In 1969 Anselm Kiefer, then a 24-year-old art student in Karlsruhe, travelled round various locations in France, Switzerland and Italy where he was photographed giving the “sieg heil” (Hitlergruß) salute outside prominent buildings. His exhibiting of a selection of the images, under the title Occupations (Bezetzung), for his degree show provoked anxious incomprehension among his tutors and, later, anger among the public and critics. The taboo-breaking work has now entered the art-historical canon and Kiefer has been credited with an early “naming” of the evil that so many of his countrymen had chosen to forget, but more than 40 years after it was produced, Occupations remains one of the most polarising artworks to have emerged from postwar Germany.
Late last year in New York, an exhibition of Kiefer’s work featured some of the 1969 images alongside more typical later work such as huge glass cases displaying tableaux made up of cotton dresses, palms, bushes, an aeroplane fuselage and burned books, as well as large paintings of the German landscape made with ash, lead, snakeskin and other organic materials. “When I moved to my new studio in Paris a few years ago I had the space and opportunity to look at old work, often for the first time since it was made,” he explains. “I found all these negatives from 1969 that I’d never even developed. So I developed some of them and put them in a big container for the New York show. It seemed a long time ago when I made them, but even after all these years some people did not like them at all.”
The show attracted a small demonstration, but Kiefer says he is “used to hard reactions. When I first thought of the work I didn’t know anyone else who was doing anything similar, but I had always thought that I had been born an artist and so what I did was art. I was very confident. If I hadn’t been I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. Even by the time of the Venice biennale in 1980, when I was supposedly established, not a single critic was for me. Everyone was against my work. Of course, they later turned in my favour, but I needed a high degree of confidence to continue.”