There is a dark illumination beneath the beauty of Anselm Kiefer’s series of paintings, “The Morgenthau Plan”. The Morgenthau Plan was conceived in 1944 by the U.S. government under FDR. Henry Morgenthau was the secretary of the treasury during the third term of the Roosevelt administration. The idea of the plan was to transform Germany into a pre-industrial agricultural nation after their defeat in WWII. The idea was to dismantle the German sites of industry and prevent them from ever again gaining enough global power to wage war. Veiled behind the image of a beautiful nation of natural spectacle and flowers, the proposed plan would have led to the systematic death of 10 million Germans by starvation and disease.
“At the time, FDR was on board with Morgenthau, saying, “Let them live off soup kitchens” and “Make sure there’s no more uniforms and marching.” Despite his re-election FDR was in the waning months of cognitive coherence and, along with Winston Churchill (“Shoot German officers on site”), did not invest the critical thinking skills to recognize in their innocence of higher economies and the mysteries of international finance the impulsiveness and lack of systematic study that would produce results worse than all the guilt of the Nazi Reich.” (source: artvoice)
The plan never came to fruition. When the Wall street journal published details of the plan in September 1944, FDR immediately tried to distance the administration from its conception. FDR died soon after, and when Truman took office he wanted no part in another devastation of a mass of people. Instead, two plans known as the “Marshall Plan” and the “Truman Doctrine” were put forth and gave Germany rights to re-build and maintain an industrial economy. “Sensing a vast peacetime responsibility for world security, the two administrative enterprises together meant the US would from that day forward use dollars and armed force to contain the threat of Communism—indeed, partnering with right-wing governments if necessary”. (source: artvoice)
“Kiefer’s painting dwells subcutaneously on the flaws of reasoning that promoted the overriding personal resentment, moral righteousness, and national superiority that engendered the Morgenthau Plan. It depicts a field of wildflowers in close-up thick impasto, completely obscuring the original photograph beneath. The artist sees the plan as a metaphor for the common pitfall of the creative process, “that puts forth beauty without any other detectable motive.” He presents the shortsighted, meanspirited initiative as a representation of ideas—artistic and political—that ignore “the complexity of things.”” (source: artvoice)
Kiefer points our attention to the notion that anything can be corrupted – beauty is not excluded. Beauty has a certain overwhelming quality that can also become a distraction. Kiefer, speaking of his own response to beauty, was not able to trust the appearance of a beautiful image in his program of work. Speaking of his process with this series, he says:
“I had these wonderful photographs of Barjac, of flowers, fields of poppies, all kinds of flowers, like those you find in Monet’s paintings. I liked these photographs very much.
Then here, in Croissy [near Paris, where he also has a studio], I started to paint the flowers because I wasn’t there, in Southern France, anymore. And I thought, “Ugh, flowers! What can I do with this? This is nonsense–flowers!” And I realized I needed to combine them with a negative or cynical element, and I said to myself, “Oh, I can make a Morgenthau series. And in this series Germany will be covered with beautiful flowers, will be wonderful, because as a result of the Morgenthau Plan there will be no more industry, no more highways, just flowers.” This was a cynical idea. And sometimes artists have cynical ideas–well, they feel guilty. So I felt guilty for doing these nice things, for painting pretty flowers. And then I saw how other people reacted to the paintings–they liked them so much, and I thought, “Oh!” (source: artsjournal)
There is a strange movement that we see in Kiefer’s work – the appearance of beauty or something that appears to be hope, immediately met with an underlying rumble, a distrust, a corruption. Kiefer continues to make new connections between things, between events in history and our ability to see them. His work continues to unfold through impact into intellect, revealing layers of complexity and implication that call for discussion. He is a building a body of work that functions as a spiritual guide through trauma of the past, and revealing what repeats itself through history. His work is timeless as much as it deals with time, it looks forward as much as it looks back.
I wonder how much his engagement with the Morgenthau Plan contributed to the title of his documentary “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow”. Seen in this light, the Morgenthau plan becomes an illumination of our ultimate futility of industrial enterprise at all. There is the conception of a future in this title – the grasses will grow. Our progressive march into the future may be a self-destructive path that will end our civilization before the finite time on earth is up, over our cities grass will grow. Beauty will emerge from destruction – the emergence of beauty becomes the signal of a decimation.