Anselm Kiefer´s retrospective exhibition at Royal Academy in London is both a monument of Germany´s past and a monument of Kiefer’s career.
Anselm Kiefer was born into a German Catholic family in the Black Forest region at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Throughout his childhood Germany strived to distance itself from its dark past whereby the Third Reich was barely touched upon in schoolbooks. Nevertheless, Kiefer developed a strong interest in his country´s recent past. His diploma project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe shows a series of self-portraits of himself in his father’s SS uniform. Already at this early age he shows a moral responsibility for Germany’s past and goes on to build an entire career on the theme of the collective absence of memory.
Kiefer reworks materials to illustrate historical, mythological and religious themes. In Seraphim, earth and heaven are linked via a ladder. At its base rests a serpent, representing evil residing on earth. Kiefer burns the painting’s surface as an offering ritual in reference to the seraphim who purifies through fire, as written in Doctrine of Celestial Hierarchy (5th century). Kiefer´s burning ritual is also a reference to the holocaust. The word holocaust derives from the Latin word holocaustos, meaning burnt sacrifice. Both the burning and the ladder can also refer to the Jewish tradition of man’s transition to heaven. As man ascends the ladder to heaven, his feet begin to burn, then his legs, arms, torso, until all that remains is his spirit.
Beauty in the Dark
In Black Flakes (2006) a book is forged from lead and placed at the center of a painted wintery landscape. The work is inspired by a poem of the same title by Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew who lost both his parents in a Nazi concentration camp. His poem is filled with the longing for his mother. He writes: “Autumn bled all away, Mother, snow burned me through:/ I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found – oh the summer’s/breath,/it was like you.” Passages from the poem are written onto the landscape, echoing rows of barbed wire. The snowy, barren landscapes in Celan’s poems often refer to the landscape of the Holocaust and the silence that followed the war, aspects Kiefer also endeavors to portray.
Blood-covered landscapes are also found in his earlier works, such as the watercolor Winter Landscape (1970). The image is contradictory in its depiction. The imagery is both gruesome, with blood spilling onto the fields from a human head above, and beautiful, drawing inspiration from Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Thus, the image attracts the viewer at the same time as it repulses. I have never associated watercolors with Kiefer’s practice and I therefore experienced this work with absolute fascination.
Kiefer’s works refer to a dark past many prefer to forget, but there is also a poetic dimension to his work. In The Orders of the Night (1996), Kiefer depicts himself lying beneath high-rising, ash-like sunflowers. Sunflowers play an active role in Kiefer’s work. They are a part of and represent mortality and rebirth, and embody the connection between the earthly and the celestial. Yet, even though sunflowers follow the sun, they are shown face down, down towards the earth and the soil from which they rose. He seeks to understand our purpose on earth, our relationship to the heavens, and the weight of human history.
Sunflowers are also central in Kiefer’s site-specific installation Ages of the World. The towering pile of discarded paintings, sunflowers and rocks refers to evolution, art history, ecology and the cosmos. It can also be understood as a reflection on Kiefer’s artistic past and present; the themes and materials that have and still continue to interest him.
Horizontal and Vertical Dimension
There is both a horizontal and vertical dimension in the presentation of Kiefer’s works. It is horizontal in the passage of time, and vertical in the layers of memory and mediation. What I find interesting is the exhibition’s use of the term re-enactment in describing Kiefer’s works. Re-enactment is a term commonly associated with performances of historic events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment. How is Kiefer re-enacting the past, and whose past? Is it a past portrayed by the poets, philosophers, and writers who inspire Kiefer; or is it his father’s past Kiefer wants to recreate? And how can one repeat someone else’s “lost” memory? Furthermore, can a painting be considered as a physical recreation of the past? One can argue that the thought processes are similar; however, while traditional historical reenactments attempt for direct and realistic representations of the past by using living people, paintings are generally allegorical.
The Royal Academy, London
Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, is an overwhelming visual experience with rows of leaded books that appear to carry the weight of history; attic interiors where history and mythology resurface; and lead slabs encrusted with stars of authentic diamonds reflecting the cosmos. The monumental scale of his works is impressive, one of which measures 380 x 760 cm. One is not dependent on a comprehension of their content to be stuck by the painterly quality of these canvases. Beyond the fact that these paintings are loaded with content (on which art historians write extensively), these paintings live and breathe in their own right. It is as if, like Frankenstein, they have come to exist through Kiefer’s transformation and reworking of organic and industrial materials.
This exhibition is not only a monument over Germany´s past and but also a monument in painting. And Kiefer undoubtedly is one of the greatest artists of our time.