Anselm Kiefer

Aschenblume, 1983–97, Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas, 401.32 x 761.37 cm, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Gift of the Burnett Foundation, 2002.17.A-D, ©️ Anselm Kiefer; Photo: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Remember That You Are Dust

Commentary by Ben Quash

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Read by Ben Quash

Donald Kuspit once asked Anselm Kiefer in an interview about the beauty of his work. Kiefer responded: ‘I have spent five years on one painting; for it to end up merely as “beautiful” hardly seems worth the trouble’ (Kiefer 2011:70).

His vast painting, Aschenblume (Ash Flower), 7 metres wide, is not beautiful by any conventional measure. As in a number of his works, Kiefer used actual ash to make it.

He has spread it across the surface of a depiction of the grand Mosaic Room in the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, designed by Albert Speer. A colossal interior, built for grand ceremonies and multitudes of people, is hauntingly empty—disappearing into distant space. Can anything good come out of this? Can anything grow in this dust? Kiefer does not answer directly, but places a tall, dried sunflower in the middle of the canvas.

Can heaven bear the weight of earth, and earth’s history? In Kiefer’s paintings ‘ash is the trace of an immemorial disaster’ (Stoker 2012: 170). His is a fiercely post-lapsarian outlook. The world he shows us in his visual art is thick with history; layered in seam upon seam; knotted and tangled with roots; smeared and clogged and hard to penetrate. It is, as Rod Mengham writes, ‘the reverse of a history that can be sounded, mapped and steered through’ (Mengham 2005: 48). Moments of clarity and illumination are rare.

But there are occasional flashes of light in his work—brief ones, like fire from struck flint. Or maybe like the sunflower in Ash Flower: a potent and vivid example of transformation and surprise overlaid on the ash coating of the cavernous and empty Nazi hall.

Indeed, ash itself (like lead, which is another material with which Kiefer is fascinated) has connotations of transformation and renewal. The alchemist sees in lead the potential for gold. The farmer sees in ash the potential for new growth. In Kiefer’s words:

Ploughing and burning, like slash-and-burn agriculture, is a process of regeneration, so that the earth can be reborn and create new growth toward the sun. (Celant 2007: 338)

Nature may no longer straightforwardly seem to announce the splendour of its divine Creator, but the dust of earth (even its ash) can still be used ‘to mould a symbol, a symbol of the imaginative and the spiritual world’ (Celant 2007: 337).



Celant, Germano. 2007. Anselm Kiefer (London: Thames & Hudson)

Kiefer, Anselm. 2011. ‘A Dialogue with Donald Kuspit at Documenta in 1987’, in Dialectical Conversions: Donald Kuspit's Art Criticism, ed. by David Craven and Brian Winkenwede (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press)

Mengham, Rod. 2005. ‘Waterworld’, in Anselm Kiefer Für Chlebnikov (London: Jay Jopling/White Cube)

Stoker, Wessel. 2012. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: The Spiritual in the Art of Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, and Kiefer (New York: Rodopi)

See full exhibition for Genesis 3:17–19, 23

Genesis 3:17–19, 23

Revised Standard Version

Genesis 3

17And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,

and have eaten of the tree

of which I commanded you,

‘You shall not eat of it,’

cursed is the ground because of you;

in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

19In the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”


23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.