Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Morgenthau Plan’ and Expressionism

This essay will be discussingone painting from Anselm Kiefer’s series ‘Morgenthau Plan’ (Figure 1). Thisessay will be evaluating how Kiefer’s painting relates to the Expressionistmovement, which peaked between 1905 and 1925, predominately in France andGermany. The title of the work refers to a plan put forward by the UnitedStates Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. in 1944.

The proposed schemeinvolved dividing Germany into three states, North and South Germany, then one zoneto be deemed internationally owned. The end goal was to weaken by Germanyridding it of industry, military and returned to depending on agriculture. Theplan never came to fruition but unsettled many citizens of Germany.  Definitions of Expressionism have been widely debated andhave led to definitions of later movements such as Abstract Expressionism.

Initially, Expressionism was seen as a radical response to Impressionism, a periodof time (1872- 1892) where artists aimed to capture a moment in time with loosebrushwork that recreated very literal forms. However, Expressionism demandedmore creativity and opened a realm for artists to create something that wasmore poignant to viewers. In the key period of Expressionism, industrialisationwas increasing at a rapid pace and was often the subject or influence ofartists work.

For example, 1906 saw the invention of radio broadcasting whichbecame an important way to communicate news and a main source of entertainment.In 1908, assembly line production massively increased the amount of productsthat could be made in a shorter period of time. This meant that goods were moreaffordable to accessible to a wider range of people. At the other end of theperiod, in 1925, the television was invented and has since been of majorimportance in broadcasting information and culture. Expressionism broughtanother perspective to such a rapidly evolving period of time and made societyconsider the environment they were living in. Additionally, photography wasbecoming a more mainstream media and was affordable enough for the averageperson to pursue. This meant there was less desire to capture that split secondof life that the Impressionism movement focussed on.

Alternatively, in ourmodern age, Anselm Kiefer often pulls us from the developed world we are so accustomedto, to think about forgotten parts of history.As a native German, Kiefer’s work could be seen as a responseto the anti-expressionism regime of the Nazi Party during WW2. In response tohearing speeches given by the Nazi leaders, Kiefer states ‘the sound goes rightthrough the skin.

Not only through the ears and head. I was simply shocked. Andthat’s how it began’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg. ….

.). Being born just at theend of the war, Kiefer has strong personal connections with the lasting effectof the social context of that time. A running theme through his work questionshow German artists could redeem themselves after being criminalised by leadersof their own nation. Kiefer describes this investigation through art as ‘anattempt to get to the centre of truth’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg….

.). As stated earlier, there are many ideas surrounding a definitionof Expressionism, a movement that began a tendency towards abstraction. HerwathWalden, founder of a German Expressionist magazine ‘Der Sturm’, describedexpressionism as ‘art which gave form to the lived experience that lies deepwithin oneself’ (1910, quoted in Richard, 1978, pg. 9). This is true of‘Morgenthau Plan’ which reflects Kiefer’s experience as a German citizen postWW2.

The dark, textured background brings a sense of desolation and abandonmentwhich reiterates how Kiefer felt discriminated against for a number of years –Kiefer’s own ‘lived experience’. The recurring motif of the forest in many ofhis works, appears to be heavily influenced by the shelter the woods providedKiefer and his family during bomb raids. Walden goes onto add that the artists‘own life is his most important consideration: what the outside world imprintson him… He conveys his visions, his inner landscapes, and is conveyed by them’.In a literal sense, Kiefer is replicating a desolate landscape which relates tothe idea of his ‘inner landscape’, formed by his emotional experience. He oftenreturns to the optimistic view of nature when describing the ‘ripening processof work’. Kiefer ‘summon[s] nature to help me finish the painting’, which mayinvolve leaving the paint to be roughened by rain and wind, or layered withacid and earth. Although Walden also suggests ‘naunces of style were notimportant’ when contributing to the classification of Expressionism, the visualcharacteristics of these paintings at the time tended to employ gestural brushstrokes and heavily applied, textured paint. ‘Morgenthau Plan’ definitely fallswithin this style but offers a different angle by using shellac, fragments ofpaint, plaster, straw and sediment to add additional texture.

To Kiefer,introducing unconventional materials to the surface of the piece is not just avisual aspect, ‘When I use objects and substances such as straw and lead Idistil from their spirit… I discover the spirit that is within thesesubstances. I upheave it and display it’ (quoted in Davey, 2014, pg….). In thisway, Kiefer has a deeper connection to the materials he is using and allowsthem to add to the stimulus of the work. Expressionist paintings also hinted atabstraction with gestural shapes and lines. Kiefer’s work also has thesetendencies; forms are still visible and identifiable however the greatercontext of the image is not clear – open to interpretation. There is a strong senseof emotion, a ‘mystical’ quality as the viewer attempts to unravel the impactthe work is portraying.

This comes from the complexity and disorientatingsurface of the canvas.           ‘Morgenthau Plan’ could be compared to Vincent Van Gogh’s‘Wheatfield with Crows’ (Figure 2). Although his work fell outside of the keyperiod for the Expressionist movement, Van Gogh was labelled as an earlyexpressionist as ‘all those who reacted against the impressionist aestheticwere labelled expressionists’ (Richard, 1978, pg.9). He also fell into thiscategory by becoming the subject matter for his own work; presenting himself asa tortured individual, ‘the artist does not try to succeed in rendering whatothers consider beautiful, but to express what is essential for him’ (Richard,1978, pg. 10).

‘Wheatfield with Crows’ is not an accurate depiction of alandscape but rather how Van Gogh interpreted it. Like ‘Morgenthau Plan’, VanGogh depicts a forsaken landscape with the detail being in the sweepingbrushstrokes and layered paint. Both paintings present a foreboding sky byusing darker tones towards the top of the canvas. The paintings sharesimilarities as they both present a connection between man and nature. In VanGogh’s case, this has a more figurative form of crows which are identified inthe title. Whereas, for Kiefer, the dark shapes are more abstract. This couldbe Kiefer’s way of interpreting Van Gogh’s crows but with a more cynicalattitude. In contrast to Van Gogh’s figurative wheat fields, Kiefer hasphysically embedded straw into the canvas.

‘An initially rigid substance, strawsoftens into a Materia prima and, combined with animal excrement, its dazzlingcolour changes into a dark matter ready to be received by the earth’. It is suggestedthat, ‘like his Dutch predecessor [Kiefer] seeks to create an empathetic linkwith the natural world’ (Heinich, 2003, pg. 21), ‘Morgenthau Plan’ emulateshuman kind’s mark on the land by the histories we can create through war andthe division of nations. Being part of a latter generation, Kiefer haswitnessed the great devastation man can cause on the landscape. Comparatively,Van Gogh looks at the bond between man and nature in a more positive view ‘forhim, agricultural labour was a parable of the just and unspoiled life, inharmony with divine Creation’ (Heinich, 2003, pg. 21). In other words, Van Goghis expressing the potential fruitfulness of the land.

For Kiefer, the depictionof a field would signify the yet unfulfilled rebirth and the regrowth thatfruitful land has to offer in a post-industrialised world.Kiefer’s contemporary way of working could also be seen as atake on ‘action painting’, a term that became mainstream by the work of JacksonPollock. Pollock famously shared, ‘I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas tothe hard wall or floor… On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more apart of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the foursides and literally be in the painting’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36). Kiefertoo utilises this way of working at the ground level to engage with thematerials and expression of the work. Visually, the two artists have a similaraesthetic of layered complexity and a raw application of the medium. In ‘FullFathom Five’ (Figure 3), Pollock alsoembeds other materials in the way Kiefer uses straw, sediment, plaster, for examplein ‘Morgenthau Plan’.

It has been noted that both artists are deeply immersedin the creation process but once the art is completed, they feel a detachmentand disappointment. For Pollock, ‘It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’period that I see what I have been about… It is only when I lose contact withthe painting that the result is a mess’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36). Similarly,it has been recorded that ‘once a painting has been completed, he [Kiefer]often feels disappointed, by something that is missing’ (quoted in Davey, 2014,pg….

.). In this way, both artists share the understanding of allowing thepainting to guide its creation process, to connect with the materials, and toappreciate the ‘easy give and take’ (quoted in Hess, 2009, pg. 36) between thepiece and the artist. But ultimately, Pollock’s paintings in this drippingstyle are far more abstract than Kiefer’s depictions and require a differentlevel of interpretation to tap into the discourse of the paintings. To conclude, Anselm Kiefer could firmly be described as aneo-expressionist as his work is a thoughtful combination of his ownexperiences and the history that drove them.

As a cynical but truthfulrepresentation, ‘Morgenthau Plan’ is a prime example of how Kiefer enables usto engage with the link between human behaviour and nature differently. VanGogh’s world would today be considered small, with little opportunity to traveland connect with other cultures. Whereas, Kiefer is dealing with more globalissues that will affect and be seen by a much broader audience. Because ofthis, Van Gogh put himself at the forefront of his work by presenting himselfas the ‘tortured artist’, whereas ‘Morgenthau Plan’ gives something we can alltake.

What makes Kiefer different from the original Expressionist painters, ishow he is dealing with a paradox of self and history, whereas painters of thetime would be influenced by their surroundings. The early 19thcentury was a time of looking forward. In the 21st century, we havereached a point of looking back.