REFLECTIONS ON PAINTING, ALCHEMY, NAZISM: VISITING WITH ANSELM KIEFER
ALBERT P. ALBANO
1. Kiefer's perspectives concerning his choice of materials and the fabrication and alteration of his artwork were communicated to me primarily during two meetings with him, one occurring at his studio in Buchen, Germany on October 5, 1985, and the second on October 11, 1985, at the German Expressionist exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London. As of February 1993, the time of my last request to Kiefer for any additional information or altered perspectives on any material previously communicated to me, he chose not to offer any new insight with the knowledge that his position was eventually to be published.
2. Jung suggests that the principal ideas of philosophical alchemy were shared and freely discussed by the Gnostics, whose analogical thinking is akin to that of the alchemists (Jung  1967, 147). In alchemy, the spinning wheel is a favorite symbol for the circulating process. The mystical associations for the wheel or its contemporary moral allegories are many. One key interpretation in alchemy, shared by the Gnostics, is that of the circulatio or the ascensus and descensus, which are associated with the moral allegory of God's descent to man and man's ascent to God, or thus are a concept for wholeness (Jung  1968, 164–66).
3. The concept of the prima materia within the alchemical hierarchy is of singular significance, if not of singular definition. It did, however, carry for the individual alchemist the “projection of the autonomous psychic content.” Of the various substances identified by individual alchemists as the prima materia, lead was one (Jung  1968, 317–20). Its importance in this respect can be traced back to the Egyptians, who called lead the mother of metals. In the sixth century, Olympiodorus codified the association of metals as they were then understood to the sun and planets, as such restricting their number to seven. Within this hierarchy lead became linked to Saturn (Stillman  1960, 5–9).
4. Symbolic gold is a key concept in the alchemical process, which is commonly acknowledged in chemical transformation. In this process, four stages are generally distinguished: melanosis (blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing), and iosis (reddening). The initial stage in this transformation process is the nigredo or blackness (Jung  1968, 228–29). The alchemist was using the chemical process only symbolically. The gold that he sought was not ordinary gold, as many alchemical books freely acknowledged, but the “philosophical gold” or the “marvelous stone” or other names suggestive of a more complex objective. Their conceptions of this goal were frequently ambiguous and inconsistent. In fact, Jung ( 1968, 232–43) suggests that a key reward, if not an objective, was a “satisfaction born of the enterprise, the excitement of the adventure.”
5. Kiefer did not appear to have any concern for the issues surrounding the toxicity of lead, either associated with its use or with the handling and exhibition of those artworks in which he utilized lead as a major component.
6. The alchemical concepts associated with numbers mysticism are often diverse and complex. However, according to most modern interpretations, two basic principles are the concept of unity within a Trinitarian character in Christian alchemy and a quaternity character in pagan alchemy, thus a spiritual interpretation or a physical one associated with the ancient concept of the four elements (Jung  1968, 26–27). Some of the other numbers that held varying associative meanings were 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, etc. It is significant to note that of the varying interpretations of the number 12, one of which is the 12 stages or operations in the course of the alchemical process of material transformation, Kiefer chose that associated with the apostles (Jung  1968, 212).
7. There are recipes associated with material transmutation attributed to one Democritus (by most accounts not the philosopher Democritus who enunciated the first atomic theory), which describe the coloring of metals to imitate gold or silver by colored mixtures, varnishes, or stains to be superficially applied to give a surface resemblance to gold (Stillman  1960, 152–53). Again, the yellowing process (xanthosis) is one of the four key stages of the alchemical process for the transmutation of the prima materia. In the 15th and 16th centuries the four-color process was reduced to three, with the xanthosis generally falling into disuse (229).
8. Kiefer was far more interested in discussing the choice and use of a toned shellac for a particular painting on which he was working than receiving the information that the aesthetic results would not likely remain permanent because of the shellac's alteration over time.
9. The back of the canvas in a Kiefer painting graphically outlines some of his working methods. This result, in light of his aesthetic intentions as he has expressed them, is purely an artifact of technique; thus, I believe the back of the canvas may be subject to informed and appropriate modification should its original structural conformation significantly jeopardize the stability of the artwork. Kiefer left me with the strong impression, if not the definitive confidence, that necessary conservation intervention for the sake of major stability issues was acceptable to him, but that minor losses of random, tiny pieces of an artwork's material from his canvases were not of particular concern to him. Given Kiefer's reported position on an artwork's physical evolution over time, I believe he would find significant alteration that occurs as a result of restoration worse than that which manifests itself as an artifact of time. In our conversations I addressed the reality that conservators' decisions and actions that may be necessary for the preservation or restoration of an artwork, the aesthetics of which may depend on a visual appearance of narrow tolerances, often challenge the ethical parameters of art conservation.
10. As Kabbalah evolved there arose a complex hierarchy of a series of worlds from above to below, which became fully codified in the 16th century. This unified doctrine established four primary worlds. The concept, incorporating Jewish, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic principles, crystallizes each stage of the process of creation within a separate stage or level. Each stage is a perfect expression of one of the many aspects of the creative power achievable by the creator (Scholem 1974, 116–22).
11. Kiefer has accepted the necessity of readhering variously mounted elements of his pictures once they have become loose or dislodged. This has been done when necessary, particularly during the period of the four-venue Kiefer exhibition held between December 1987 and January 1989. Discreet, slight alterations to the mounting of a precariously attached piece of lead or other material component may be necessary to secure it more thoroughly as a consequence of travel requirements.
12. For a further discussion of Kiefer's position concerning his artworks' conservation in relationship to some of the broader issues of contemporary arts' physical alteration, see Albano 1993, 1995–96, 1996.
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ALBERT P. ALBANO received a B.A. in art history and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hofstra University in 1976. He worked as apprentice with Orrin Riley at the Guggenheim Museum before receiving his certificate in postgraduate studies, art conservation, from Cooperstown Graduate Programs and M.A. from New York State University, Oneonta, in 1980. He has held the positions of associate conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, senior conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and director of conservation at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, Delaware. He is currently executive director of the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), Oberlin, Ohio. Address: 8133 Chagrin Rd., Chagrin Falls, Ohio 44023–4743.