Anselm Kiefer: the greatest living artist?

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The Royal Academy can be proud to host the work of such a profound, historically aware artist as Anselm Kiefer.

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 The Orders of the Night, 1966

 

Born in 1945, Kiefer entered a world drenched in the aftermath of the Second World War. His first experiences were of a society overwhelmed by a sudden understanding of recent atrocities: a vision so lugubrious, hope for the future could hardly enter the picture. Kiefer was of a generation of German artists who deeply pondered over theorist Theodor Adorno’s claim that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.

Kiefer’s oeuvre however strikes me as intensely lyrical. From his early expressionistic drawings and surrealistic watercolours, to his overwhelmingly large and richly textured canvases, Kiefer offered a dark comment on both recent and ancient history. Yet his grave cynicism is matched in equal measure by a sense of hope and a celebration of natural beauty.

The artist’s attitude to creativity is daring and limitless, as exemplified by his broad use of materials. His ambition cannot be contained in paint alone; the artist creates with straw, sand, gold leaf, copper wire, broken ceramics, wood, lead and even diamonds. This great physical complexity is reflective of a broad range of subjects nourishing his work. From his hometown in the region of the Black Forest, the Holocaust, the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, the poetry of Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and German Romanticism through the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, Kiefer’s historical and intellectual references lay bare the artist’s own richness of spirit.

Arranged chronologically, the viewer is confronted by provocation from the outset. His painting series Heroic Symbols represent allusions to, and re-appropriations of Nazi Germany as the artist sought to confront his nation’s history, all too conveniently ignored and removed from collective consciousness. Perhaps most provocative in Ice and Blood (Eis und Blut) 1971, Kiefer depicted himself in his father’s army uniform, his arm outstretched in the Nazi salute. Not to be mistaken for cohesion, this explicit historical reference represents both a mocking subversion of authority, and solidarity for artists who had been oppressed under the regime. Further, the diaphanous handling of watercolour adds a haunting presence as its delicate beauty seems incongruous with the subject matter at hand.

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 Ice and Blood (Eis ind Blut), 1971

 

Subversion of authority is extended onto a larger scale in the third room with canvases such as To the Unknown Painter (Dem unbekannten Maler), 1983 covering entire walls. The architectural composition of this painting relates to the commissions architects such as Albert Speers received, wherein a grand building should present the solidity and power of National Socialist ideology. However, Kiefer’s rigid and incisive perspective articulated here conveys only seemingly solid foundations, as cracked patches of paint denote crumbling stone, and hence a deeply fallible ideology.

 

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To the Unknown Painter (Dem unbekannten Maler), 1983

 

Kiefer not only commented on the recent past, he explored humanity’s civilising origins through meditations on Mesopotamia in canvases such as Osiris and Isis, 1985-87. The title refers to a narrative from ancient Egyptian mythology in which death and resurrection figure. This composition is dominated by a large pyramidal structure wherein each richly textured brick represents an individual capsule of accumulated time. It was perhaps this work I spent the most time looking at during my visit; I found these endlessly accumulating bricks invited me to imagine how history has unfurled since the cradle of civilization, and how the past will determine the future.

 

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 Osiris and Isis, 1985-87

The idea of cyclical history pervades Kiefer’s oeuvre, but is most explicitly articulated in the installation Ages of the World (Die Erdzeitalter), 2014, created specifically for the Royal Academy’s grand central tribune. A host of canvases layered with the artist’s signature thick and cracking paint are piled high into the space, their discarded and disintegrating appearance evocative of a funeral pyre. Out of death and decay, life emerges in the form of larger than life metallic sunflowers, extending and curling from the rubble, searching for light, only to wilt again. Kiefer offers a poetic musing on the nature of eternity and implies his belief that “construction and destruction are one and the same”.

 

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Ages of the World (Die Erdzeitalter), 2014

After being immersed in earthy, matt colours, the ninth room took me by surprise as I was confronted by a series of lead ‘paintings’ with countless diamonds set into their surfaces. Walking around the room, I had the impression I was being offered a window onto the cosmos. Kiefer had used diamonds earlier in his career in 1989, when he dropped them into the soil in a tunnel in Dover, thereby uniting a symbol of the heavens with the earth.

Just as I thought Kiefer’s breadth of creativity was exhausted, I entered the eleventh room, only to be blown away by the Morgenthau series of paintings which relate to the year 1944, during which the US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. initiated a plan to transform Germany into a pre-industrial, agricultural nation in order to strip the country of its potential for warfare. Unfortunately, the plan was never realized and instead harnessed by propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels to instill patriotism and extend the war. Reiterating Morgenthau’s plan, while acknowledging and condemning Goebbels’ interpretation, Kiefer produced magnificent canvases, composed of rich blues (including lapis lazuli), greens and gold. The artist was honouring Van Gogh, referring to his late landscapes with foreboding black crows. I found the atmosphere evoked by these canvases to be both incredibly uplifting, while retaining a sense of the unsettling, the remnants of a turbulent history embedded within the paint.

 

 

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Morgenthau Plan, 2013

 

It is this marvelous union of beauty and horror, the celestial and earthly, life and death, which to me, will give Kiefer’s oeuvre eternal resonance. His ability to make a specific historical critique, while offering a distanced philosophical observation is nothing short of spectacular.

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