While spending last autumn in London, I have visited a lot of art exhibitions displaying works from an influential generation of post-war German artists : Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. Living in Thailand, I had no idea about how great German artists and their influences are until I learnt from those shows, leaving me an inspiration and growing interest. Also, a lot of my German friends whom we work together during the internship experience, had introduced me to their powerful world and culture, in both art and fashion.
However, the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) was by far the most exciting one for me. The German artist has taken inspiration from poets, philosophers, scientists and writers throughout his 40 years career. Interestingly, In the beginning of his career, Kiefer was supported by two more of the country’s leading artists: Joseph Beuys and Georg Baselitz (who I also admire). It was alongside Baselitz that Kiefer represented Germany at the 1980 Venice Biennale, and again examined the iconography of Nazism head-on. Always large in scale, ambitious in scope, and astonishing in execution, Kiefer has created his own, distinctive iconography in which each element is loaded with symbolism and meaning.
Anselm Kiefer. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Renate Graf.
The exhibition displays the apocalyptic and crude effect that World War II left on Germany in the most vast scale. Textures, collages and large scales plays a very important role in his works, which a range of destructive mediums such as rubble, steel, broken ceramics, lead copper, wood, and even diamonds, was juxtaposed together to achieve the dramatic effect. The overwhelmingly giant and dark canvases on RA’s baroque interior , plus his use of perspective and gloomy colours has created an atmosphere of destruction and sucked us into his melancholic dystopia throughout the exhibition. I felt somehow, mind-blown.
I decided to write this post as my note for what I have learnt through Kiefer’s body of works, which includes painting, sculpture and quite simply monumental installations. I am so much attracted to it because I find his artistic statement has something similar with mine. Uncompromising in the subject matter he tackles, his work powerfully captures the human experience and draws on history, mythology, literature, philosophy and science.
For example, he seeks to understand our purpose here on Earth, our relationship with the celestial, the spiritual, and the weight of human history. His subjects might appear historical in their reference, but they are in essence of our time, as much about the world today as about the events of the past. Through his work, Kiefer struggles to make sense of our passage through life. His thirst for knowledge and understanding provokes the viewer to consider these bigger questions with him, making his work challenging and occasionally confrontational.
Key theme I: memory
Although informed by history, Kiefer is more an artist of memory – private and public, personal and political. His paintings are packed with references to myth and poetry.
“I came to the title,” Kiefer explains, “because I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’, in a cynical way telling that Germany would be so beautiful without industry. This way of turning it round, it tells you the ambiguity of beauty.”
Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 Charles Duprat/© Anselm Kiefer
Key theme II: micro/macro
links between the individual and the universal, the importance of the constellations as part of the cyclical nature of time and life.
Other works from this period, such as The Orders of the Night (1996), show huge crops of sunflowers looming over the body of the artist. At the same time, Kiefer has been producing works on a much smaller scale: the RA’s exhibition includes a number of artist’s books, which demonstrate a more intimate side to the artist’s practice.
Anselm Kiefer, The Orders of the Night, 1996. Emulsion, acrylic and shellac on canvas. 356 x 463 cm. Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hed reen. Photo Seattle Art Museum / © Anselm Kiefer.
Key material: lead
“the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history”.
Incorporating materials such as concrete, straw, ash and shellac, Kiefer’s works often decay with age, and the artist embraces this loss of control. Embodying this mutability is lead, which alchemists once believed could be turned into gold. Books – often with wings – have been a repeated motif since the late 1960s and represent, for Kiefer, important repositories of learning, religion, culture. Many of these book sculptures are made of lead, which Kiefer first used to mend his plumbing in the 1970s.
Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013. Lead, metal, wood and plaster. 325 x 474 x 150 cm. Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.
Books have been central to Kiefer’s practice since 1968. To create a big sketchbook as artworks, he considers them works in their own right but also intimate visual diaries in which he seeks to ‘re-create a memory’. As a primary source of knowledge and as repositories of history and world religions, books are powerful and paradoxical symbols for Kiefer. His books are visual, and rarely text-based : ‘You do not have to read my books. You only need to scan. I am not picturing words.’
In the Annenberg Courtyard
Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War
Anselm Kiefer often dedicates his works to intriguing figures of the past, be they poets or philosophers. This piece is one of a number of works emerging from Kiefer’s ongoing exploration of the Russian Futurist avant-garde writer, theorist and absurdist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), who concluded that a major sea battle took place every 317 years, or multiples thereof.
Kiefer celebrates this heroic and ludicrous activity with a work that is both monument and anti-monument. Measuring almost 17 metres in total and consisting of two large glass vitrines, Kiefer creates a transparent, reflective sea-scape in three dimensions that calls to mind the Romantic sublime of painters from JMW Turner to Caspar David Friedrich. Kiefer uses the frames of the vitrines to stage a mysterious drama, in which viewers, seeing each other and their own reflections, become participants.
Anselm Kiefer, Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War. Time, Dimension of the World, Battles at Sea Occur Every 317 Years or Multiple s Thereof, Namely 317 x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . . . . . .,2011-14. Photo by Kamonnart Ongwandee