The Royal Academy of Arts presents a truly monumental retrospective of Anselm Kiefer’s work; the most significant display of the artist’s creations ever to be held in the UK. The RA’s major exhibition chronicles Kiefer’s work over his 40 year career, showing a selection of the artist’s oeuvre from the 70s to the present day; filling the lofty galleries of the Royal Academy with a resoundingly operatic presence which is more commanding than that of the previous artist’s to fill the RA’s single artist shows, such as Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, and Kiefer’s counterpart; Georg Baselitz.
The RA’s galleries are a fitting environment for the artist’s enormous canvases. Kiefer certainly does the Beaux-arts opulence justice. The exhibition begins with the artist’s early confrontation with his own country’s denial of its Nazi history.
The artist was born in Germany in 1945, into a society in collective denial about its abhorrent past. The Third Reich had collapsed; as had Germany’s sense of itself; a mass amnesia governed the teaching of the its recent history. No one wanted to remember.
In 1969, the artist visited historic sites across Europe wearing parts of his father’s army uniform, even raising his arm in parody. In fact Kiefer posed for a photograph in which the young artist was giving the sea a Nazi salute. The exhibition includes early work from the artist referencing this period including his series of photographs “Occupations” and the “Heroic Symbols” paintings.
With this seemingly tasteless image; Kiefer resurrected his country’s collective memory; and with it their collective wrath and disapproval. But the artist considered the truth of Germany’s many victims, and the need for a collective lesson; far outweighed Germany’s desire to forget.
For both the artist and for Germany the breaking of taboos was a way of coming to terms with an unforgivable history. At first Kiefer’s work was negatively received in the country. It was Jewish-American collectors in the 1980s that were among the first to appreciate the artist’s work.
Many of the artist’s materials directly reflect his country’s destructive past; Kiefer’s enormous painting ‘Ash Flower’ has a surface embedded with ash; a remnant of death, over the faint architectural lines of a grand neo-classical façade inspired by the infamous relationship between Hitler and his arch-architect, Albert Speer.
Speer had a ‘Theory of Ruin’ – where he believed great buildings belonging to the Third Reich should eventually make beautiful ruins to add to the mythos of its Teutonic power. Kiefer’s building seems ‘ruinous’ yet its decay is more about death than invented history. The painting took 14 years to create and measures 4 metres by 7 metres. One wonders about the scale of Kiefer’s later works; as if a reaction to a young artist believing he was silenced by his own society’s mass denial – perhaps he simply couldn’t help make grand declarations as an expression against silence.
The sunflower in the work suggests another element of Kiefer’s work. The artist uses the flower again and again in his painting and sculptural works; either in representation or in actuality. But Kiefer is not interested in any van Gogh-like warmth, but in the use of the dead sunflower as a signifier of renewal and the cycle of existence. For buried in the face of the dead sunflower are its blackened seeds; hundreds of opportunities for the recreation of life, and the rebirth of the flower from its own death.
The sunflower is a signifier repeated throughout the artist’s work; Kiefer has a fascination with the 17th century Paracelsian physician Robert Fludd, and his theories regarding the lives of plants, the aspects of microcosm and the macrocosm in the universe, and his suggestion that for every plant there exists a corresponding star.
With that Kiefer’s sunflower seeds suddenly become celestial bodies, at the same time as the viewer becomes stardust. This is Kiefer’s eternal cycle of universal life and rebirth – but under the weight of history.
In fact Kiefer produced a triptych; ‘For Robert Fludd The Secret Life Of Plants’, 2001. The artist created three panels of lead with his familiar scatological texture; the layers of time; but in lead, become the sky embedded with stars in the form of actual diamonds. There is an interplay between microcosm and macrocosm here too; diamonds – created from the very weight of the world – become ephemeral celestial bodies twinkling in the leaden darkness. Heaven and earth reversed.
Landscapes appear in many of the artist’s works, resolutely grounding Kiefer amongst the politics of his country; The artist references The American Morgenthau Plan, devised in 1944 to strip a near-defeated Germany of its industry and turn the country into a farm for the rest of Europe, and its people into a mass of farm-hands – is thought to have strengthened Nazi resolve, and cost even more lives. Kiefer embedded straw in his portrayals of Margarete, a blond Aryan who appears in a series of paintings that were inspired by Paul Celan’s elegy to victims of the Holocaust, Death Fugue.
Yet For the artist universal truths are as important as highlighting the national memory – a reason, one suspects, why the artist likes to create books – Kiefer’s work isn’t so much scatalogical in texture; as buried under layer after layer of ash, as if the sediments of time, or the remnants of stars and people.
There is more than a little of the alchemist in the artist; with his use of materials as signifiers, such as clay, straw, and lead. Kiefer sees clay as a signifier of the body and renewal, as he does the use of plant life, or plant death – as for the artist’s comment about lead; it is a poetically telling one: that lead was the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.
The exhibition is a momentous achievement, at once harrowing and uplifting – Kiefer delivers the unforgettable solemnity of a personal and national identity, yet tinged with hope for renewal and the rebirth of all things.
Anselm Kiefer – Royal Academy of Arts – Until 14 December
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014