|Anselm Kiefer, Pour Paul Celan: Fleur de cendre, 2006|
I have followed Anselm Kiefer’s work since the early 1980s and, having seen it many times in exhibition, wondered if there was anything new to see in the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. It is called a “retrospective,” a title that immediately piqued my curiosity: how can the monumental works of this prolific artist be brought together in one place? How could the vastness of Kiefer’s oeuvre be given comprehension and coherence in the relatively compact space of half of level six? For all these reasons, I decided to take a friend who is not familiar with Kiefer’s work, and whose intellectual life is devoted to French literature and culture. Kiefer’s work is so resolutely German, and for the most part, impenetrable. How would it appear to strangers?
|Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973|
Given all the constraints generated by the size and proliferation of Kiefer’s canvases and installations, I have to say, the selection and exhibition of the works did give a good overview of his approaches, aesthetic and thematic concerns. Of course, none of the big installations are included, but what makes this exhibition unique is the centrality given to the monumental paintings from the 1970s and 80s. Many of these, such as Nothung (1973) or Shulamith (1983) are more difficult to access, because they are dark, often filled with decay, cindered remains that are dense with reference to German history, philosophical discourse and layer upon layer of cultural reference. Thus, their placement as key developmental works is a courageous and welcome decision on the part of the Pompidou. I was also impressed with the choice of works, many of them never having been exhibited in France. At least, I had not seen a lot of them. In fact, despite having followed Kiefer’s work for over thirty years, about 70% of them I was seeing in the flesh for the first time. For example, one room is devoted to Kiefer’s Vitrines which were intriguing and hauntingly beautiful. Even though they engage many similar themes to those of the monumental paintings, the vitrines are unique. Aesthetically, their mélange of lead, glass, dust and poetry places them closer to the books than the monumental paintings in the exhibition.
|Anselm Kiefer, Palette on a Rope, 1977|
Kiefer’s artistic language is difficult, and I would have thought this were especially so for a French audience. His work represents a constant search for a language with which to understand and integrate the unfathomable complexity of German history into the present. A lot of the time, Kiefer does this through reflection on his own role within that history, within the depiction of that history. Some of his early attempts caused a ruckus in Germany. At a time when silence prevailed around the Holocaust and the presence of Nazi Germany in everyday German life was at best ignored, Kiefer took photographs and painted himself performing Heil Hitler salutes on beaches. In one of my favourite works, Palette on a Rope (1977), an otherwise abstract grey palette is suspended between two cords. The simplicity of Palette on a Rope makes it powerful, an image in which he reduces the discourse on history, memory, representation, far off lands and inexplicable dilemmas to an artist’s palette in grey. This is, of course, Kiefer’s way of making sense of all that he paints: through his eyes as an artist.
|Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973|
I was interested in my friend Loren’s response, as someone schooled in French thought, before a body of work, so resolutely German. He saw it is as a kind of writing, a furious attempt to communicate to the point where it becomes like graffiti, scribbling and scrawling, defacing and revising the history. This is, as he pointed out, what saves Kiefer from the accusation of grandiosity, and a sense of his own importance--he sometimes equates the artist with God--to understanding the depths of history. All of Kiefer’s canvases and are steeped in irony, an irony that takes many different forms. There are moments when we suspect he is being the self-conscious provocateur. At others, he lets slip an uncertainty of his own centrality, his own grasp on what he represents. It’s not only in the uneven textures, the burning of his own and other’s work, the erasure of his images. But also, irony pervades the depth and richness of the references, the complexity of materials that are always charged with a significance that enables them to articulate beyond their materiality. Added to this, the paintings are like visual events that are the equivalent of a Paul Celan poem in which there is no structure, no language which could possibly articulate the depth and complexity of what he is already representing. It is, ultimately, the only way Kiefer dares to paint something that cannot be painted.
As I say, Kiefer often puts the painter at the centre of these vast universes, but the painter is always anonymous, equated with the unknown soldier, a nobody. In To the Unknown Painter (1983) the mausoleum is built for the painter as God, equated with Hitler through its architecture and an unknown soldier, the symbolic death for a nation’s loss. As always, the tomb (of the painter) is surrounded by death, fire, and skies heavy with lead. The corrosion of the textured canvas becomes the image of German history, dried up, burnt, never to rise again.
|Anselm Kiefer, Etroits sont les vaisseaux, 2002|
I also wondered for the first time, do we really need to know the references to history, to legend, to the Nazis in order to access Kiefer’s work? Doesn’t this painting with its black, ashen decay, show everything it needs to, visually? Even though the paintings simultaneously are not always asking to be seen, but rather, they become like philosophical dramas asking to be read.
Our conversation about the landscapes brought new insights. We discussed the landscapes as an invitation to go on a journey, to trudge across dirty snow scattered with books, lead books, burnt books, to a distant horizon that, for Kiefer, always promises through a ray of hope. The books are burnt, books are stepping stones on a journey, they are placemarks in history as well as the detritus of that same history, they represent a knowledge that is now out of date. And the books are usually written by men. They scatter these landscapes, just as the official versions of history, but with characteristic Kiefer irony, the books are the litter that make this land a repository for the rubbish of history. And it goes on: books deface the canvas to show that this is just a story, a story that can be rewritten, trashed, once again, ensuring that Kiefer’s repeated message is clear: I do not claim to have the last say about this history that I paint.