus experienced a country in denial, one that refused to talk about the recent past. In the 1950s, the process of national mourning for Holocaust victims was nearly impossible because it meant the nation would have to face its atrocities. 


Because of this, Kiefer and many other artists of his generation were left to their own devices to try to piece together what happened and why. Rather than trying to heal a broken nation or explore the elements of a country in transformation, Kiefer instead looked to the past to figure out his present. Thus, his art represents his exploration into the mind of Nazi Germany.


Kiefer’s Exploration Into The Recent Past

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Occupations (Besetzungen) by Anselm Kiefer, 1969, via Tate, London


Anselm Kiefer aimed to discover the role that images, mythologies, architecture, and history played in the fascist German rhetoric. He wanted to figure out how Nazism used these tools in a way that permanently scarred the pride of the German people. In some works, Kiefer sought to explore the reason behind the psychological distress toward expressing national pride, something that is present in Germany even today.


The photo series Occupations, taken in 1969 and shown in 1975, is Kiefer’s quintessential work illustrating his exploration into the fundamentals of fascism. The photographs depict him in locations all over Europe, in front of monumental architecture and grand landscapes, doing the Sieg Heil salute. 


A photograph of this nature would undoubtedly shock and disturb a viewer from the Postwar era, as it is a blatant depiction of Nazism. However, upon closer look, it is evident that Kiefer is making a parody of the Third Reich’s pomp and circumstance through subtle nuances. For one, the photos are shot from afar so that Kiefer is dwarfed by his surroundings and rendered quite small. Additionally, there are no displays of military power as was usual in fascist propaganda, making it seem as though Kiefer is simply play-acting at being a Nazi. 


Joseph Beuys And Anselm Kiefer: A Generation Apart

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Die Orden der Nacht (The Orders of the Night) by Anselm Kiefer, 1996, via Seattle Art Museum, Seattle


In sum, comparing Joseph Beuys’ and Anselm Kiefer’s artistic approaches allows us to piece together what life was like for different generations in Postwar Germany. Kiefer’s generation grew up in the dark about the trauma inflicted upon the German nation. While most of their parents coped by repressing their collective guilt, others such as Joseph Beuys directly addressed the horrors of the Holocaust in an effort to heal.

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By Anna SextonBA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progressAnna holds a BA from the University of Washington in Art History and International Relations and is currently based in Strasbourg, France. She has worked in several museums and art galleries in the Seattle area as well as abroad. She is currently completing her Master's thesis on the spoliation and restitution of Nazi-looted art in Strasbourg. When she is not writing & researching, Anna enjoys dancing ballet, learning languages, doing crosswords, and drinking tea.