The Anselm Kiefer Retrospective at The Royal Academy, London
27 September - 14 December 2014
Following the annual Summer Exhibition and the Dennis Hopper photographs it has been an impressive summer for the Royal Academy, London. The subject of their latest retrospective is the colossus of contemporary art Anselm Kiefer, a German painter and sculptor born who is famous for illuminating the wonders of human experience by drawing from mythology, nature, history and poetry. Known for his confrontational artwork, he frequently finds inspiration in the holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s poems, which consider the brutality of the Nazi regime. Unlike many of his contemporaries Kiefer is unafraid of addressing taboo and argues with the past by demonstrating a willingness to confront controversial issues without regret.
Kiefer began his creative path working as a photographer who sought to force Germans to take responsibility for xenophobia under the Third Reich. He did so by adopting the role of a performance artist and taking photographs of himself giving Nazi salutes in paramilitary uniforms across Europe. He has also travelled extensively in North America and the Middle East and the influence of his exploration is illustrated by his large-scale mixed media paintings, whose size reflects the brevity of the themes. Given that they’re made from organic materials like straw, ash, flowers and clay, there is no doubt that their fragility juxtaposes the force of their subject matter. What makes his work so appealing for me is his interweaving of the written word onto his canvases in both Latin and German.
Key to the comprehending the concepts behind his work is knowing that Kiefer takes a cynical view of time and history rather than a progressive one. Intrinsic to his artwork is his fascination with all things celestial and spiritual within the context of human history. Fascinated by the relationship between God and Man, there are often underlying religious themes in his work. He's also always been intrigued by secrecy as a result of being aware that German brutality was omitted from his history lessons as a child. What I find particularly saddening is that in the world press frequently confuse his critical consideration of the Nazi regime with sympathy despite his assertion that his work is in no way glorifying it. As he famously said, “you can’t avoid beauty in art.”
Kiefer’s chosen workspaces; his protected spaces were always a pivotal part of his creative process. This retrospective particularly focuses on the attic in the former schoolhouse at Hornbach - which was his studio from 1971-3 - where he re-created mythological and religious events like the Nibeling myths and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He presently lives in a 30,000-foot converted department store outside of Paris, so it is no surprise that his pieces also comment on modern industrialization.
This labyrinth of studios also functions as his workspace for designing a set of Styrofoam towers for the Bastille Opera In the Beginning. Hundreds of bleached sunflowers supposedly line the entrance to his urban dreamscape in an ironic interpretation of Van Gogh’s work. The same sunflowers are also illustrated in The Orders of the Night 1996, which portrays Kiefer as a corpse lying amongst rows of blackened, somewhat militant stalks. This is representative of the paradox between the earthy and celestial that is emblematic of the birth-death-rebirth cycle, which he finds so fascinating. What makes the piece so haunting is the slightly repulsive texture, which is a blend of dried sunflowers, ash, clay and oil.
Kiefer is visibly intrigued by alchemy, which is the transformation of materials into gold. Forever defiant, he strays from his contemporaries by declaring, “the real alchemist is interested in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual more than a material thing”. This is what his famous sculpture The Language of the Birds 2013 is representing within its network of burnt books, lead and strips of silver and gold. Beyond their physical state, Kiefer has also testified that the net worth of his paintings in relation to the cost of construction makes him a literal alchemist. One of his works To the Unknown Painter 1983 was sold for $3.6m at Christies in 2011, thus illustrating the impact he has had on the European contemporary art market. As a result of the demand for his work – which occasionally invites criticism for supposed repetition and overproduction - he is represented by three celebrated art dealers; the Gagosian, the White Cube and Thaddeus Ropac.
The room dedicated to his musings was especially captivating; because of the delicate way in which Keifer savours his own creative process by displaying all of his notebooks, sketch pads and journals as a way of forming a series of visual diaries. It is somewhat romantic and strangely intimate to be exposed to his innermost thoughts. In some books a striking photograph of a stag could be juxtaposed with charts of delicate colour samples or a sensual image of a woman with private notes scribbled underneath.
In terms of my fellow attendees, it was interesting to watch human instinct draw people to some of his more sensual nudes that offer a pause from the harshness of his more brutal portrayals of suffering. One of these watercolours was Autumn Crows 2009, whose translated title herbstzeitlose is entwined in the work. It depicts a beautiful young woman gently caressing the fully emerged root of a root vegetable. In contrast, one particularly poignant image of turmoil is the photograph The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen 1974, which was displayed within an A2 book of his work and somewhat provocative.
Lining the walls of his room of books were Keifer's ethereal watercolours, which referenced the Norse mythology that dominated his early years. As with Winter Landscape 1970, the watercolours illustrate the horrors of Nazi Germany using deep scarlet shades combined with somewhat idealistic scenes of nature. The watercolour and gouache painting of Elizabeth au Korfu 1976 is particularly evocative as a result of the simultaneous sense of serenity and severity that we perceive in her expression. Von Oscar Wilde 1974 was also particularly captivating, because of the effortless fluidity of his brushwork. There’s no denying that the juxtaposition of Wilde’s name with the blood-tinted flower is somewhat ominous, despite being paired with the ultimate symbol of love.
During the 1980s Kiefer moved to landscape paintings and truly began to worship the forest. The German romantic imagination is glorified as immense, textured canvases capture the desolation of the abandoned countryside of his fatherland following the war. One fellow observer dressed in velvet was still sitting in front of one of Kiefer’s apocalyptic landscapes nearly an hour after I first passed him and his eyes were very much open. That’s the nature of Kiefer’s work, it’s hypnotic, because of the melancholia and suffering it eludes to, but mostly because of the misguided beauty, which he has created.
Canvases like Black Flakes 2006 - adorned with charred books - references the poetry of Paul Celan like Deathfugue. Described by the FT as the ‘dark heart of Kiefer’s achievement’, those works that draw from contemporary literature are often the most impactful on the audience. Keifer famously said that for him, “poems are like buoys in the sea, I swim from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost”. In fact, he was so infatuated by Celan that he dedicated a painting to his Austrian lover and fellow poet Ingebourg Bachmann.
Symptomatic of his dynamic approach to displaying his work, Kiefer occasionally explores the concept of the vitrine, which is a hermetically sealed painting that allows for relief work. Standing before Untitled 2006-8 is a truly awe-inspiring, because it’s constructed from a plethora of obscure materials such as thorns from Morocco and structures of moulded concrete, which echo the Jericho 2006 structure.
On the opposite side of the room is the nihilistic work The Secret Life of Plants for Robert Fludd 1987, which is a glittery black triptych embedded with a naturalistic labyrinth of roots. It also references Kiefer’s tumultuous relationship with diamonds, which was brought to life in the moment when he dabbled with performance art and dropped diamonds back into the soil of a Dover tunnel in 1989. Continuing the organic theme is the immersive experience The Rhine 1982-2013, which dwarfs us beneath a collage of towering woodcuts on canvas that create a virtual forest with illustrious words like melancholia inter-laced in English.
Arguably, the most expressive canvases were the heavily painted, textured works towards the end of the gallery. They were oddly delectable as a result of the abundance of rich, luscious paint. Aligned with the tradition of plant names being written in Latin, there was an underlying floral element to these works whose colours were jewel-like in their clarity.
Like many of Kiefer’s works Lapis Philosophorum 2014 was a complex collage of volcanic stone, gold leaf and the sediment of electrolysis from photography. I was also particularly taken with Walther von der Vogelweide 2014 and the Morgenthau Plan 2012, because it not only seemed like wildflowers were embedded in the surfaces of each, but he truly captured the energy and force of nature in his violent brushstrokes. There was no doubt that this was the room, which truly bewitched those adoring admirers that varied from elderly artists in homemade tie-dye to swarms of gothic hipsters in crucifixes.
Kiefer’s retrospective at the Royal Academy has been one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year and rightly so. Rather than being splashed across the billboards of London and taking the role of another blockbuster exhibition, it relied simply on word of mouth. From the beginning, I particularly enjoyed the freedom one is given to form an opinion of his work. Rather than being overwhelmed by information, you simply read an informative, concise paragraph upon entering each room and then wander with only the titles to guide you in your contemplation. This gives you the headspace to consider the harrowing historical context of Kiefer's work and reflect upon his controversial philosophies like the belief that “art is cynical, it shows the negativity of the world, and it’s the first condemnation.”
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com