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Lead books, glass and metaphor: Anselm Kiefer's 'Breaking of the Vessels.' (sculpture)

Looking Carefully

Broken glass on the floor immediately draws one's attention to the seventeen-foot high, bookcase-like sculpture titled Breaking of the Vessels. The strong, steel framework is full of forty-one slightly disheveled, folio-sized lead books. They are interspersed with broken pieces of protruding glass which appear ready to add to the surface of broken glass on the floor. Despite the prevalent gray lead appearance, each book has a character all its own: the pages of each have a continuity of patina; some have textured pages, most look like volumes which have sustained great use with corners turned down or crumpled. Two books on the top shelf tilt out as if placed to fall,

In establishing the structure of this sculpture, artist Anselm Kiefer studied the Kabbalah, a set of Jewish mystical writings which set forth to connect finite life with an infinite God, to explain the existence of evil, and to achieve perfection in life. Above the bookshelf hangs a half-circle of glass inscribed with the words Ain Soph, Hebrew for the infinite. Eight rectangular lead tabs with Hebrew inscriptions are on the bookcase, one is at the base of the glass half-circle and one lies on the floor. All tabs are connected by wandering copper wire. The Hebrew inscriptions translate as follows: (Left-top to bottom) understanding, judgment or severity, and glory; (middle-top to bottom) crown, beauty, foundation and kingdom; right-top to bottom) wisdom, mercy or love and victory. These powerful words in this arrangement are the Kabbalistic diagram of the Tree of Life,

The Kabbalah tells us that, before creation, the infinite spirit of God filled the universe. During the creation of the world, the vessels could not contain the Divine essence, and shattered into pieces that fell into vile spheres of being. This "breaking of the vessels" represents the introduction of evil and the human condition into the universe. The sculpture, Breaking of the Vessels, metaphorically presents the human tragedy and the cycle which leads to rebirth and regeneration. Kiefer has also presented us with the presence of good and evil, the dichotomy of the creation, and the Holocaust and Kristallnacht (the shattering of Jewish shopkeepers' windows in Germany, November 1938).

Stylistic information

Born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, West Germany, Anselm Kiefer grew up in a post-World War 11 atmosphere of denial, guilt, destruction and a nation struggling to recover. The son of school teachers, Kiefer inherited a thirst for knowledge in a variety of areas, among them myth, history, science, philosophy, religion, music and literature. This base of knowledge has been essential as he has developed paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and books. He has taken the feelings of his postwar environment and intertwined them with knowledge to present a view of the German consciousness that understands the physical and psychological impact of the war. Part of his interest in the political and the mystic comes from his study with Joseph Beuys, Germany's most influential postwar artist.

Anselm Kiefer has broken barriers of traditional art materials by building his work from dirt, sand, wood, straw, processed photographs, woodblock prints, lead, tar, pieces of objects, etc. Often taking on a scorched look, his work appears to have survived some ordeal.

Kiefer had been creating books as art for over twenty years when he began exploring the concept of the bookcase. His unique books contain visual rather than verbal information. Early books were mounted photographs on paper. Some books have reflected the illustrated manuscripts of medieval Germany. Many have been made with lead, some compiled woodcuts, and at least one is a collection of watercolors. A bookcase became important as a gathering place; a compilation of human knowledge - many subjects, many ideas and many points of view all in one place. Allowing the bookcase the characteristic of gathered knowledge, one gives the sculpture a sense of being.


Ideas, stories, illustrations and history have been bound together in books for many centuries. Bookbinding began with the transition from scrolls to pages. Pages of vellum, and later, paper, were sewn together, and placed between thin wooden boards to keep the pages safe. The process evolved to connecting the boards to the sewn pages and thus binding the volume.

The Cover of Antiphonary (this page) from the sixteenth century, bound the hymns for responsive singing in Christian worship. The brown calfskin leather is tooled with a repeating pattern of an interlacing knot. The tooling stamp was cut in cameo rendering an indented design - a style originating at the end of the sixteenth century and thus dating the binding. The center metalwork includes the letter "M" enclosed by coronets. The corners show winged faces. The latches are elaborately decorated as well, reflecting the curves and openness of the other metalwork.

The concepts of metal and books are not exclusive. The metal of the antiphonary armored the medieval book. These defensive plates protected the leather binding as the book rested on a lectern or shelf, since books were handled infrequently and rarely stacked with other volumes. The metal helped preserve the ideas for ages to come. Kiefer's lead volumes also preserve ideas for ages to come. He has taken the concept of gathered human knowledge a step beyond the bookbinder's day, by acknowledging the wealth of knowledge protected in a bookcase.

Key Concepts

* Metaphor, or a comparison of unlike things, is a tool used by visual artists. Anselm Kiefer metaphorically captures concepts of religion, philosophy, history and more in his artworks. * War-damaged Germany presented an environment for growing youth which influenced them as adults. Kiefer's experience in Germany has affected materials, tone and themes in his art. * Ideas captured in book form have been protected by metal since Medieval times. * The mystic writings known in the Jewish religion as the Kabbalah introduce evil and the human condition into the world through a breaking of vessels.

Suggested Activities

* A bookcase tells a lot about the person who has gathered together ideas and subjects. Assign a group of students to develop a bookcase sculpture with a theme. In addition to appropriate books, students may wish to add to the presentation in the way Kiefer did when he added the arch over the bookcase, the glass on the floor and the metal tabs with the words connected by copper wire. The themes for the sculpture might be ecology, political conflict, cancer, diet or safety.

* Bookbinding protects stories, illustrations, ideas, history and more. Create a series of twenty or more illustrations. Using Kiefer's materials as inspiration, consider painting with dirt mixed with glue and water. Be sure to leave a margin on the side of the paper for binding. Sew the pages together including some extra front and back pages. Create a binding by gluing the volume to two thin wooden or cardstock boards. Use metal foiling to create an armor for the book.

* After looking at the Kiefer sculpture, discuss the concept of good and evil and how they are represented in literature, music, sculpture, painting, poetry, etc. Ask each student to find one example of good and evil as a theme in an artwork. They should be willing to discuss their choices with the class. On the day of presentations, pull students names from a Pandora's Box. Follow up with an opportunity for students to create a sculpture showing good and evil.

* Working in a brainstorming session, have students identify problems in our world. From the list, each student should choose twenty or more problems to compile in book form. Each problem could be listed and illustrated on the left page while a suggestion for solving the problem would be listed and illustrated on the right page. Each unique book presents the negative problem with a positive solution, a concept of which Kiefer would approve.

* Working with broken glass is unacceptable in most classrooms. Challenge small groups of students to create sculpture which incorporates books and crushed soda cans. Each group could develop a theme for the sculpture. Present an exhibition of these sculptures, and ask each group to write a critique of another sculpture in the room.

* Each student should find a broken object, being careful to choose items which would not hurt them. Students create sculptures which include the object, while trying to use the idea of metaphor.

* Create sculptures of monumental size using boxes, cardboard or even furniture.

* Using color, line, or texture without words, create a story of at least fifteen pages which begins grimly and ends positively. Bind the book and decorate the binding.


Slides of Breaking of the Vessels, and work by other artists are available for a small fee from the Resource Center at The Saint Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110-1380; telephone (314) 721-0067, ext. 266.

Haxthausen, Charles. "The World, the Book, and Anselm Kiefer." Burlington Magazine, 133:846-51, December 1991. Diringer, David. The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental. New York: Dover Publications, 1982. Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall. Glaister's Glossary of the Book. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Pamela Hellwege is the Department Head of Teacher and Youth Programs, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.
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Article Details
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Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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