We succeeded last Saturday to catch the last day of the exhibition of Anselm Kiefer, without doubt one of the most important exhibitions of a non-Israeli contemporary artist to open in Israel in the last few years. The German artist is born in 1945, in last months of the second world war in the small town of Donauschingen in the Black Forest, which I visited two years ago, the place where the Danube starts its journey across Europe. Since his early days of his carer the main theme of his work was the recent history of Germany, the cultural identity and the relation between himself as an artist and his people with the past. The exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was conceived together with the late Mordechai Omer, the former director and curator of the museum, who unfortunately did not live to see the exhibition open at the inauguration of the new Herta and Paul Amir building designed by Preston Scott Cohen.



The West-Eastern Divan is one of the works that best define this exhibition. It is inspired by Goethe’s collection of poems written between 1815 and 1819, inspired by his contact with the Muslim culture and poetry. As Goethe’s poems, Kiefer’s work does not address directly the theme, but uses concepts and forms derived from the contact of the civilizations. On two oposite walls 27 windows each comprise snapshots of the remote ‘exotic’ realities of the different landscapes, flowers, sands, as a scale up wonder box in the style of the 18th century travelers collections. On the wall connecting the two are inscribed the names of the German, Jewish and Muslim thinkers and artists who created works that bridge between cultures.

Maybe one of Goethe’s poems illustrates best the feeling. It seems fit to me, as it also includes the idea of turning water into crystals which connects with the esoteric alchemist tradition, another theme present in the work of Kiefer, also in this exhibition.

Minstrel’s Book: Song and Structure


LET the Greek his plastic clay

Mould in human fashion,
While his own creation may

Wake his glowing passion;

But it is our joy to court

Great Euphrates’ torrent,
Here and there at will to sport

In the Wat’ry current.

Quench’d I thus my spirit’s flame,

Songs had soon resounded;
Water drawn by bards whose fame

Pure is, may be rounded.

(source of translation



Ingeborg Bachman and Paul Celan are the two poets who strongly inspired Kiefer’s work. The Ashflower – For Paul Celan is dedicated to the Jewish poet, born in Bukovina in 1920, then part of Romania, who survived the Holocaust to become one of the first poets of German expression who tried to cope in poetry with his own personal tragedy (much of his family including his parents were assassinated in the Holocaust), with the relation between the Jewish and German nations, with the tragedy of the Jewish intellectuals of German expression torn between their own conflicting identities.

Here is one of his most famous poems written on this subjects – Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it ans steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at teh iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith


(translation source –



Black Flakes belongs to the same cycle. The colors are mostly grey. Infinite and desolated fields are marked by structures left burnt by a devastating fire, dividing the universe in rows of symbols that cannot be read by humans. In the middle a Book, made of lead, it’s content impossible to read. Lead is one of the preferred materials of Kiefer, heavy but malleable, grey and yet the alchemists were dreaming about turning it into gold.



Cain and Abel connects the theme of the Holocaust with another major theme of this exhibition – the Bible as a root of the Jewish and universal civilization. The scorched fields are present here again, but over them are imposed two skis, one ascending, one descending, almost parallel but going on opposite direction, symbol of the contradictions of the human soul and destiny since the emerging of our species and back in the original mythic space. Kiefer’s works are large in dimensions, and they combine painting with materials applied that create another half of dimension, it’s a tormented variant of the antic art of the basso-relief.



With Samson we are completely emerged into the Biblical story, with another thematic element showing up – the codes of the Kabbalah, inscribed in the upper-left register.



Noah deals with two of the Biblical subjects present also in other works. The myth of Noah and his arch and the image of Mount Ararat, visually described in various manners. Is the submarine in the work (applied on the two-dimensional structure) a vessel of survival? This remains an open question, as no living soul can be detected. What is sure is that a catastrophe of large proportions took place and we are witnessing the aftermath. Are there any survivors?



The Breaking of the Vessels was specially created for this exhibition, part of it during an event which was caught up by a video that can be watched at the entry of the exhibition. It’s a complex work, in an almost enclosed structure. Broken glass is a painful symbol in the shared history of the German and Jewish people bringing back the memory of the Kristallnacht. Yet, the name of the work (in Hebrew Shevirat HaKelim) has a Kabbalistic significance, as the vessels of light were broken, but this is only the beginning of a cycle of personal and collective introspection, re-building and fixing of the world – Tikkun olam – one of the most beautiful symbols in Judaism.

I found the following text about the kabbalistic interpretation of the concept of The Breaking of the Vessel:

According to Luria, the ten vessels that were originally meant to contain the emanation of God’s light were unable to contain that light and were hence either displaced or shattered. As a result of this cosmic catastrophe, the Sefirot, the archetypal values through which the cosmos was created, are shattered and out of place, and the world within which we reside, is composed of the shards of the these broken values. It is significant that for the Kabbalists, only 6 of the 10 Sefirot (from Chesed to Yesod) were fully shattered (Malchut, the final vessel was broken partially). Had all of the vessels, including, Keter, Chochmah, and Binah, been shattered, the universe would have been thrown back into the state of complete and utter chaos, the toho and bohu prior to creation. As it is, the three highest Sefirot, which represent Will, Wisdom, and Understanding, remained intact; only the six Sefirot representing the spiritual, moral, aesthetic and material values were broken, and are, hence, in need of restoration or repair (Tikkun). Nevertheless, the Breaking of the Vessels is a truly cataclysmic event. Will, Wisdom and Understanding remain, but all other values, particularly those embodied in the cultural and symbolic order of mankind, have been shattered. Further, while certain forms (may) remain, their embodiment in matter, is chaotic and confused. The Breaking of the Vessels is, according to the Lurianic Kabbalah, a clearing of the decks, a fresh start, and a challenge to the structures that we equate with our own civilized life. It is, in short, an eruption of chaos into the heart of our spiritual, conceptual, moral and psychological structures.

(source and more


More information and articles about the exhibition: