Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anselm Kiefer @ Royal Academy of Arts

Anselm Kiefer, Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations, The New Theory of War (2011-2014)
I was ambivalent about going to see yet another Kiefer exhibition as I am still in two minds as to whether or not this is a body of work that continues to develop. While I have maintained a 30 year love affair with Kiefer’s books, and have always been fascinated by his use of lead, I have become increasingly disillusioned with the monumentality, what always seems to me to be an expression of self-obsession, and the reflection of an overblown ego. In spite of my misgiving,s I went to what turned out to be a superbly curated retrospective of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy in London.
Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes, 2006 
The courage to stage a retrospective of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy is, in itself, to be acknowledged. It’s odd just to imagine these enormous, industrial-sized sculptures, paintings and installations in a space designed to house the subtle and the emotionally vulnerable, as well as the politically charged work of painting in the eighteenth century. Entry to the courtyard, at dusk on a wet, drizzling, late November day, I am swept up into a world of beauty and calm, where rusting U-boats are suspended in two glass vitrines, floating, as though battle passed through here long ago. These are the traces or remnants of another era. Kiefer’s signature script, in charcoal, on paper, bark, haunts the installation, forcing us to reflect on what we can never fully understand. Knowing that the piece is titled Velimir Khlebnikov:  Fates of Nations, The New Theory of War (2011-2014) gives us the facts, but not the mystery that fills the air in the vitrines, surrounding the boats. Velimir Khlebnikov was an early twentieth-century Russian Futurist poet and numerologist, an absurdist, who calculated that decisive sea battles always occur every 317 years.  But these facts, like the battles, are on a distant horizon, far from the sculpture itself. I wondered, as an appetizer to the exhibition to come, which would transform which: would the centuries of tradition weigh on these otherwise unsightly boats, or did the sculpture mark the beginning of a radical re-vision of the Royal Academy?
Anselm Kiefer, Der Morgenthau Plan, 2012
For me, it was in the final rooms of the exhibition, that I became convinced that Kiefer still has something to say. Kiefer returns to books, again, as though he had not quite finished reading, as though he had new ideas that he had just recalled, recently. The books are, for the first time in his career, in colour. That said, Kiefer has always been interested and devoted to colour, it’s just that his chosen colour for exploration has been a palette of greys. The flyer accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy claims these books, that apparently reference Rodin, are erotic. When he brings colour together with lead, lead becomes delicate and reveals a rainbow spreading across the otherwise dead, static material. They are esoteric, as always, but they are also sensuous, sumptuous and beautiful, much more than simply erotic.
Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013
In the later coloured canvases, the Morgenthau paintings, he not only introduces radiant colour, but there is always a balance of sorts, a scale, though it is old and rusted, its contents burnt and left to rot amid the life that surrounds it. The scale speaks of justice, even if it is from another era. The flier again mentions that these works references van Gogh, the sunflowers, but with their French titles, they also find influence from Monet’s waterlillies, the canvas and colour expressing a chaos that seethes beneath the surface of Monet’s final works. I realize in this last room as Kiefer, unusually, sees light and brightness and colour at the end of his life, that what is overwhelming in the other, earlier works, is not only the size, but the predominance of death and destruction, fire and ashes, bunkers and the detritus of war. The landscapes in his earlier works, up until the last few years are heavy, always landscapes in the middle of a storm, or effaced by a storm that passed through, maybe recently, maybe a long time ago, it’s difficult to tell. In the Morgenthau paintings, there is always a sky, hope, and we are placed to look up, out of the wheat fields, not down, on a land that extends filled with death, lined with graves that are the reminder of war out of control. The details on the much more free form Morgenthau landscapes are executed in gold leaf, and I note the hint of birds in the sky. These elements make me think that as an artist Kiefer is becoming brighter, freer, not necessarily more or less abstract, it’s just that there seems to be more hope. This is unusual for an artist growing older, especially one as preoccupied with the darkness of German history as Kiefer has been throughout his career.
'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night', 1998-2013
Anselm Kiefer, For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, 1998-2013
Two rooms back, in a handful of works for Paul Celan (nothing new in Kiefer’s oeuvre) are tactile, grey, sheets of lead as canvases sprinkled with diamonds. Apparently, diamonds remind us of the connection between Heaven and Earth. They remind me of the celestial lights that once decorated the ceilings of medieval churches, light that have fallen into the ground and made the lead luminescent. In the diamond-filled landscape of For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night and Der Morgenthau Plan with their blues and gold leaf, yellows and violets, the alchemical reaction that Kiefer has been working on, looking for all his career has finally materialized. If he began with fire and charcoal and death, the burnt books of the 1970s, it’s as though all is transformed: the richness and prosperity of the skies and the universe have finally reached the earth. 

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