A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 September – 14 December 2014.

The language of birds

The Language of Birds (2013) Anselm Kiefer

The first major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer’s work in the UK is in a word, overwhelming.  Since first seeing his work in the flesh as part of the You Dig the Tunnel I’ll Hide the Soil exhibition held jointly at the White Cube, Hoxton Square and the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall in 2008, I have been in awe of this artist’s ever expanding capacity to confront the complexity of being human. I will never forget stumbling over uneven ground through a darkened space beneath Shoreditch Town Hall and into Kiefer’s installation of lead beds, ashes on photographic film reels and water inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The potency of malleable, poisonous lead and reels of human memory entwined in that decaying, labyrinthine space left an enduring imprint; a dark core of the imagination, pregnant with possibility. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to see his work I have followed; to Karfunkelfee, (White Cube, Mason’s Yard) and The Fertile Crescent, (White Cube, Hoxton Square) in 2009 and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali (White Cube, Bermondsey) in 2011 which occupied the entire 11,000 square feet of gallery space.  It takes a special kind of artist to command such a space and Il Mistero delle Cattedrali was one of the finest exhibitions I’ve ever seen, a revelation in terms of just how complete an artist’s vision can be when technique and ideas resoundingly equal each other.

Since the 1980’s Kiefer has created work on an industrial scale in a steel wool plant in Buchen and brickworks in Höpfingen, Germany, before moving to Barjac in the South of France in 1992 to create La Ribaute, a 200 acre studio complex on the site of an abandoned silk factory. Large scale greenhouses, barns containing house sized paintings, underground spaces, tunnels, towers and pavilions are laboratories, installation spaces and sites for what the artist describes as “reverse architecture” placing works back in the landscape. His other creative laboratory at Croissy-Beaubourg outside Paris, a 36,000 square metre former department store warehouse, is now his main studio/production space. Compared to these monumental spaces the RA does feel restrictive in addressing the sheer scale of Kiefer’s prolific oeuvre. However the exhibition provides a fantastic opportunity to view work of a more intimate scale such as Artist Books and Watercolors in relation to larger scale paintings, mixed media, sculptural and installation work, including new pieces created specifically for the exhibition space.

The effect of each successive room in this retrospective is cumulative and increasingly expansive; we can see the evolution of the artist’s work and iconography, his profound literacy and ability to transcend the self. The ego or artistic persona which defines so many contemporary artists and their work is absent. Kiefer has always understood that he, like the rest of us, are merely a blip in cosmic time and this context enables him to strip away creative practice to its most essential elements.  1000 years into the future if the human race still exists, his work will still speak as powerfully.  Its genius and true material is questioning and struggling towards meaning, a constant state of flux with creation and destruction as equal partners. It’s an Art which celebrates the connections a human mind can make, the mystery of life, death and its cyclical nature. It is ash and diamonds, immediately visceral, beautifully poetic and alive with contradictions.

Kiefer’s belief in Art as alchemy; placing “the phenomena of the world in another context” and in human “potential to achieve a higher state” are remarkably consistent throughout his work. “The real alchemist [Kiefer insists] is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit”, a statement which relates directly to artistic intent. Born into the rubble of post war Germany Kiefer first dared to ask the question of himself; of what he would have done when confronted by the collapse of civilization and the contradiction of a culture that produced Dürer, Goethe and Beethoven being equally responsible for Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Although his early imagery is clearly self-referential and culturally specific, the progressive distillation of the artist’s visual language powerfully communicates universal human concerns independent of time and place. The art critic and writer Robert Hughes described Kiefer’s work as testing “the moral imagination”, a quality which has been invested in its creation from the very beginning. Kiefer’s creative practice acknowledges that every age must come to terms with mythology and that “history is like clay”, it can be moulded, appropriated or wilfully distorted.

In his early work we see him grappling with what it is to be an artist, specifically a German Artist; a poisoned chalice after the appropriation of high Art and Culture in the service of Hitler’s Third Reich. In his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series Kiefer confronts what fellow German artist Joseph Beuys described as post war “visual amnesia” developing his own personal iconography of transformation, often depicted wearing his Father’s uniform.  In Heroic Symbol I 1969-70 (Oil and charcoal on linen, 260.5 x 150cm) the image is consciously bisected, presenting a duality of creativity and destruction. In the lower half of the painting the artist stands in the midst of a fire, smoke rising from an element of immolation into the white cloud above. The act of making a Nazi salute (banned in Germany in 1945) grounds the painting as an action of not forgetting the past. In the upper section of the painting, positioned in open blue sky is the sketched figure of the artist, a second self, hovering above the barren grey landscape with the true linen ground showing through, hands on hips, determined and resolute. Immediately reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog which positions the lone figure on a precipice, the figure of the artist, framed by cloud in a clarity of blue, rises physically and metaphorically above the salute. His nightshirt/smock suggests an aspirational dream space; however this isn’t a lofty expression of Romanticism but an artist standing on an ideological knife edge, deeply grounded in his cultural history and materials. Although some accused Kiefer of being a Neo Nazi when his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series were first exhibited, the painted surface of Heroic Symbol I is cracked and the composition actively dualistic. We are not presented with Fascistic certainty or a visual language of Neo-Classical absolutes and ideals. Kiefer’s methodology, like his imagery is intensely fluid and reflects the timeless human drive of trying to make sense of ourselves in relation to the world around us. His choice and handling of materials in later large scale paintings, sculptural and installation work, transformed by natural forces of sun, rain and seasons or by violent human action; a flamethrower, axe, hose pipe or acid, reflect this endless creative drive towards meaning.

Kiefer addresses the mythological and psychological associations of fire and forest, a wellspring of Germanic identity and storytelling in Man in the Forest (1971, Acrylic on Muslin, 174 x 189 cm). Here the artist stands in a nightshirt, holding a burning branch, the upright density of slender trees of the background bled into the foreground of the painting. The branch may be a torch or equally a cleansing fire to set the whole forest alight and burn it to the ground. Aglow with light washes of red and green a profound, surreal stillness pervades the work, casting the artist as protagonist and the viewer as witness. The human figure is positioned in a clearing, dwarfed by the forest of trees, becoming an everyman.

Nothung

Nothung (1973)

The textural and symbolic grain of the forest is explored further in Kiefer’s Attic Series of the early 1970’s. In Nothung (1973, Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted cardboard drawing) we see an interior forest transformed into architecture, with heavy beams overhead suggestive of a Great Hall and an upright bloodied sword thrust into the floorboards. Kiefer uses linear perspective to draw the viewer into the space, a wooden bar across the altar like central panel of wall and two windows bled with rain to the left. This stain of blue extends into the roof around a banner of hand drawn text; “Ein schwert verhieß mir the Vater (Literally translated as “a sword promised me the Father”). Text is often used by Kiefer as a provocation, supporting or contradicting how an image is read. The reference to Nothung Siegfried’s sword from Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle; Der Ring des Nibelungen has its origins in ancient Norse mythology. However the idea of Siegfried as a pure Aryan hero of the German Fatherland and Hitler as self-proclaimed Father of the German people is inescapable and creates an image of the artist’s studio as a distinctly confrontational space. Kiefer’s exploration of his own identity in relation to the past is beginning to transcend the personal to reflect on the culture we chose to create and what it nurtures within us all.

In the triptych Parsifal I, II, III (1973 Oil and blood on paper and canvas) we are drawn deeper into the bare studio/attic space in a Grail-like quest. Blood stained joins of vertical panels echo trees in the forest, cast between order and chaos. The first panel depicts a white cot beneath a window with a single bar of shimmering light extending over the floor, dissipating into the foreground. The language of spears driven into the floorboards of the mid-section, broken swords and handwritten text creates a complex web of personal and collective associations. The viewer is effectively led into a space which like The Painter’s Studio (1980, Chalk, graphite pencil, acrylic and oil on photograph (1971) 58.5 x 68cm) and The Painter’s Studio (1980, Oil, acrylic and emulsion on photograph 58.5 x79cm) is transformational. In both images of The Painter’s Studio the architecture is seen engulfed in flames; there are no certainties or artistic props. We see steps leading upward to the closed door, marked with the recurrent symbol of an artist’s palette drawn onto the photograph in black like a cipher. No answers are presented but profound questions are asked both of the artist and the viewer about who we are, we’re we’ve been and where we are going, individually and as a species. Although the Attic Series is heavily laden, steeped in the cultural construction its own architecture, it also presents a dynamic testing ground of ideas and aspirations. The ordered timber structure links back to a forest of the collective mind, a place of refuge, rebirth, memories and nightmares.

The fertile imaginative ground of the forest becomes embedded and transformed in Ways of Worldly Wisdom: The Battle of Hermann (1980, Ink, acrylic paint and collage on paper, 290 x 500cm). A legendary and heroic figure tainted by Hitler’s cult of militant Nationalism, Arminius/Armin or Hermann defeated the Romans at the battle of Teutoburg Forest and was popularised through theatre and public sculpture in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In Kiefer’s Ways of Worldly Wisdom woodcut portraits of German writers and thinkers are cast within a darkly gestural web or inferred framework of propagandist deceit. The forest is present in the background and in the grain of collaged woodcuts. This visual tradition of image making in Germany extending back to Dürer’s Northern Renaissance and the work of German Expressionists such as Nolde, Pechstien, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff ,whose work was branded ”Degenerate” by the Nazi’s, is referenced in all its ambiguity. Woodcuts of the Die Brücke German Expressionist artists embraced the integrity and physicality of the image making process, of marks gouged from a raw block of wood and stark truths in black and white. Equally there can be no greater expression of High Culture or Fine Art than Dürer’s encoded and superbly executed woodcuts. However this cultural inheritance is also charged with knowledge of appropriation and the language of cultural supremacy.

The artist’s book; The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975, Illustrated 56 page book with ferrous oxide and linseed oil on fragments of former paintings (oil on burlap) linen bound, 65 x 45 x 8cm) reduces the learned/Art object or repository of knowledge to an open page of blackened pigment, like charcoal remains of an ancient text saved from a great fire. Although such a work has specific historical associations, later sculptural works expand the frame of reference to a cosmic scale, introducing monumental stacks of lead books invested with the entire weight of human history, stacks of canvases, metal, rubble, pigment and ash like funeral pyres, the accumulation of millennia.

ages of the world

Ages of the World (2014)

Ages of the World (2014, Mixed media) a sculptural installation created for the domed Wohl Central Hall of the RA’s main galleries, is a superb example and a highlight of the exhibition.  Referencing “our planet’s evolution, the Romantic aspiration of Art, the poetry of ruins and the relationship of the individual [with] the deep time of the cosmos” the central structure is a vision of ordered chaos which the viewer orbits, following the curvature of the room. What immediately strikes the senses and draws the viewer intimately close are the smell of earth, oil and pigment and the bent heads of giant dead sunflowers laden with seeds protruding into the viewer’s space from lower evolutionary layers of time. Rocks and debris the ashen colour of comets, rolls of canvas and stacked paintings we cannot see, like closed books retaining their secrets, create an overwhelming sense that all humanity’s profound ignorance, knowledge and aspiration is contained in this single work. Kiefer creates an ironic dialogue with the surrounding architecture of white marble busts housed in gold leafed niches and the spherical vault of ceiling above. Two large scale photographs/ mixed media works hung like banners flank the main structure which from every angle appears as random composition perfected. The two dimensional images of accumulation and layered time  inform our reading of the work, but it is the towering sculpture itself which creates an overwhelming sense of what we are in human and cosmic terms. The effect is breath taking, laden with emotion and strangely uplifting, finding comfort of the mind in the mysterious enormity of the universe. Kiefer powerfully reminds us that “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth. It never can, but it can get quite close”. Ages of the World is about as close as any artist or audience can get.

One of the surprises of the exhibition is a series of intimate, erotic watercolours on a ground of plaster, smooth as ivory skin. Cathedrals of France (2013, 18 page book with watercolour and pencil on plaster on cardboard, 75 x 58 x10cm) combines the ecstasies of the saints and exalted gothic architecture with a more earthly male gaze. Kiefer’s treatment of the female figure, bent back upon itself, surrendering to a cloud of blue or legs apart, juxtaposed with a vaulted doorway are obviously sexual. However this blatancy is tempered by the playfulness of a woman with a tiny cathedral in the palm of her hand or a reclining nude, contemplating a phallic tower on her lap, a curious prop rather than an object of male power. There is undeniable energy in these watercolours that reflects the mythology of Pre-Christian Roman Goddesses, transcending their holy and repressive architectural setting. Like the writings of Georges Bataille and Rodin’s intimate drawings of the female body Cathedrals of France could be viewed as pornography, however Kiefer’s fluid medium and invocation of Dionysian physicality resists this interpretation. These paintings present the duality of human desire and sexuality, both sacred and profane.

The extraordinary layering of materials in Kiefer’s monumental paintings incorporating straw, earth, flowers, ash, plaster, ceramic, metal, paint, charcoal and photographs are excavations of concentrated energy and precision, formal construction and accident. Photographs embed the moment within a painting and are often a starting point, gradually worked over with thick impasto pigments and found materials, cycles of time and natural elements. The sharp, heightened vanishing point perspective coupled with caked semi abstract surfaces in many of Kiefer’s early paintings encompass Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the human condition described in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, having its origins in the Athenian theatre and philosophy of ancient Greece. Human drives towards reason, order versus restraint and instinct, irrationality and passion are always in a state of flux determining governance of an individual or an entire society. When Kiefer depicts the Interior of Speer’s Reich’s building (1981, Oil, acrylic, paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311cm) he inverts the idea of Neoclassical pillars, shining white marble and geometric order appropriated by the Nazis for their own ends in the decaying, blackened interior. How we see, our ethics, are our aesthetics and vice versa. Imagination, visual language and morality are inevitably entwined. Architecture is our physical built environment but it is also a construction of how we see ourselves.

Interior

Interior (1981)

In The Stairs (1982-83, Emulsion, shellac, straw and scorch marks on photographs (on document paper) on canvas, 330 x 185cm) the heightened perspective of the colonnade symbolically dwarfs the human aspiration of the ascending staircase. This idea is extended in To The Unknown Painter (1983, Oil, acrylic, emulsion, aquatic latex, straw and shellac on canvas, 208 x381cm) to the stalk-like figure of a lone individual/ artist seen in relation to the surrounding architecture beneath an oppressive ceiling of black sky. The full emotional weight of history can be felt in these paintings, however there is always light and transformation present in Kiefer’s work, methodology and in his use of impermanent materials.

Ash Flower (1983-1997, Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas, 382.3 x 761.4cm) presents a more linear, ethereal vision of human architecture in the central towering stalk rising above the dimensions of the canvas and extending into the cracked curvature of earth in the foreground of the painting. Here at the base we see the ambiguous structure of the flower merged in circular form with the man-made rectilinear ceiling space receding to infinity. Bloom and roots stand tall in three dimensions against the two dimensional ashen surface, extraordinarily delicate and resilient, naturally following the movement of the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons. In spite of devastation the figurative sunflower, a recurrent object and symbol in Kiefer’s work, remains central to the composition and the artist’s existential world view. Even the dead head of the flower contains the possibility of new growth.

Ash Flower

Ash Flower (1983-1997)

The three dimensional/ sculptural element of Kiefer’s paintings is immediately striking, tactile and invites closer inspection.  In his homage to the poet  For Paul Celan, Ash Flower (2006, Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac and burnt books on canvas, 300 x 760 x 40cm) the high horizon line and perspective of ploughed furrows creates an immensity of space, punctuated by three dimensional burnt books which protrude from the surface of the painting and into the viewer’s consciousness. Blackened twigs stick out of the earth like the broken remnants of a human forest. The artist actively challenges perception of the painting as a two dimensional art object and rallies against the passivity of received images.  In the same way that poetry distils language, creating spaces for the reader’s imagination to wander into and timelessly remain; Kiefer’s visual language is similarly refined.

In the artist’s mixed media work For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Renowned Orders of the Night. (1987/2014, 240 x 500cm) lead becomes the canvas and we are presented with a densely caked, glittering surface that feels like an excavated slab of earth glinting with diamonds like a vast salt plain in the sun. What is precious and everyday are bound together in the light emanating from this predominantly grey work, rich with association. Kiefer moves beyond personal, literary references to encompass a more universal, poetically distilled sense of meaning in creativity. The sparkling surface could be interpreted as salt, a precious material for ritual purification, preservation of organic material and essential for human life. We may see in the pock marked surface a lunar/celestial association with stars, of looking to the heavens for navigation, spiritual guidance or poetic points of recognition and brilliance in an otherwise grey world. We may also see scattered diamonds; carbon atoms arranged in a face centred cubic structure or one of the most highly prized and valuable objects known to man.  The felt sense here is of precious objects of precision whose true value can only be seen in the context of deep time; a truth of diamonds, poetry and painting.

Kiefer’s The Secret Life of Plants For Robert Fludd I, II, III (1987/2014,Triptych, Mixed media, each panel, 190 x 140cm) creates a cosmic expanse of cracked earth, dark matter, glowing diamonds and the tracery of constellations; of what we are and what we aspire to be, expanded out of ruins and into the realms of possibility. Like Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi  (1617-1621) a volume split between human life on earth and the divine realm of the universe, Kiefer’s Art is a bridge between the two, sharing the English Physician’s spirit of enquiry. Fludd produced vast encyclopaedias including writings on alchemy, Kabbalism and astronomy, subjects traditionally considered unscientific and aligned with universal mysteries. Like all great artists Kiefer assimilates cultural, societal and mythological codes that reach back to the origins of Art in Shamanism.

osisrus and IsisOsiris and Isis (1985-87)

Kiefer’s monumental painting Osiris and Isis (1985-87, Acrylic and oil emulsion with additional three dimensional media, 381 x 560.1 x 16.5cm) displays his enduring fascination with ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and South America.  Here we see a vast pyramid with a circuitry board at the summit displayed as another artefact, linked by conductive copper wires to shards of pottery numbered as in an archaeological dig. It is the image of a ruin but also of potential rebirth, linked to the story of Isis gathering together the parts of her husband’s body strewn across the ancient Egyptian landscape in order to raise him from the dead. The presence of the moon invokes natural cycles of light, dark and tides of history. The human belief in progress and permanence is laid bare by the passage of time and the presence of earth, clay and dust into which we will all return. The gradations of the stepped architecture, realised in drips and rhythmic impasto are extraordinary and like its companion piece in the space For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand From the Urns (1998-2009, Acrylic, oil, shellac and sand on canvas, 290 x 560 x 7cm) it commands the entire room.

One of the most beautiful rooms in the exhibition is devoted to Kiefer in colour. Undoubtedly living and working in France has provided the light, distance and perspective necessary for the artist to transform frozen fields of “Blut and Boden” (Blood and Soil) into fertile fields of wheat, moving in enormous swathes of decaying yellow, green and ultramarine, reminiscent of the vitality and fatality Van Gogh. In the Morgenthau Series Kiefer references the 1944 plan by the US Treasury Secretary to convert a defeated Germany back to a pre-industrial agricultural country. There is joy and melancholy in these works, a yearning for the sublime in nature and within our own nature.  Kiefer reveals “creation and destruction [as] one and the same”, death and resurrection mixed in with the palette. L’Origine du monde(The Origin of the World, 2013, Acrylic, emulsion, oil, shellac, metal, plaster, gold leaf, volcanic stone and sediment of electrolysis on photograph mounted on canvas, 280 x 380 x 30cm.) references Courbet’s 1866 painting of a woman’s genitals seen in the rusted steel trap with a volcanic rock suspended inside. The terror and fecundity of Mother Earth, combine with Vincent’s colours of gold and ultramarine bisecting the sky and uniting the History of Western Art with our most basic human drives. Stalks of real wheat flail, part and fall, but the all-pervasive feeling is of life and vitality in the choice and handling of materials and in the ideological trajectory of the work. Kiefer is without doubt one of the most important and insightful artists alive today and this retrospective is a rare opportunity to be overwhelmed by a Contemporary Art exhibition.

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