The public conservation of “Maikäfer flieg!” (May Bug, Fly!, 1974) by Anselm Kiefer as part of the “Zeit für Fragmente” exhibition in the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin (Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum for Contemporary Art – Berlin) is Part 2 of the IN PREPARATION series. IN PREPARATION looks behind the scenes of museum work – specifically at the preparations for 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 exhibits. 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.

Behind the scenes in the conservation lab

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 landscapes in relief on burlap cloth in “Maikäfer flieg!”

The public conservation gives visitors insight into the work of art conservators – from examination of the materials using art technology 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.

Close up of the painting and a thick layer of oil paint.
Detail of “Maikäfer flieg!” by Anselm Kiefer, photo: Eva Rieß © Anselm Kiefer
Close up of the painting with a burning tree and the lyrics: "...Mutter ist in Pommerland, Pommerland..." (your mother is in Pomerania, Pomerania...)
Detail of “Maikäfer flieg!” by Anselm Kiefer, photo: Eva Rieß © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer’s “Maikäfer flieg! ” – A work about flight and expulsion

“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. 

Smoldering farmland: “Pomerania was burned to the ground”

In the foreground and center 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. 

War trauma as visual experience

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 down….). The 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.

Material signifies meaning

By leaving his works open to interpretation, Kiefer reveals that the responsibility for 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 allows immaculate surfaces to become cracked and suppressed truths to become visible. In this way, the materials that are being examined in the public conservation become signifiers of meaning. 

Anselm Kiefer: Alchemy against Suppression

Born in 1945 in a hospital bomb shelter in Donaueschingen during an air raid, Anselm Kiefer grew up among ruins. The impressions of ruin and transience influenced him at 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 Hitler 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 brought the mechanisms of suppression that were used in postwar Germany to cope with Nazism to the viewer’s attention. In that spirit, in 1986 he remarked in a conversation with Joseph Beuys, (with whom he had maintained an exchange about art since 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 progress of history visible by using organic materials and lead along with oil paints. Despite its weight, lead is easy to mold. That 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 claims that even apparently worthless or destructive materials hold creative potential and thus the power of life.

Event program

Due to the ongoing restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, we are only offering three events. But the public conservation will be mediated during the museum’s opening hours in conversations on site and the conservation process will be presented in photographs at the info station. A film documentation will also be created.

The IN PREPARATION series is supported by the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media.