Anish Kapoor’s Svayambh

Karen Lang

In 2007, Anish Kapoor created the installation Svayambh for the Haus der Kunst (House of Art) in Munich, as a response to the building’s imposing architecture and its history.1 In 1937, the Haus der Kunst (the first monumental propaganda building of the Third Reich) opened its doors to the public with “The Great German Art Exhibition,” a show of Nazi-sanctioned art. In 1945, American occupation forces used the Haus der Kunst as their canteen; it then became an exhibition space for artworks left homeless through Allied bombing of the city’s museums. In the mid-1980s, Joseph Beuys’ At the End of the Twentieth Century, an installation of basalt “logs,” clay and felt, brought connotations of regeneration into the building’s interior spaces.2 In the new millennium, the Haus der Kunst has been home to a program of changing exhibitions by contemporary artists.

Anish Kapoor, "Svayambh", 2007. Mixed media, dimensions variable. © Jens Weber, Munich.

Anish Kapoor, Svayambh, 2007. Mixed media, dimensions variable. © Jens Weber, Munich.

So much, one might say, for the vagaries of history. Yet history is never a neutral force. At the end of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche reminded those enamored of objectivity that history is never innocent—whether crafted or ignored by human agents, or imposed on them, history is made and written by individuals.3 “Think now,” T.S. Eliot implored in Gerontion, a poem written after the First World War. “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/Guides us by vanities.” Human beings have been seduced by history; they have suffered on account of history’s vanities, and their own. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”4

In 1937, not far from the Haus der Kunst’s display of supposedly great German art, “Degenerate Art” was showcased at the University of Munich’s Archaeological Institute.5 The modern German art we now revere was defamed at this exhibition, and in no uncertain terms. This art, presented as so many tainted specimens, was considered by the Nazis to be de-generate, that is, of impure or improper birth. Once the public had been educated in its evils, this art had to be routed out, and so it was. History, in this case, was far from innocent.

The acceptable and the unacceptable, like good and evil, German and Jew, were categorical certainties in Nazi Germany and the estimation of these categories determined the fate of history—and the lives of millions. If history is made and written by individuals, then the history of Munich’s Haus der Kunst involves generation, degeneration, and regeneration. In this context, Kapoor’s 2007 installation is at home and not at home. Svayambh is an adaptation of svayambhuv, the Sanskrit word for self-generated or auto generated. Svayambhuv, a “‘self-born’ aesthetic,” is distinct from rupa, the human-made form “imposed through human artifice.”6 Kapoor notes the paradox in this “very old aspect of Indian thinking” that claims “there are certain kinds of objects that are self-manifest: they make themselves. These objects are made—but their mythology is that they are not made.”7 Akin to svayambhuv, Kapoor’s sculptures are made by the artist yet they appear to be posited in our reality, to be self-generated—not made but simply there.


  1. Svayambh was realized in collaboration with the Muse des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, the installation’s second venue.
  2. Beuys’ At the End of the Twentieth Century is in the collection of the Tate Modern, London.
  3. See, for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay of 1874, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,” Unfashionable Observations, trans. Richard T . G ray, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 2 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 83-168.
  4. T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion” (1920), The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952), 22.
  5. On this exhibition and its history see “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, ed. Stephanie Barron, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1991, which contains a reprint (in parallel translation) of the German guide to the 1937 exhibition.
  6. Philip B . Wagoner, “‘Self-born’ and ‘Man-made’: Architecture, Aesthetics, and Power at Vijayanagara,” MS (a paper presented at the South Asian Regional Studies Seminar, University of Pennsylvania, November 5, 1997). Cited by Homi Bhabha in Anish Kapoor, exh. cat. London, Hayward Gallery, 20. For a fascinating account of epigenesis in the German context see Helmut Müller-Sievers, Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature around 1800 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
  7. Anish Kapoor in an interview with Donna De Salvo, June 2002, in Anish Kapoor: My Homeland, exh. cat. (Cologne: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2003), 173.
Further Reading