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