Alchemy and the art of Anselm Keifer

Alchemy and the art of Anselm Keifer

by Gerald Smith, 1992

It is not hard to generate reasons why alchemy would be of interest to a contemporary artists. The stuff that makes for good novels and good movies can be found in the tales of human sacrifice, forgery, theft, deceit, occult magic, secret societies, and serendipitous discovery told in the lore of alchemy. Such tabloid details, however titillating and popular they may be, are not the substantive elements of alchemy and neither are they of interest to Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer is an artist, cosmographer, mythologist, and post-WWII German with a social conscience. This configuration, in Kiefer’s case, is an explosive combination and one in which alchemy has played a significant role in igniting. The following discussion is an exploration of Kiefer’s interest in and use of alchemical principles and processes. I begin, however, with a brief summary of western alchemy in order to provide a framework for discussing Kiefer’s art.


What much of science (biology and chemistry) is to our contemporary culture, alchemy was to western and eastern cultures for nearly 1500 years. Alchemy provided its practitioners with a descriptive and sometimes systematic means of intervening in and discovering nature’s ongoing processes. Through a variety of chemical and liturgical procedures, alchemists mixed together mineral ores and liquids with the intention of generating the elixir vitae, precious metals like gold and silver, and personal purification and immortality. What actually resulted from these many years of earnestness, thought, prayer, and primitive chemistry was the rudiments of chemistry as we know it today. Alcohol, the mineral acids, and an expanded repertoire of known substances (including sal ammoniac and saltpetre) are some of alchemy’s contribution to modern chemistry[1]1. The principals and procedures of alchemy, on the other hand, slowly wasted away into and through their own obscurity during the eighteenth century. As C.G. Jung quips “It tried to explain everything on the principle of: …what is dark by what is darker still, what is unknown by what is still more unknown; and this principle agreed very badly with the spirit of enlightenment and especially with the dawning of chemistry as a science towards the end of the [18th] century.”[2]2

Alchemy originated independently in China and India between the 3rd and 5th centuries B.C., and ostensibly much earlier in Egypt. Of interest to the present discussion is the Egyptian form of alchemy since its formulations, together with subsequent Greek and Arabic editing, became the prevailing doctrine of alchemy practiced in Europe. This alchemical doctrine entered western Christendom through Byzantium (Constantinople) during the 7th or 8th century and remained relatively dormant until the 12the century when a resurgence of interest in Greek and Arabic texts infused western alchemists with a bolus of exciting new ideas and apparatuses. The popularity of alchemy subsequently climaxed during the 17the century with the approval and financial backing of royalty throughout Europe — many of whom hoped to profit handsomely from the gold promised by the alchemists they employed.

Whereas the history of alchemists can be readily discerned[3]3,[4]4,[5]5 ,the principles and practices of these same alchemists is far more difficult to determine. Alchemists considered their work to be “sacred” and available only to their own initiates. Consequently, the descriptions of their discoveries were often obscured in allegory and metaphor.[6]6 Nevertheless, three basic principles are clear. First, alchemy is based on a cosmology of material unity. Western alchemy maintained the Aristotelian notion that all matter is composed of four elements (fire, earth, water, and air) and four qualities (hot, cold, wet, and dry) all of which can be transmuted one to another.[7]7 Furthermore, three principles (sulfur, salt, and mercury), two “seeds” (masculine and feminine), and one “fruit” (tincture or Philosopher’s Stone) completed the full description matter.[8]8

The second principle is the belief that nature strives ultimately towards perfection; on a material plane to the production of gold (the Philosopher’s Stone being the ultimate form) and on a medicinal and spiritual plane to immortality (of both body and soul). The earth was seen metaphorically as a womb in which matter evolved, through states of purification, into gold. Other minerals were simply imperfect states of this evolutionary process removed prematurely. The third principle of alchemy makes use of the first two principles. Since all matter was of one interrelated form, and nature’s objectives were clear, it seemed reasonable to alchemists that through manipulation of matter man could intervene and accelerate nature’s slow evolvement towards perfection and immortality. Presumably, this perfection would also include perfect people and perfect societies.

The practical component of alchemy was the Work (Opus) and its key function was the transmutation of matter and soul. Material transmutations (the Operatio) were conducted according to personal variations of the following prescribed formula.[9]9 First, metal ores were smelted in a furnace (called an Anathor) and transmutated into the materia primia, or base material which was thought to be the totopotential form of all other matter. The usual choice of lead and silver ores for this initial smelting was an astrological one. Heaven and earth were considered to be corresponding and interactive realities. Furthermore, each of the seven visible “planets” were associated with seven common minerals in a hierarchary of importance. Lead was aligned with the most distant planet, Saturn, and considered to be the “generative” or active pole of the cosmic order. Meanwhile, silver was aligned with the moon; the closest visible planet and considered the to be most “receptive” domain. The sun, corresponding to gold, and located central to the cosmic polarities of lead and silver, was thought to be the sum total of these polar elements. Therefore, the union of lead and silver was thought to result first in the production of the materia primia and second, with the evolutionary perfection of gold. Rage, pain, and killing of the ore’s material properties presumably occurred during the smelting process leading to a state of putrefactio and culminating in a visibly black state termed nigredo. The emerging product was the materia premia. At this moment, matter was thought to be at once in both a state of pre-cosmological chaos and rebirth.

Subsequent treatments of this material with repeated washings comprised the second stage or leukosis (white stage) of The Work. The third stage called cinitritas (yellow stage) and fourth stage called rubedo (red stage) were the most difficult and philosophically laden components of The Work. Should the adept be spiritually and intellectually capable of reaching the rubedo, he/she would have not only attained the Philosopher’s stone (capable of turning all that it touches into gold) but also the most coveted goal of the Opus: spiritual and bodily perfection and immortality.


Alchemy can be seen as the paradigmatic equivalent of Kiefer’s project and process. Both alchemy and Kiefer’s art are concerned with the “eternal questions of existence, of life, death, rebirth, God, and our place in the universe.”[10]10 While the alchemist sought answers to these questions by chemically and philosophically paralleling what he perceived as nature’s processes, Kiefer seeks to answer these questions by visually paralleling man’s mythos of nature’s processes in hopes of discovering nature and mankind’s interwoven destiny. Moreover, both alchemy and Kiefer’s art are agents of transformation. Kiefer specifically aims at the transformation of our modern view of the world[11]11 and his art is catalytic in this transformation. His method involves the appropriation of cosmological and historical myths and simultaneously deconstructing and re-assembling these myths in the presence of their historical, social, and existential assumptions and consequences. Kiefer’s exegesis of myth, consequently, shows us visually how the myth is constructed, appropriated, used, and “endowed with new layers of meaning in new historical contexts.”[12]12 If we follow Kiefer’s conclusions, we are left with the understanding that myth and history are interdependent and inseparable.[13]13

III. Kiefer’s Art and the Principles of Alchemy

It is interesting to look, from the vantage point of alchemy, at the whole of Kiefer’s work since 1970. The Aristotelian cosmology of four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) comprise almost exclusively the visual ovure of Kiefer’s endeavors. Earth, water, and fire are characteristically featured in Kiefer’s earlier books and paintings (prior to the introduction of lead materials) and often act as the “transmutable” elements of the work. The element of air is more evident in Kiefer’s later paintings and sculptures with his extensive incorporation of propellers, wings, and mythical narratives of angelic hierarchies in his work. Specific reference to the alchemical principle of material unity, however, is rarely overt. One possible example is Hoffmann von Fallersleben auf Helgoland (1978). In this work, Rosenthal posits that we see the reminiscence of an earlier time “the Muspell era in the Edda [Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson], when rivers turned to ice and fire was everywhere. In this ‘first world,’ the fundamental elements – earth, air, fire, and water — are omnipresent, as are the oppositions they establish, such as hot and cold and dry and wet.”[14]14 This Nordic mythology is an element of Kiefer’s heritage and one that reflects the alchemist’s cosmology.

Of the alchemist’s other components of matter, namely the three principles (sulfur, salt and mercury), the two seeds (masculine and feminine), and the one fruit (tincture or philosopher’s stone), only the philosopher’s stone is appropriated to any great degree by Kiefer. Being the penultimate transmutating agent of the alchemist, Kiefer uses the philosopher’s stone’s mythical status to signify order amid chaos[15]15 and the act of transmutation itself. Kiefer’s Melancholy (1991)[16]16 shows one rather humorous appropriation of the philosopher’s stone. In this work one can see white chalk-like lines on a bed of lead delineating a disfigured philosopher’s stone (only one side is rhombohedron). An adjacent intestinal tract (several feet in length) lies stretched out and dried out. Here Kiefer has presented a two agents of transmutation whose powers are impotent. The intestine, being disembodied, can no longer function in transmutating food to waste. Likewise, the disfigurement of the philosopher’s stone belies its imperfections; its powers are consequently undermined and the bed of lead it should readily act upon remains untransmutated. From another perspective, this work questions and chides the ideology, authority and power of a philosopher’s stone. He seems to be asking: “could a philosopher’s stone or its metaphorical equivalents really transmutate anything, including defecant, into gold? We see here Kiefer’s skepticism of and cynicism towards authority, dogma and any system that claims omnipotence.

Alchemy’s second and third principles (that nature strive always towards perfection and that mankind has the power and intelligence to intervene in and accelerate nature’s strivings) are concepts that are in no way exclusive to alchemy. On the contrary, the underlying principle of contemporary evolution asserts that nature mutates towards the perfect symbiosis of its participants. Although, in contrast to the alchemist, the evolutionist’s nature is “unconscious” of its actions, nature’s presumed striving for perfection remains a powerful and pervasive myth in contemporary society. For Kiefer, the Nazi ideology of the Aryan Race, which was thought to exemplify nature’s perfect human race, is a recent myth with which he has profound concern.

The belief that man can and should intervention in nature’s processes is by far the most pernicious remnant of alchemy found in contemporary culture. This interventionist ideology underlies our entire technological culture. We spend enormous energy trying to make the earth a more suitable place to live and to increase the length of life. Kiefer’s project challenges us to reconsider our penchant for prediction and control of nature within this technological age and alchemical symbology and metaphor are a vehicle for this task. In John Gilmour’s view:

“…since [alchemy] began as an ideology of reverence for nature, and ritual identification with the powers by which it could be transformed, [it] has the surprising upshot, if Eliade is right, that ‘on the plane of cultural history… the alchemists, in their desire to supersede Time, anticipated what is in fact the essence of the ideology of the modern world.’ What Eliade means is that the alchemical tradition’s transformative impulses became changed, over time, into the project of control over nature by scientific reason. What began in reverence and insecurity,requiring rituals of purification and expiation, has now become the subject of experiment and control within a stridently secular context. Kiefer, it seems, wishes to expose this conflict within his Theater of Cruelty.”[17]17

Kiefer’s Occupation series (1969) and Pittsburgh series (1984-85) are clear examples of how he handles this issue. It seems, that in Kiefer’s view, man’s dominion over nature is presumptuous and fraught with destructive consequences. The results of military conquest and mindless pollution are examples.

The alchemical belief that man can accelerate the processes of nature, is also a major theme for Kiefer. Fire, the transformative element, is Kiefer’s metaphor for this theme and one which seems nearly omnipresent in his works. (See below for further discussion of Kiefer’s use of fire.)

Kiefer and the Materials and Methods of Alchemy

Compared to Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke (two of Kiefer’s contemporaries who use[d] a wide assortment of materials with alchemical significance), Kiefer uses a limited and conventional palette. He is, essentially, a traditional painter and sculptor. Nevertheless, Kiefer uses these materials and their alchemical symbology in an incredible variety of unconventional ways with each subject he explores. As well, he has created his own system of elements, consisting of sand, straw, ash, clay, iron, woodcuts, fragments of woodcuts, burnt canvas, and photographic enlargements. In his own way, Kiefer, like the alchemist and astrologer of the past, creates a symbolic significance for his materials and methods that enables him to explain himself. For instance, Kiefer “thinks of straw as a kind of manure, that is, a form of energy that provides warmth in the winter [and] eventually changes composition through a process similar to fermentation [on the way to being] ‘transfigured.’ “[18]18 Likewise, he identifies sand with its inability to burn in works with straw and lead.[19]19 Kiefer’s use of woodcuts in his paintings act symbolically as well: introducing symbols of German national pride (the woodcut and the mythicized German forest) and “giving material form to the myth”[20]20 by virtue of the woodcut’s actual presence in the painting which, thereby, brings the forest into the work of art. With this bizarre assortment of materials (many of which are not historically relevant to alchemy) we see that “Kiefer is not interested in imitating or illustrating the practice of alchemy in a specific, literal-minded way. Rather, he has found in it a fertile metaphor for giving the material substances and technical processes of his art a symbolic signification.”[21]21

One material that Kiefer uses extensively, and that does have a deep alchemical history and significance, is lead. Visually, lead provides a neutral grey surface which can exhibit subtile color variations (primarily blues) and sheens of gold and silver (when heated) that are likely very appealing to the photographer and painter in Kiefer. He even contributes to this mutation of the surface of the lead by introducing it to water and acids (which gives the lead a coating of oxides and carbonates) as well as exposing it to weathering and other abuses. More importantly, in Kiefer’s hands “lead is more than metal, it is substance”[22]22 and it carries with it an entire lexicon of associations and meanings which Kiefer uses to create “visual puns and verbal irony.”[23]23 Like the pervasive wood of Kiefer’s earlier interior paintings, lead stands in as ground for the images and the signifier of time, contemplation, and artistic activity.[24]24

An example of Kiefer’s use of lead can be seen in works such as Palette With Wings (1985, Figure 1), and Wayland’s Song (with Wing) (1982, Figure 2). Here we see Kiefer’s interest in the alchemist’s lead as an metaphor for the conflict of inner polarities. “According to an alchemistic practice the redemption of spiritual substances from lower matter [lead] takes place in a gradual process of separating, and combining, of ascending and descending and, on the correspondingly higher level, as the cycle of death and resurrection.”25 Kiefer ‘s use of lead gives referent to such alchemical and mythical explanation. At the same time, however, Kiefer points out the irony in using lead as the signifier or such activities. Lead is incompatibility with flight and, consequently, the supposed transformation of the palette (signifying art or the artist) and Wayland (the crippled and vengeful master smith of Norse myth) is futile. Kiefer’s lead propellors and lead aircraft obviate similar ironies.

Works like Emanation (1984-86, Figure 3) and Women of the Revolution (1986, Figure 4) exhibit two more ways Kiefer has employed lead and it’s mystical metaphors. In Kiefer’s Emanations, the cloud-like forms symbolize both the shapeless, divine emanation and “love or energy described by Jewish and Christian mystics.”[25]26 We see Kiefer, in this series, using the alchemical metaphors of lead to help visualize aspects of the Jewish Kabbalah instead of his own Teutonic heritage (the Yggdrasil series, and Breaking of the Vessel series are continuations of this same theme). In counterpoint, the Emanations can be seen as referential to inspiration itself. The German custom of “lead pouring” that was done on New Years and used to predict the events of the coming year resonates in works that present lead in the presence of water.[26]27 In the almost entirely leaden, Women of the Revolution, Kiefer appropriates yet another alchemical and midevil association with lead: it’s impenetrability, resistance to radiation, and preservative qualities.[27]28 Here, Kiefer “invokes lead to protect the [women]…’from further History.'”[28]29 Lead can also be seen simultaneously as both a material of longevity and durability on the one hand and as a material of unstructured chaos and mutability on the other. Temporality is an astrological and physical characteristic of lead, and one that Kiefer makes numerous referents to in his work.

The metaphor of the alchemical materia primia also pervades Kiefer’s work. One can likely be accurate in associating any of Kiefer’s works in lead with the alchemical materia primia since lead is its progenerative source and is presumably the material that mystically suffers, dies and to become the totopotential base matter. Works such as Saturn Time (1986, Figure 5) and The Book (1979-85, Figure 6) use lead specifically to emblematize the materia primia at its moment of rebirth.

Kiefer metaphorically and, at times, physically appropriates the processes of Alchemy. Like the alchemist, Kiefer is in the business of transforming. He has stated that wants to create “something that isn’t a fabrication but a transformation”[29]30 and, as I view it, a transformation of our understanding of the cosmos and our understanding of history. The metaphor of the alchemist tools of fire and the furnace, therefore, provide Kiefer with a visual catalyst for his transformations. In Kiefer’s project, as in the alchemical tradition, fire is both a liberating and dangerous force. According to Eliade: “Fire turned out to be the means by which man could ‘execute’ faster, but it could also do something other than what already existed in Nature. It was therefore the manifestation of a magico-religious power which could modify the world.”[30]31 As noted above, this modification of the world is both intrusive and accelerative.

Kiefer’s scorched earth paintings of the mid 1970’s (eg. Cockchafer Fly, 1974), the Mastersinger/Nuremberg series and Margarete/Shulamite series of the early 1980’s (eg. Shulamite, 1983) and works such as Anathor (1983-83, Figure 7) and Nigredo (1984, Figure 8) provide direct reference to Kiefer’s infatuation with fire and it’s transformative “magico-religious” powers. In Anathor, for instance, we read not only the name of the alchemists furnace in which the putrefacto of matter occurred, but also an image of an oven and it’s many associations with the rage and pain of the Nazi extermination of five million Jews during WWII. In Nigredo (1984) direct associations with the alchemical process are again presented – texturally and visually. In this work we see the blackened foreground denoting that the alchemical process is underway. The discreteness of the black objects could also signify the consequence of the Nigredomateria primia. In a similar light, the presence of white color in the horizon could be seen as symbolizing the leukiosis phase during which re-birth, purification and the evolution towards perfection were thought to occur.

When Kiefer literally scorches his canvases with a flame thrower he becomes an alchemist himself, personally delivering death, destruction, re-birth and redemption. Quite apart from Kiefer’s earlier means of representation (through photograph and paint), we see in these works Kiefer’s fetishistic identity with canvas and increasing reliance of physical metaphor to deliver his messages. The carbonized canvas (as in the Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen, 1975) or attached chunks of wood (see Nurnberg, 1982) become the ashen residue of Kiefer’s private crematorium.

For Kiefer, fire emblematize the artist’s power to transform. Kiefer takes this task seriously and his works do, at times, transform our thoughts, our hopes, and our wills into new understandings of the world and it’s condition. His transformations and transformed images, however, offer us few solutions to the dilemmas they present. As Andreas Huyssen notes “[t]he potential for rebirth and renewal that fire, mythic fire, may hold for the earth does not extend to human life. Kiefer’s fires are the fires of history, and they light a vision that is indeed apocalyptic, but one that raises the hope tor redemption only to foreclose it.”[31]32 Nevertheless, he works with the zeal and determination to explore the eternal questions of existence. And, like the alchemists of ancient times, he tries to transform his findings into visual reality. Whether, through such an endeavor, Kiefer or his audience find greater understanding, personal empowerment, hope, or redemption is up for grabs. What is certain, however, is that Kiefer and his alchemical metaphors have given us much to think about.


1 The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1986), Vol. 25, p. 79.

2 C.G. Jung, The Integration of the Personality (Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., New York, 1939), p. 205.

3 Titus Bruckhardt, Alchemy (Stuart and Watkins, London, 1967).

4 John Read, The Alchemist in Life, Literature and Art(Thomas Nelson and Sons, ltd, London, 1947).

5 Mercea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978).

6 Probably to hype the discoveries and, thus, reputation of the alchemest while simultaneously preventing thorough scrutiny of the supporting proofs.

7 Read, The Alchemist in Life, Literature and Art,p. 3.

8 Ibid., p. 10.

9 The innumerable ways in which Christian theology either drives or resonates with the procedural elements of the alchemy are not within the scope of this paper. For discussions on this topic start with: Mercea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible.

10 John Neff, “Reading Kiefer”, Anselm Kiefer: Bruch und Einung, (Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 1987), p. 7.

11 It is no metaphor to say that Kiefer can transmute his paintings and sculptures into plenty of gold on the art market!

12 Charles Haxthausen, “Kiefer in America”, Kunstchronik, January 1989, pp. 1-16.

13 See: Andreas Huyssen, “Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth”, October, 48 (Spring 1989), p. 27.

14 Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer [Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1987], p. 49.

15 Neff, “Reading Kiefer”, p. 10.

16 This work, currently being shown at Walker Art Center as part of “Photography in Contemporary German Art: 1960 to the Present” is presumably part of a series of the same name (discussion with C.W. Haxthausen). I could not find a photo of this work to include with this text (presumably because this work is very recent). It is revealing to compare this work with Durer’s Melancolia I (1514) in which a similar, although more sympathetic treatment of alchemy is presented.

17 John Gilmour, Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern World, (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1990), p131.

18 Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, p. 95

19 Ibid.

20 Haxthausen, “Kiefer in America”, p. 8.

21 Ibid., p. 12 (my emphasis).

22 Neff, “Reading Kiefer”, p. 9.

23 Ibid.

24 Armin Zweite, Anselm Kiefer: The High Priestess, (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1989), p. 91.

26 Neff, “Reading Kiefer”, p. 10.

27 Ibid.

28 The lining of medieval caskets was made of lead ostensibly to preserve the body and soul’s energy and power.

29 Neff, “Reading Kiefer”, p. 10.

30 Reported by S.H. Madoff, “Anselm Kiefer: A Call To Memory, Art News 86, no. 8 (1987);129 in John Gilmour, Fire on the Earth, Anselm Kiefer and the Post-Modern World, p. 120.

31 Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, p. 79.

32 Huyssen, “Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth”, p. 45.

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