Anselm Kiefer's most recent Melancholia (2006) is included in Thaddaeus Ropac’s latest group show, “Fuentes”. The exhibition focuses on the influences of prominent contemporary artists, and side by side with Kiefer’s impressive canvas, sits Albrecht Dürer’s gloriously detailed engraving Melencolia I, 1514. The juxtaposition is not Thaddeas Ropac’s idea as the work has often been cited as a direct influence. And nor is this the first time that Kiefer has taken up the iconography and influence of Dürer’s most oft quoted engraving. He painted a Melancholia in 1988, again in 1989, and 1991.
At first glance, Kiefer’s huge canvas covered in thick crustations of paint, dirt, ash representing a catastrophic, turbulent sea, with a dirty glass and metal polyhedron falling out of a leaden sky couldn’t be more at odds with Dürer’s delicate composition done with a burin. Dürer’s precise and nuanced engraving, creates a heavenly grey, light and shadow, that gives the folds in Melancholia’s dress and the shimmering ocean a hyper-real appearance. Dürer’s image is vulnerable — so vulnerable the gallery have placed it behind a velvet curtain. It is so precisely rendered, graceful and filled with a quiet sadness. Kiefer’s canvas on the other hand is robust and powerful, and in typical Kiefer style, it has a grandeur and a visibility that draws attention to it immediately we walk into the gallery. And so, the debt to Dürer is surprising, because Kiefer’s use of materials such as lead and dirt in compositions that emphasize the sculptural, tactile three dimensionality of painting pushing their way off canvases are so consciously designed to create distance from classical techniques such as those of Dürer’s engravings.
Beyond technique and material, as we look closely, we see the imitation of the folds of Melancholia’s dress in the coagulations of paint, shellac and dirt that form the waves of Kiefer’s restless sea. And the imitation extends beyond the compositional: the material build up on the surface of Kiefer’s Melancholia is cracked, appearing brittle to the touch, in what Donald Kuspit has likened to the fragility of German history. There are of course the symbolic connections — Kiefer’s appropriation of Dürer’s iconography, his title, his immersion in the bind of artistic (and Germany’s) creativity born of dark melancholia and depression, the brilliance and genius of the artist, the repeated use of the polyhedron as the symbol of mathematical logic, and rationality in a spiritually ethereal world. All of these influences are, however, almost more obvious, less interesting, than Kiefer’s debt to the physical, tactile beauty of Dürer’s masterpiece – the fabric, created as it is through an infinitesimal, ethereal lines – a process that is apparently diametrically opposed to the solid and wretched protrusions of Kiefer’s cataclysmic vision.