Debris of Blood and Soil

“Born in Germany in the final weeks of World War II, Anselm Kiefer’s childhood left a permanent impression. Surrounded by the ruins of the Black Forest town of Donaüschingen, Kiefer grew up with images of burned buildings, crashed military airplanes, and destroyed machinery from which his neighbors scavenged steel for a pittance. Meanwhile, Friedrich Seidenstücker was photographing Berlin’s Tiergarten park shorn of vegetation, ground pummelled by military vehicles, and the Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”) who formed chains to salvage bricks from heaps of masonry. 

After Kiefer’s early success freed him from financial constraints, he bought a giant former brick factory in Barjac, Gard, in France which he used as his studio to make large installations out of rubble, cast concrete, earth, sheet lead, straw, dried sunflowers and other materials. His art recreated the Germany of his childhood to mediate on how rubble eventually becomes soil in which plants and crops can grow.

Kiefer links wartime debris with German Romanticism. He detected in Hitler – as did Munch and Dalí – an innate form of masochism and desire for failure specific to the German character. The German Romantic worldview is epitomized by the solitary traveler famously depicted in the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich contemplating ruins in the wilderness as a symbol of man’s hubris, the cyclical decline of civilizations and the unassuageable power of nature. 

One embodiment of that Romantic melancholic yearning for a ruined landscape is found in the idea of the Ruinenwert (“ruin value”) refined and popularised by Albert Speer. The chief architect of the NSDAP after the death of Troost. Speer consulted with Hitler to conceptualize buildings that would appear noble and mighty when ruined….”

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This is an extract from my book “Blood, Soil, Paint” published by Imperium Press. Details and purchase here:

“Dealers and Gamblers”

In a new piece, I look at the links between gambling, risk-taking and avant-gardism in the arts.

“Under electric lights, seated men watch the dealer turn over playing cards on the green baize. Glasses of whisky and brandy are at their elbows, chips stacked high or low, a thin veil of cigar smoke just above bowed heads…

“Last month I read stories by Knut Hamsun on men ruined by gambling. Hamsun was a big gambler, spending his royalties from his novels HungerMysteries and Pan in Danish casinos. Despite his literary fame and financial success, Hamsun’s gambling fever put his marriage at risk and threatened him with bankruptcy. This led me to an idea about risk, temperament, and vanguardism, specifically in relation to reactionary creators. 

“We should distinguish conservatives from reactionaries. Temperamentally, conservatives are aligned with liberals and socialists. They are risk averse. Conservatives value continuity, stability and predictability: anti-risk qualities. Together with socialists, they value conformity and group cohesion. They prioritize the socialization of risk and cost – conservatives through family and local community, socialists through the welfare state. 

“These people are far removed from the risk-taking, disagreeable, headstrong loners of the archetypes of the pioneer, explorer, prospector, athlete and warrior….”

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