Grand as some of London’s so-called ‘commercial galleries’ now are, the British press still tends to forget that they exist. Editors and critics still prefer to snuggle up to cosy old Mother Tate – or failing that, to some other public institution: the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, or – failing those – the Serpentine, the Whitechapel, or the Courtauld.
Just occasionally, however, there’s a show in a commercial gallery that’s so resoundingly ambitious and so self-evidently important that it’s bound to cause a stir. Shows of this type offer an additional, though usually little mentioned, benefit: you get in for free, which is not true of blockbusters at the two Tates, the R.A. or the N.G. Impecunious art-lovers ought to scurry along to the huge Anselm Kiefer show that has just opened at White Cube in Bermondsey. Kiefer is, after all, on of the very biggest names in contemporary art.
Just occasionally, however, there’s a show in a commercial gallery that’s so resoundingly ambitious and so self-evidently important that it’s bound to cause a stir.
If the show is a treat, it also rather a threatening one. Don’t think you are going to feel comfortable visiting it, either physically or psychologically. The exhibition comes with severe warnings not to touch, because of the toxicity of one of the materials used – most of all lead, lavishly employed. Many of the gallery spaces are darkened, and there’s rather a lot the careless visitor might trip over. One gets the feeling that, purely for health and safety reasons, White Cube would prefer to keep kiddies out. You can, after all, give them their weekly dose of contemporary art elsewhere, for example in some of the playrooms now provided by Tate Modern and Tate Britain, in sections that are indeed free to visit.
The exhibition is called Valhalla, and basically it functions are one huge continuous installation, though doubtless some parts of it – the vast paintings in particular – could be sold off separately to ambitious oligarch-type collectors. You’d clearly have to be a billionaire, with limitless storage space at your disposal, to acquire the whole thing.
The title, even more than the actual nationality of the artist, suggests that what you see is intimately entwined with Germanic political and cultural history, as well as, more obviously, with ancient Norse myths. Speaking of these, here are some lines from the Eiriksmáal, an anonymous 10th-century poem that describes Eric Bloodaxe, killed in York in 954, and five other Norse kings arriving in Valhalla after their death. The god Odin describes the condition of the hall just before their arrival:
‘What kind of a dream is it,’ said Óðinn,
in which just before daybreak,
I thought I cleared Valhǫll,
for coming of slain men?
I waked the Einherjar,
bade valkyries rise up,
to strew the bench,
and scour the beakers,
wine to carry,
as for a king’s coming,
here to me I expect
heroes’ coming from the world,
certain great ones,
so glad is my heart.
When Odin is asked why the benches in the hall are creaking, he says that this is in anticipation of the slain Eric’s arrival and that Eric is expected more eagerly than any other king because he has reddened his gore-drenched sword in so many lands. Odin was known as the ‘Valfather’ or ‘Father of the Slain’, because “all who fall in battle are his adopted sons. With them he mans Valhalla.”
This was the myth that Wagner took over for his epic Ring Cycle. His work, in turn, was taken over by the Nazis, with the connivance of some of the composer’s descendants. As Matthew d’Ancona remarked, in a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper (22 April 2016):
“The intimate association of these four mighty ‘music dramas’ (and Wagner’s other works) with the vilest regime in human history must be addressed in any ethical reckoning. To do otherwise is moral cowardice.”
But Kiefer also intends to allude, as the spelling of Walhalla with a W indicates, to the neoclassical memorial celebrating German heroes built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and completed in 1847. It survived both World Wars, and since its completion, a number of names have been added, among them those of Wagner himself (not till 1913), Albert Einstein (1990), who was Jewish, and Sophie Scholl (2003), executed in 1943 for passive resistance to the Nazis. Sophie Scholl is one of only three women commemorated. Another is Edith Stein (2008), a Jewish convert to Catholicism, later a nun, later still canonized by the Church, who died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
This complex situation is, I think, what Kiefer is trying to come to terms with, in an equally epic exhibition.
Much of it consists of rows of little iron beds, the kind you would find in a military barracks, or a reform school, or even, perhaps in a concentration camp, laden with shapeless slabs of lead, which may represent corpses, or else sleeping bodies covered in blankets. The forms are not specific enough for one to say what they are with any certainty. Are they deliquescing into putrescence? Are they beginning to take on more definite identities? The galleries are dimly lit, which makes the forms seem even more ambiguous.
In certain more brightly lit spaces one finds both a fragment of a circular staircase, bedecked with banners but stopping short of the ceiling and obviously going nowhere and also the big paintings I have already referred to.
The paintings, whether intentionally or not, call to mind the fate of the Twin Towers destroyed in New York by a terrorist attack. They appear to be aflame. But in these compositions, there are more than two. A whole city of towers in burning, as Aleppo burns today – part of a process that began with this earlier act of terror on another continent.
Valhalla sleeps, and a whole civilisation is burning. Or maybe it started with the Nazis, and even before that with Wagner.