Anselm Kiefer: 'The Independent wants to know if I am a Nazi!'

In 1969, he photographed himself giving Nazi salutes in public. Forty years on, Anselm Kiefer is a titan of world art, but his controversial work still picks at the scabs of the Fatherland's history. So why does this most German of artists live and work in Paris's Jewish quarter?

Like just about every school in the Marais district of Paris, the école élémentaire around the corner from rue Michel-le-Comte bears a plaque to the memory of its most famous pupils – not scholars or statesmen, but those who were among the "11,000 enfants furent déportés de France par les Nazis et assassinés dans les camps de la mort parce que nés juifs": the 11,000 children deported from France by the Nazis and killed in death camps because they were born Jews. Things that happened nearly seven decades ago are alive on the streets of this still-Jewish quarter of Paris, and nowhere more so than in the vast hôtel particulier that is the home and studio of Anselm Kiefer.

You'll know Kiefer: it's hard not to. If you went to the Royal Academy a couple of springs ago, you'll have cricked your necks looking up at Jericho, the twin towers the honorary Royal Academician had built in the courtyard of Burlington House – 50 foot menhirs of concrete heaped in teetering piles like cargo containers in stone. These paled beside' the 52 structures Kiefer has erected in the years since 1993 at his other studio, La Ribaute, near Nîmes in the South of France – a one-time silk factory whose 85-acre estate includes tunnels, hills and caves, all woven into a massive Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. If your travels haven't taken you to the Cévennes of late, you might have seen Aperiatur Terra, the artist's 2007 show of largely monumental canvases – typically 10ft high and 25ft long – at the St James's branch of his London gallery, White Cube. And if all of these have passed you by, then you can discover Kiefer later this month in exhibitions at both White Cubes, one show called Fertile Crescent, the other Karfunkelfee [roughly, Carbuncle Fairy]. All of which is to say that Anselm Kiefer and his art are a very big deal indeed, and in various senses of the term.

None of this answers the obvious question, though: why a German artist, born in the dying days of Hitler's Götterdämmerung, has chosen to live and work in the Marais. To answer that, you need to rewind to last July and shift arrondissements from the 3rd to the adjoining 11th – to the Opéra Bastille and the piece which Kiefer staged there, called Am Anfang (In the Beginning).

As with much of his work, Am Anfang is difficult to categorise. The piece being shown in an opera house, the audience may have expected something in the line of bel canto. They didn't get it. The curtain rose on a scene of desolation, towers like those in Jericho multiplied into a ghost town. Through these wandered a group of women, clinking bricks with hammers to the mildly atonal music of Kiefer's compatriot, Jörg Widmann. The scene looked vaguely biblical, and, on one level, it was: one of the women was Shekhinah, the Talmudic version of the Holy Spirit, while another was Lilith, Adam's apocryphally demonic first wife. None of this seemed to impress the audience, though, a number of whom booed roundly from curtain up.

What, precisely, was their problem? In the absence of any home-grown artist of world standing, the French government has courted Kiefer with the kind of privileges last accorded to Picasso. It was Kiefer whose work was chosen for the re-opening show of the Grand Palais in 2007, who was last year invited to decorate a staircase at the Louvre – an honour given to only one other artist since the war – and who was asked to write Am Anfang to mark the 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille. A little resentment on the part of the French arts establishment would be understandable. Then again, Parisian opera-goers may simply have found Am Anfang obscure and pretentious, which it was. The work's title is taken from the opening words of the German bible (Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde: In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth), its libretto made up of quotations from the Old Testament. The 180-page programme to the work listed its librettist as "Anselm Kiefer, after the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah". We are not talking Bizet here.

Possibly, though, the audience was bothered by the fact that Am Anfang seemed to suggest that Biblical ruination and the destruction rained down on Germany at the end of the war were part of the same process; that the sufferings of Old Testament Jews and Nazi-era Germans were equivalent. Lilith and the rest may have been Israelis, but in Am Anfang they looked like Trümmerfrauen – the "rubble women" who picked bricks from the ruins of cities such as Hamburg and ' Dresden in the years after the war. Sitting in the vast library of his vast Paris house, Kiefer recalls those years.

Born into a Catholic family in the pretty Black Forest town of Donaueschingen in March 1945, seven weeks before Hitler's suicide and the end of the war, the artist is a youthful 64. Children by his Austrian second wife, Renate Graf, run about, apparently disappointed that the Englishman called Charles who has come to interview their father is not the Prince of Wales. Kiefer, wiry and in Lord Longford glasses, looks vaguely priestly: he giggles when I say so.

"I wanted once to be... not a priest, I wanted to be an archbishop!" he says, confidentially; then, waving at a collection of ecclesiastical hats on his bookshelves, adds, "You know, I have all the clothes. I was in Rome a long time ago, and I went to the tailors for the Vatican and they measured me for the robes for bishops and archbishops. The Pope was difficult. They said, There's only one, and I said, That's not true – there were once three: a woman was even the Pope. And they said, no we won't do it. So I went to another shop and now I have them all – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal and pope."

Although he can still recite the Mass in Latin, Kiefer is no longer a Catholic. Nor, despite the robes, does he seem keen on the current German Pope, whom he crisply refers to as "Ratzinger". "Ratzinger wants to make Pius XII a saint," Kiefer cries. "That man, he signed the Concordat [a 1933 treaty between Hitler and the Holy See]! You know, the Concordat has never been cancelled? And do you know why? Because in Germany, you have to pay 10 per cent of your taxes to the Church!"

The life led by his children in this nobleman's house with its cobbled courtyard and endless, echoing rooms is in stark contrast to Kiefer's own childhood. "My mother and father, they put wax in my ears so I couldn't hear the bombers coming," he says, then laughs his cartoon-dog giggle. "It's like Odysseus, you know? I like that. And the Trümmer, the rubble, that was me – I was in those bricks, I played with them in the ruins, I built houses from them. I was part of that little German myth."

It was this, presumably, that left the artist with his taste for ruination. "Children take all as given, and it is for this reason that ruins are beautiful – to me, extremely beautiful," he says. "I think the most beautiful movie in the world is the one when planes were sent after the war over Germany to film the ruins – these are for me the most beautiful pictures. It's wonderful because the vertical becomes the horizontal, you know? On one side, something is hidden because it's buried and on the other something is exposed – you see the forms. I love this."

It seems an odd fondness for a man who chooses to live in a perfect 17th-century mansion in the un-bombed heart of France's un-scarred capital, a point with which Kiefer disarmingly agrees. "Towns that are really well done, like Paris, they are finished," he says, nodding rapidly. "There is nothing you can add. They need bombs, these towns, to be interesting, no? With ruins, you start again. Then they could become enigmatic." Distantly, I seem to hear the booing at Am Anfang; it is broken by the phone ringing, a call from the White Cube's owner, Jay Jopling. "Jay!" Kiefer cries. "The Independent is here! He wants to interview you! He wants to ask you if I am a Nazi!" I cringe slightly, as, I have no doubt, does Jopling.

But then it is a question that is meant to embarrass, and one that Kiefer has long asked himself – "Not whether I am a Nazi, but whether I would have been one. It is an important thing for all of us to know." A student of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s, the young artist's remorseless picking at the scabs of German history went even further than those of his master. In 1969, aged 25, Kiefer staged a series of actions called Besetzungen [Occupations], in which he had himself photographed doing Sieg Heil salutes at various European monuments. This, as may be imagined, went down like a cup of cold sick with German critics: the only one who defended the work was an artist called Rainer Küchenmeister, and he, as Kiefer points out, had been in a "KZ – you know, a [Nazi] work camp. He said the work was fun."

Having begun by blotting his copybook in heroic form, Kiefer went on to provoke his countrymen mightily. Throughout the 1970s, he made art that alluded to Teutonic myths, to Wagner, to the dark, soughing forests of Caspar David Friedrich. (By happy coincidence, Kiefer means "pine tree" in German.) Some of this art was shown at the 1980 Venice Biennale, to predictable critical outrage back home. The problem was that works such as Malerei der verbrannten Erde (Painting of the Burned Earth), made with the help of Wagnerian fire and axe, were not clearly anti-German. In a day when history was being rewritten backwards to impeach Wotan, Bayreuth and the Black Forest as pre-conspirators in Nazism, Kiefer's work refused to toe the party line. Making himself a kind of Teutonic Everyman, the artist simply would not airbrush his own German-ness out of the picture. For many, this failure to bury the past made him complicit in it.

Which, I think, explains the house in the Marais, part of Kiefer's dogged refusal to make life comfortable for himself or other people. I earlier described Am Anfang as obscure and pretentious, and I did not mean those things nastily. To understand the work of most contemporary British artists, you could probably get by on a bit of Baudrillard, a copy of The Naked Lunch and The Ladybird Book of Science. To get Kiefer, it very much helps if you speak Sanskrit, can recite the Latin Mass and have a working knowledge of the works of Paul Celan and Velimir Khlebnikov.

These last have been a particular source of inspiration to the artist over the past decade. Since Kiefer left Germany, his work has become less specifically German and more syncretic, historically omnivorous: contentiously, Jewish Kabbalism is a favourite current source. Celan, a Romanian Jew whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, went on writing in German after the war – "In the language of the killers, the criminals," says Kiefer. "It's as [the 1960s Austrian poet] Ingeborg Bachmann said: your native tongue is like a house, that you have to go on living in it even if you don't like it." Khlebnikov, the dedicatee of Kiefer's 2005 show at White Cube, was a noisy Russian Futurist who invented a universal language known as Zaum. The two poets dealt with the problem of cultural inheritance in different ways, the one by embracing it with nose tightly held, the other by radically reinventing it. Kiefer's art has a go at both.

To manage this, the artist has had to become a scholar, a magus. The room in which we sit is, at a guess, 60ft long by 20ft wide and is lined end-to-end with books. The book has been a potent symbol for Kiefer for years now – one literally weighty tome, a six-foot lead volume called The Secret Life of Plants, was shown at the V&A last year – and this, too, has a German significance: the Jewish poet Heine prophetically remarked that wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen (Where men burn books, they will end by burning people). Knowledge – knowledge made visible – is a guard against disaster. If this seems pretentious, then, says Kiefer, "Artists are pretentious. They pretend to know all. It's like any mythology: mythologies pretend to explain the world, in a way that scientists can not. The more they know, the less they know. The artist's role is to play at being omniscient, omnipotent. But it's just a role, a pretence."

When I ask him if, after all these years, he minds still being tagged as a German artist, Kiefer instantly says, "No, no, not at all. How can I deny it? The material is German, whether you like it or not." He pauses for a moment, then goes on. "On the other hand, I'm also part of the world. I'm not responsible for everything – I'm five per cent, the rest is what is going through me, different artists, different histories. I don't feel so individual now – more and more less and less." He giggles. "I'm a channel!"

All of which means that the work you'll see at White Cube this autumn is pretty much what you'd expect to find if you've followed Kiefer's history. His is not an art of novelties: it is an art of glacially slow accretions, and an archaeological excavation of these. New paintings such as Liliths Töchter hark back to the dark Teutonic woods of work made in 1971, to the steep recessions of the fields in which Kiefer stood, a young artist, saluting Hitler, 40 years ago. The history of these latest works is buried in their own three-inch-thick pigment as if in a shallow grave. Or, perhaps, in ruins.

As Kiefer sees me to the courtyard of his great, strange house, he points to a series of large canvases hanging in the sun, their paint scarred by the artist's brush or Parisian weather or both. I ask him if they are finished, and he stops short. "Finished is a difficult word," he says, eventually. "Sometimes I think a work is finished, and then five years later I start it again. That's what happened with these." Then he turns with that crazy laugh and says, "Maybe a work is only finished when it's ruined, no? You wouldn't believe how many people send me photographs of my paintings when they have fallen down from the wall! They are always afraid that the work will fall down, that objects will fall from them." He pauses, then says, "It is not so easy, I think, having a painting of mine."

The Fertile Crescent / Karfunkelfee will be at White Cube Hoxton Square, London N1; and White Cube Mason's Yard, London SW1, from Friday to 14 November (tel: 020 7930 5373)

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