Near the medieval village of Barjac in the foothills of the Massif Central mountain range in southern France, Anselm Kiefer has been carving up the landscape in and around an abandoned silk mill on the edge of the Cévennes National Park, excavating new lakes, tunnels and chambers, and cutting roads through the trees. And after 30 years the work isn’t done.

A vast new underground space nearing completion could be a pharaoh’s tomb with its many rough-textured pillars and the ruddy striations of its dusty stone walls. Kiefer’s team cleared out enough dirt to build a slope above it. “I always liked to move earth,” says the 77-year-old, among the most prominent German artists of the postwar period. “We took out a lot of earth and then I made a mountain. Like the Bible says, you can move mountains.”

A platform on the new hilltop will support a building, eventually. Kiefer has built dozens on the property—glass greenhouses, concrete bunkers, soaring steel sheds—all filled with art.

Samson Crypt
Samson Crypt is part of a system of tunnels and crypts at La Ribaute drawing partly on sublime visions expressed in early Jewish mysticism. Sylvain Heraud

On a newly created lake, white towers, built of enormous boxes fashioned out of concrete molded from steel shipping containers, seem to teeter on the verge of collapse. The latest iteration of his long-running series inspired by Jewish mysticism, titled Seven Heavenly Palaces, they resemble the post-apocalyptic remains of some lost civilization. Smaller sculptures, in bronze, resin and lead, hide among the trees.

Kiefer, among the most successful—and polarizing—artists of his generation, is best known for producing dark, brooding works, many of them meditations on the Holocaust, that have been variously described by critics as “heroic,” “portentous,” “exploitative,” “awe-inspiring” and “grandiose.” He paints bleak, richly textured tableaus so gargantuan they could fill a cathedral. But La Ribaute is his most monumental creation.

The compound, taken as a whole, is the culmination of everything Kiefer has ever done, a total work of art—or Gesamtkunstwerk—featuring, as he has said, “landscape, minimal art, conceptual art, land art, all this together.” After three decades as a very private work in progress, this barely seen wonder of the contemporary art world opened to the public this past May for the first time (by appointment only). With just three group tours of 18 people each offered per week, tickets—bookable online at €25 apiece—have been selling out quickly.

There’s a dizzying maze of precious—and fragile—works, a mix of photography, painting, sculpture and the written word (often all together in the same piece). A library is filled with oversized books made from lead sheets that are almost as pliant as paper. Dried flowers and grasses protrude from sculptures and thickly painted canvases. Glass shards and plaster teeth are scattered on the floor as elements in other pieces.

Guilbert Gates

“This is not a place for mass tourism, more of a pilgrimage site,” says Janne Sirén, director of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in New York and founding president of the foundation set up to run La Ribaute. Sirén visited the site for the first time in 2014. “I was mesmerized by the synergy of the landscape,” he says. “A vision like this takes 30 years to realize. I think it takes at least 30 years to unpack.”

For Kiefer, La Ribaute has been a laboratory for new ideas—themes and techniques first explored here have gone around the world to museum and gallery shows, from the Pompidou Center in Paris to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. to London’s Royal Academy of Arts. For a visitor, it offers a broad survey of one artist’s esoteric interests. “It is a little bit like you are inside Anselm Kiefer’s brain,” says Anna Antoine, the new artistic director of his foundation.

Kiefer tackles heavy themes in his work—destruction, rebirth, communal guilt, the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, abuses of power across borders and history (he devoted a whole series to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China). Over the years his art has drawn on a bewildering array of intellectual sources, from the poetry of Paul Celan, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Arthur Rimbaud to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov, to the writings of 16th-century British physician and occultist Robert Fludd. Science and spirituality mix in references to astronomy and Kabbalah, explorations of the cosmos both tangible and ethereal.

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This article is a selection from the November/December 2022 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Seven Heavenly Palaces
As haunting as a relic of a lost world, Seven Heavenly Palaces, constructed of lowly concrete, captures the ominous tone of many Kiefer works. Sylvain Heraud

Those threads, and many others, are on display at La Ribaute, overwhelming in its scope, with hundreds of works spread across 200-plus acres. In late June, a two-hour tour led by Kiefer’s longtime studio director, his cheerful lieutenant from Austria, Waltraud Forelli, is a rushed introduction to the property—like riding an express train through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The complex, and the works in it, are always evolving. With many pieces open to the elements, finishes and patinas change over time. In many cases this is just as the artist intended. Sometimes there’s upkeep to be done.

“Nature is starting to set in,” Forelli says as we enter a subterranean space installed by another artist Kiefer admires, German Wolfgang Laib. His 130-foot-long echo chamber is covered in a layer of beeswax that, after eight years, has begun to melt from the walls. “I think we will probably have a session of restoration next year,” says Forelli. “It’s like a child that you have to take care of.”

Kiefer traded his own work for Laib’s immersive piece, the first by another artist on the property. He has since invited other artists to add installations, including Laurie Anderson, Giovanni Anselmo and Monica Bonvicini. “Not to be alone here,” he says, while sitting on a folding chair across from a tiered amphitheater created by stacking more concrete shipping containers like an inverted ziggurat.

Disintegration is unavoidable to Kiefer. This amphitheater was built with no architectural plans and, like all things at La Ribaute, is fated to fall apart. Sylvain Heraud

Like his bleak landscape paintings, which recall the charred rubble of Germany at the end of World War II, La Ribaute is rooted in early childhood memories. Born near the source of the Danube as Allied bombs were still falling in the spring of 1945, Kiefer made his ruined neighborhood his playground. “I had all the bricks from the bombed houses,” he recalls. “There was a lot of bricks, it was fantastic. I started to build things, to build houses. Now I cannot stop.”

As a young artist Kiefer found beauty in the devastation he’d grown up with. “I think ruins are not sad, because ruins are the beginning,” he says. “I cannot find anything sad when I see all these bombed German cities—they are wonderful photos, no? I find it beautiful, because I was living there, so for me it’s quite normal, and it's positive. It’s the beginning of something new.”

In 1969, as a 24-year-old art student in Karlsruhe, he completed a work of political provocation—a series of black-and-white photographs of himself making the Nazi salute at sites across Europe. Meant as a commentary on collective denial, the images caused an uproar when they were later made public. With some German critics failing to see the irony in the work, Kiefer was accused of being a neo-Nazi himself. “Nobody spoke about the war, about the Holocaust certainly not,” he says of postwar Germany. “We had more time in school with Alexander the Great.”

Mohn und Gedächtnis
Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory), detail, 2019-2020 Sylvain Heraud

Despite the controversy, Kiefer found a new mentor—the conceptual art pioneer Joseph Beuys—and his career soon took off. In 1980 Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, also a German artist, represented their country at the 39th Venice Biennale. Kiefer turned the German pavilion into a sort of memorial to “Germany’s Spiritual Heroes,” complete with burning torches and the names of famous figures like Richard Wagner on the floor. The installation inspired outrage. “Germany was never so unified,” Kiefer says of the backlash.

Though he was largely shunned in Germany, after the Biennale Kiefer found a new audience in the United States—shows in New York with the Marian Goodman and Ileana Sonnabend galleries led to plenty of interest from collectors and from the American press. He rebuffed most interview requests, which of course made him famous as a recluse, the artist as inaccessible cipher. “In the ’80s I was quite a star, in a way—because I was young—but I didn’t care,” he says. “I didn’t care when they said I was stupid, bad, and I didn’t care when I got famous. It was not what was interesting for me. I never wanted that my photo is in the newspaper.”

Kiefer Books
Encouraging viewers to reconsider the nature of things, Kiefer has placed numerous “books” made of lead around the site. Sylvain Heraud

As Kiefer’s profile grew, so did the scale and ambition of the work he produced. He outgrew one studio space, a stone schoolhouse in the Odenwald, where he lived with his first wife and three kids, and then he outgrew another, a former automobile depot. In 1989, after a museum retrospective in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, Kiefer moved again, taking over an abandoned brick factory. “I wanted a place where other people worked already,” he says. “It’s interesting to be in a place that has a story.”

He integrated materials he found on site into his practice and began transforming the industrial complex itself into a work of art. A few years later, a private collector took over the site when Kiefer sought another large industrial space. At the urging of Jack Lang, then French minister of culture, Kiefer visited a defunct silk mill outside Barjac’s 14th-century ramparts. The main 19th-century stone buildings, partial ruins with collapsed ceilings, had been used to raise chickens and store travel trailers. The rest of the property was an overgrown wilderness. “There was nothing, just trees, trees, trees,” says Kiefer.

This 2016 installation
This 2016 installation, with its grit and dangling flower stems, alludes to the “realm of the mothers” in Goethe’s version of the tragic legend of Faust. Sylvain Heraud

He met with Barjac’s mayor, Edouard Chaulet, a gregarious, cultured gentleman, seven years in office at the time, who quoted poetry and encouraged Kiefer to relocate. “I thought, this is a mayor who understands his culture,” says Kiefer. “I thought, with this mayor I can do something.”

In 1992 Kiefer, his marriage ended, relocated to Barjac, arriving with one assistant and a girlfriend, the Austrian photographer Renate Graf. As renovations began on the mill buildings, the couple settled into a frigid stone house in town across the street from Chaulet’s office. “There was no heating, only chimneys,” recalls Kiefer. “I lit fires so much that the beam under the chimney was black like coal.” His car was stolen shortly after he moved in. “They needed it to make a bank robbery,” he says of the thieves, who were eventually apprehended.

Chaulet helped cut through the bureaucratic red tape of transitioning Kiefer’s compound from industrial to personal use. “My job was most of all to protect him, to make sure he didn’t break any laws,” recalls the mayor, now in his sixth term in office. “It wasn’t easy…to allow him to have artistic freedom while not running up against town planning codes.”

It took a year to turn the silk mill into a place where the couple could live and work. One section became their residence; another, Kiefer’s studio, with the second story removed to reveal 40-foot-high ceilings. Kiefer needed room to work on large pieces, and many iterations at once.

The Women of Antiquity
Over the years Kiefer has created many tributes to women both actual and fictional. This ensemble of 17 sculptures is called The Women of Antiquity.  Sylvain Heraud

For one early series of sculptures, he filled the new studio with inexpensive wedding dresses, which he bought from a shop in Paris. “I told them, ‘Give me all that you have,’ and then they asked me, ‘Why? Do you have a harem?’” he says, laughing at the memory while chomping on a cigar, as he often does.

In the studio the dresses were dipped in plaster and hung from the ceiling. He created headless figures from the dresses, monuments to the “known-unknown women of antiquity,” as Kiefer describes the subjects of the work, which pays homage to poets like Sappho, whose poems were “recomposed following the quotations of men,” most of her real words lost to history. He would go on to create other series featuring wedding dresses—their flowing pleats cast in plaster, resin or bronze.

Meanwhile, after a few years in Barjac, Kiefer and Graf were eventually married (Chaulet officiating at the town hall). They had two children, who lived with their nanny in a small house at La Ribaute connected to the main building by an elevated 500-foot-long metal tube. “I wanted to see what the nanny was doing,” Kiefer says of the tunnel. “I built it for me and for them too.”

The property and its surroundings—deep woods reminiscent of the Black Forest, ample stars overhead at night—became sources of artistic inspiration, and of new materials to work with. Kiefer planted fields of sunflowers—a long-running motif he’d begun to experiment with in Germany—casting the dried stalks in plaster, resin or lead. He grew tulips that also appeared, in various forms, in his art.

A 2019 painting
A 2019 painting pays homage to an unfinished poem by Paul Celan, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor whose verse was said to be “born dark.” Sylvain Heraud

And he began to reconfigure the landscape at La Ribaute, adding a lake—the first of two—and cutting roads, walking with a flag held high as a bulldozer followed behind him. “You know, an artist, where he goes is automatically a road,” he says with a chuckle.

New buildings soon rose up along the roads, small pavilions, initially—“houses for paintings,” Kiefer calls them—built specifically for individual works of art. “Today people think you have to decorate houses with paintings,” he says. “I think, first there’s the painting and then the building.”

As the structures proliferated, and grew larger and more spread out, he dug tunnels connecting them. While installing supports for one building, he decided to excavate the space underneath, clearing out the soil around its subterranean pillars. The result was his first “crypt.”

“I work with the accidents,” he says. “Like you do a painting—you put it on the floor then you put the color on. All artists use the accident…we call nature to help.”

His first shipping container towers went up, inspired by the Sefer Hekhalot (the “Book of Palaces”), a Jewish mystical text describing the ascension to God as passing through seven heavenly palaces. Kiefer had discovered Kabbalah after visiting Israel for the first time in 1984. The design of his purposefully off-kilter towers reflects, he says, “this idea that kids have, to put one thing on top of the other, see if it falls.”

Kiefer Laughing
Few artists work on a scale as vast as Kiefer does, who compares his studios to laboratories but insists “one can also picture them as refineries or mines.” Sylvain Heraud

A visiting curator was so taken by the precarious-seeming installation he later invited Kiefer to bring a version to his massive new contemporary art venue in a former tire factory, the Pirelli HangarBicocca on the edge of Milan. The towers have been a star attraction since the space opened in 2004. A few years later Kiefer created a vast installation, at the Grand Palais in Paris, including three towers from La Ribaute, but then used a jackhammer to knock down the tallest tower because “it looked so ridiculous,” he says.

Over the years, Kiefer’s compound became a source of fascination among art world insiders, but among local residents the reception was mixed. Though he invited his kids’ classmates onto the property—he even hosted a circus there once—and allowed Chaulet to bring in the occasional VIP, La Ribaute largely remained a fenced-off mystery.

While a few neighbors benefited financially from Kiefer buying up adjacent tracts—sometimes at many times the asking price—others resented his acquisitiveness and secrecy. “There were some bad moments, when his territorial ambitions met with resistance from the country folk,” says Chaulet.

For his part, Kiefer says he regrets not being more open to the community. “I was not intelligent enough, I should have invited them a few times a year, to have contact with them,” he says. “Today, I understand I should have reacted more providently, strategically.”

Tensions were particularly high with the hunters who plied the woods around the property in search of wild boar and deer, firing off warning shots to express their anger with Kiefer. “They thought I’d take the land away from them, the hunting area,” he says. Ultimately, the hunting grounds remained largely untouched.

Steigend, steigend, sinke nieder.
Detail from Steigend, steigend, sinke nieder. Galvanized sheet metal, lead, black-and-white photographs and water. 2012-2015 Sylvain Heraud

In 2007, after 15 years based full time in Barjac, Kiefer moved with his family to Paris, where there would be better schools for the kids, he says, and a “more sociable” life. Chaulet says he cried when he heard the news of Kiefer’s departure. “I have a lot of admiration for him, and a real friendship,” he says.

In May of that year, Kiefer considered donating La Ribaute to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which would administer the site and begin welcoming visitors, but the potential deal collapsed when the museum’s controversial director, Thomas Krens, lost his job.

In Paris, Kiefer set up a new studio beneath his home in the Marais. He later moved into a much larger space on the western outskirts of Paris, a former warehouse for the Samaritaine department store, where he still works today. The studio is so enormous that Kiefer and his assistants ride bicycles through it.

Despite forging a new life around Paris, Kiefer often returns to Barjac. His work at La Ribaute is still not quite done. “He started to really think about the future, about the foundation, and started to build new projects that showed certain aspects of his work that happened after he left here,”

Samson, Crypt
Anselm Kiefer stands in Samson, Crypt, part of a system of tunnels and crypts at La Ribaute. Sylvain Heraud

In Kiefer’s absence, caretakers, gardeners and assistants have kept the compound from reverting to nature. And Chaulet has kept an eye on things too, offering VIP visitors his own three- and four-hour tours. He has become an expert on Kiefer’s oeuvre. “I opened it clandestinely, without any authorization from the regional government,” he says.

Kiefer has added many new artworks to La Ribaute. The largest, completed recently—as vast as an airplane hangar—houses a companion piece to the 30-foot-high painting of a nude man under a starry sky that he completed for the Louvre in 2007 (the museum’s first commission of a living artist since 1953).

The new space is the only one on the property big enough to accommodate his latest high-profile commission, a temporary installation for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, displayed during this year’s Biennale. “I chose him because he is one of the few artists who could bear the weight of this space…I had only one chance to get it right,” says Gabriella Belli, director of the Foundation of Civic Museums of Venice. Though the Venice-themed works were created specifically for the palace’s soaring Sala dello Scrutinio, the enormous, charred paintings—with plenty of gold—are likely to find a new home at La Ribaute.

In 2015, when he turned 70, Kiefer began laying the groundwork for ensuring his magnum opus in Barjac endures after he’s gone. He established the Eschaton-Anselm Kiefer Foundation—“eschaton” refers to the biblical concept of regeneration—and in 2020 donated La Ribaute to the foundation.

As trained guides led the first tours this past summer, work continued across the property, trucks rumbling by as new installations went in. Kiefer is known to revisit pieces for decades after he starts them. “You know my works are never finished,” he says. He still has plenty of ideas to explore at La Ribaute. “All the tunnels on the side have interruptions, these I can open and do a continuation,” he says, pondering the possibilities. “But I have to see if it’s allowed for me. I don’t own it anymore.”

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