The conservator’s eye: Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea

The conservator’s eye: Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap,  75 1/4 in. × 18 ft. 5 inches / 191.1 × 561.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the large contemporary galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a really large canvas by Anselm Kiefer. It’s hard to even call it a canvas because the surface is so built up that there is no reference to the flatness of the cloth underlayer.

Dr. Corey D’Augustine: [0:22] This looks as much an object as it does a painting.

Steven: [0:24] If you look at it from the side, you can see it undulating, it’s relief sculpture.

Dr. D’Augestine: [0:28] It’s very thickly painted, and Kiefer’s certainly taking advantage of the sculptural qualities of the paint.

Steven: [0:33] I’m not even comfortable calling it paint. When we think about the application of paint, we generally think about relatively thin material that’s applied with a brush, occasionally with a palette knife. When I look at this surface, I think about the tools that one uses to dig in the ground. There is something really earthen about this surface.

Dr. D’Augestine: [0:50] Especially considering the palette is very earthy as well. By the way, a lot of this is not paint. There’s shellac, there are certain resins that are dripped and sculpted in the surface here, so, painting — question mark.

Steven: [1:00] This artist is known to burn his materials on the canvas. He’s known to apply molten lead to the surfaces of his works of art.

Dr. D’Augestine: [1:07] He also adds a lot of natural materials like straw, which decay and discolor and perhaps become brittle and fall off quite rapidly.

Steven: [1:13] It sounds like a conservator’s nightmare.

Dr. D’Augestine: [1:16] Well…

[1:16] [laughter]

Dr. D’Augestine: [1:17] In a way, yes. If we think back to European traditional paintings from guilds and academies, etc., there are very well-codified recipes for how a painter is allowed to make a painting. Part of that is about how to make a beautiful painting.

[1:29] An equal part of it is about how to make a painting that lasts, because after all, many of these are religious paintings. Part of the meaning is their timelessness. Or other ones, they’re commodities. This is a business transaction. You don’t want to buy something that falls apart.

Steven: [1:41] Here, in the late 20th and 21st century, we have artists who are upending that idea of the eternal nature of a work of art, thinking about the idea that a work of art can change over time.

Dr. D’Augestine: [1:53] In fact, this begins not in the 20th but in the 19th century. This is modernism. Now, on the one hand, the idea that an artist can use any material and any process to make a work of art is very exciting, because now creative possibilities explode in so many different directions.

[2:07] On the other hand, there are some very dramatic consequences where things don’t necessarily stay as structurally sound, as stable, as they used to, since we’re disregarding many of those recipes.

Steven: [2:17] Even here, with this painting, you get the sense of the stress from the weight of the paint pulling on the undersupport, which in this case is burlap.

Dr. D’Augestine: [2:24] We’re looking at an extreme example of deviation from classical painting techniques. What’s interesting here is that now, in the 21st century especially, artists are beginning to find sources of meaning in the aging processes of their materials.

Steven: [2:37] It’s such an irony, because now when we have a greater understanding of the chemistry of works of art than ever before in history, we’re creating works that are ever more ephemeral.

Dr. D’Augestine: [2:46] Certainly this is not that new of an idea. If we go back to the sculptures of Naum Gabo, Gabo was using the first plastics invented as soon as they were invented. Now, there’s no way that this kind of idea would ever been permissible if you were working in a guild or an academy, because there’s no guarantee how that’s gonna age.

Steven: [3:00] And Gabo was interested in them because they were new. But unlike Gabo, Kiefer is still referencing traditional materials. This is a vertical canvas. It is still a colored paste that is applied to that surface. It is still painting in some respects.

Dr. D’Augestine: [3:14] But as we look in this painting, we see huge cracks. In fact, we see big chunks of the painting that have fallen off. Now, if we can imagine that same chunk, if it had fallen off from, let’s say, a 19th-century academic painting, this is disastrous. You can’t even see the painting anymore.

Steven: [3:27] This raises really interesting questions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Does it collect those pieces as they fall off? Does it restore those pieces? Where does it decide to intervene?

Dr. D’Augestine: [3:35] Well, having worked on a number of Kiefers myself, I can tell you, yes, we do collect them, but I’ve worked on Kiefers that, believe it or not, are three or four times as large as this one. I have large chunks of paint that I just can’t find where they came from. I save them, but I have no idea where that puzzle piece came from.

Steven: [3:49] Kiefer himself has been somewhat nonchalant in his response saying, if something comes off, let’s just put it back on.

Dr. D’Augestine: [3:54] He’s inviting paint to fall off these paintings.

Steven: [3:57] What’s the reason behind that? How does the material help to effect his message?

Dr. D’Augestine: [4:01] Kiefer’s a very poetic artist, and so much of his poetry is about these very dramatic appearances of decay and fragility. So much of his work references this German and Austrian consciousness of history, especially the dark chapters.

Steven: [4:14] This is a painting that is clearly a landscape. We see two tire tracks that are moving through the center of the canvas into the distance. We see a black sky at the narrowest band just above the horizon line, so that the fields fill our entire view. For me, this is always a reminder of the soil of the German heartland, which in the 1970s and ’80s was a very brave act, at a moment when Germany was just coming to terms with its immediate past.

Dr. D’Augestine: [4:40] So many of his paintings address these dreams of history that no longer work. There’s a kind of nostalgia that he’s addressing poetically with these materials that themselves fail, crack, fall apart.

Steven: [4:50] I think it’s easy for us to forget how much Germany had contributed to civilization. Many German intellectuals never believed that somebody like Hitler could take power. It feels like in Kiefer’s layering process, this archaeology of paint, that Kiefer is able to expose those layers of history even as he builds up paint that he knows will eventually fall off.

Dr. D’Augestine: [5:11] On the one hand, we can consider this an excavation of a painting. On the other hand, I think we can consider Kiefer’s work an excavation of the German consciousness.

[5:18] [music]

Surrounded by his paintings in SFMOMA’s galleries, German artist Anselm Kiefer describes the challenges and significance of exploring the past in his work. He highlights the subjective, emotional nature of both history and art.


German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer discusses the meanings behind some of his favorite materials, including straw, cow manure, and lead. He describes how he strives for fluidity and malleability in his work, though conservation can be a challenge.

Cite this page as: Corey D'Augustine and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The conservator’s eye: Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea," in Smarthistory, May 8, 2017, accessed July 13, 2024,