The public restoration work on Maikäfer flieg! (May Bug, Fly!, 1974) by Anselm Kiefer as part of the Zeit für Fragmente exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin (Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum for Contemporary Art – Berlin) is the second installment in the In Preparation series.
This three-part series of public conservation and restoration projects looks behind the scenes of museum work – specifically at the preparation work taking place in the lead-up to the opening of the new Nationalgalerie building at the Kulturforum. Maikäfer flieg! is one of eight works by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) in the Marx Collection, which has been shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin in rotating exhibitions. The Marx Collection focuses on works by Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and Anselm Kiefer. It will have its own exhibition area in the new Nationalgalerie building.
Almost 50 years after its creation, the painting Maikäfer flieg! is being restored for presentation in the new building. Kiefer often uses raw materials such as lead, sand and straw in his works of art. Using thick layers of oil paint, he created color relief-like landscapes on burlap cloth in Maikäfer flieg!
The public conservation and restoration work gives visitors an insight into the work of conservator-restorers – from technological examination of the materials to the actual execution of conservation measures on the work. Techniques such as material examination via UV, VIS, and microscopic enlargement are applied in addition to the surface cleaning and consolidation (fixation) of the paint layer.
The restoration work’s progress is continuously updated and documented at the info station in the conservation lab. A look behind the scenes shows that the museum’s conservation work is sustainable and future-oriented – after all, the care and preservation of works are aspects of the primary mission of museum collections.
Maikäfer flieg! by Anselm Kiefer is one of the works in the Marx Collection in which an examination of German history takes on multilayered forms.
In the foreground and centre of the painting there is a scorched and smoldering agricultural landscape. It evokes dark events of human history, natural catastrophes, and the destruction of war. In contrast, the hilly landscape on the horizon is reminiscent of more peaceful times.
In 1974, the year he created the work, Kiefer addressed the subject of scorched earth in a series of works, which as part of the historical reappraisal of World War II, focuses on Adolf Hitler’s “Nero Decree”. The order was never carried out, but it would have meant the complete destruction of German infrastructure in 1945.
In Maikäfer flieg! Kiefer connects the landscape with the children’s song of the same name; the lyrics are in the upper left hand corner: “Maikäfer flieg, der Vater ist im Krieg, die Mutter ist in Pommerland, Pommerland ist abgebrannt” (May bug, fly, your father is away at war, your mother is in Pomerania, Pomerania was burned to the ground….). This well-known folk song, which is verifiable in various versions beginning around 1800, focuses on a child’s wartime trauma. In view of the loss of the former eastern region, and in view of flight and expulsion, the song became popular again in Germany after World War II.
By leaving his works open to interpretation, Kiefer reveals that the responsibility for the Nazi atrocities and the ensuing consequences was distributed on many shoulders and that those people could not withdraw into their own, personal suffering. Not least with regard to its materials, his painting testifies to a change in West German post-war society that caused immaculate surfaces to become cracked and suppressed truths to become visible. In this way, the materials that are being examined in the public restoration work become signifiers of meaning.
Born in 1945 in a hospital bomb shelter in Donaueschingen during an air raid, Anselm Kiefer grew up among ruins. His impressions of ruin and transience influenced him from an early age. After studying law and Romance languages for a short time, he studied painting from 1966 to 1969 in Freiburg im Breisgau under Peter Dreher, and in Karlsruhe under Horst Antes.
In a work entitled Besetzungen (Occupations, 1969), he had himself photographed giving the Nazi salute in various European countries, in front of postcard scenes familiar to tourists. By depicting forbidden gestures and symbols in his later paintings and sculptures as well, Kiefer highlighted the mechanisms of suppression that were used in post-war Germany to deal with the legacy of Nazism. In that spirit, in 1986 he remarked in a conversation with Joseph Beuys, (with whom he had maintained an artistic dialogue from 1970), Jannis Kounellis and Enzo Cucchi: “Searching for personal identity was postponed. After the ‘mishap,’ as it is euphemistically called now, everyone thought in 1945 that we would start over again. We are still talking about square one even though it can’t really exist. It’s nonsense.” Five years after this conversation, Kiefer moved his studio from the Odenwald region in Germany to France, first to the Cevennes region and later to Croissy-Beaubourg near Paris.
In his works he makes the progression of history visible by using organic materials and lead along with oil paints. Despite its weight, lead is easy to mould. Which is why it plays a special role in alchemy, the practice of trying to turn ordinary materials into gold. Alchemy was very important to Kiefer since it suggests that even apparently worthless or destructive materials hold creative potential and thus the power of life.