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Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: A Post Memory Perspective

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: A Post Memory Perspective

Palette 1981 Anselm Kiefer


Chance brought me to the Royal Academy on a day you could cut the London sky with a knife. The kind of day the sky literally takes over shrouding the city in a blanket so dense, so uniformly grey and so inhospitably cold that I was in some need of shelter on arrival. In terms of atmosphere for viewing Anselm Kiefer, whose major themes encompass the horror that is Germany’s part in WWII, it was a perfect day. It had grimness covered.

So it was with dismay that this weary art enthusiast discovered the Royal Academy’s bizarre innovation of an outside kiosk for ticket purchase. Perfect for prolonging the gloom and flirting with frostbite. I wasn’t impressed and neither were my fellow queuers - although as I stood in line I sombrely noted echoes of other human queuing in the history of Anselm’s key subject and began instead to count my blessings. This queue and not that queue, or those queues. I shuddered.

Once inside, and a little recovered, I made my way up the RA stairs to meet Kiefer, carrying a mental image, borrowed from a recent viewing of the Alan Yentob Imagine documentary, of the artist with a cigar stuffed in his mouth careering around his colossal studio cum playground exhorting his technicians to move things here and there, punctuated with expressions of delight at a particular pile of rubble or the angle of a charred aeroplane. It really is worth watching. I was particularly taken with Anselm’s early rout in taking recent Germany history by the scruff of the neck. We all know about the ghastly greeting sieg heil (meaning hail victory) accompanied by the then mandatory Nazi salute, but I didn’t know that in Germany after 1945 it was banned. Kiefer somewhat shockingly had himself photographed in his father’s uniform and what looks like a knitted dress, making the salute in various romantic settings. This was not only controversial but represented an assault into forbidden territory, a bold refusal to collaborate with an attempt to expunge this abominable history. For this alone, Kiefer is to be admired and these photographs could arguably still be his most compelling work. I must here note that they are among his smallest pieces and thus make a comment about size not being everything - something to bear in mind when presented with an oeuvre largely comprising works of great magnitude.

I had some misgivings about the documentary however, which revealed a manic Kiefer engaged in a project so outsized it reeked of vainglory, and yet which also could be read as a kind of verisimilitude, a recreation or borrowing of sorts. The documentary certainly suggested it with cut-away shots to bombed out Germany - Kiefer’s childhood playground in the rubble created by the devastation of defeat. I’m just not sure. Are the early and late Kiefers perhaps at the same game? Is it simply that a concern with this history through it’s monstrous gestures has become over time architectural in scale? Kiefer it seems to me constantly grapples with how to place (embed) gesture, an obsession with scale and architectural spaces, and the ambiguous or perhaps fluctuating position of the figure, of the artist himself, in it all. Kiefer’s wrestling match with the weight of this history and his own intellectual pondering is tangible in every room of the RA show. How to avoid the overblown in such an enterprise and with such resources at one’s disposal is another matter entirely and more of a tightrope walk. It’s not surprising then that Kiefer sometimes falls.

Room 1 provided a confrontation with early Kiefer, on a more intimate scale, with watercolours, sketchbooks and paintings on view. The ‘sieg heil’ photographs I mention above are of course riveting. I can’t take my eyes away, but many are contained in a closed book held in a cabinet and only really viewable in the catalogue - I pour over it. Their atmosphere and intensity is extraordinary. There is a fitting madness about them a kind of quiet yet fittingly demented flavour to this work. I longed for more such explorations.

There is undoubtedly a certain beauty within Kiefer’s watercolour works such as Winter Landscape1970, and the hint of a powerful narrator seeming to channel and blend the figurative and landscape at will. Important to say that Kiefer is simply not interested in representation in the slightest, and there is often an awkwardness of expression in this naive style of illustrative depiction. I found this fascinating and perhaps a signal that Kiefer’s greater strengths lie in textural and atmospheric expression. Anselm cares more about different modalities and their potential for expression and there is a constant moving between forms in this show; the sculptural and painterly, the image and the word, and a longstanding bid to find a means to make them coalesce, more and less successfully at turns I felt. I sense this as an itch that Kiefer simply has to scratch, but perhaps I’m being too suggestible to all that hay embedded in the surfaces of later paintings such as Margarethe, 1981 (more of which later). The watercolours and books, while a constant in Kiefer’s lifetime of practice feel too limiting ultimately for such a restless and ambitious mind. Though they recur - especially the books as a motif and potent symbol for civilisation and destruction both in their various forms. We need only to remember that the Nazi’s burned books to understand why.

The closely related Heroic Symbol I, II & V paintings again reference the grisly Nazi salute, and move me with their curiously knowing naivety. Boldly disarming, it seems to me, they catch the viewer out with their homeliness, their folkish charm, and their badly painted statues hovering in the air. I want to laugh and at the same time I find this response outrageous. These paintings are extremely clever.

Room 2 houses the ‘Attic paintings” in which Kiefer imagines his studio as a stage. They are far more textural than his previous works and hint at what is to come but they are heavy and claustrophobic, laden with reference so I move swiftly on with a sense that I’m cutting through, searching for something I can recognise. In any such encounter as this one with Kiefer, as a post memory artist I inevitably bring much of my own perception and a need to comprehend the processes at work. I become aware that I’m looking for a common ground in the art of uncovering buried history; in my case it is one of Hitler’s friends, General Franco, who almost succeeded in wiping out a generation of executed and exiled Spaniards from the national memory who so often occupies my thoughts and working life. As I view here, I’m looking for something in Kiefer that relates to my own practice. I want thus to empathise with Kiefer, begin a conversation in which we can ‘talk’ about the development of a language adequate to the sensitivity our tasks.

In Room 3 with Margarethe 1981, one of a two part response to a poem called Death Fugue by Paul Celan, written shortly after liberation from a Nazi labour camp, I begin to glimpse what I’m looking for. Here Kiefer plunges us directly into death and mourning. It’s complex in origin but essentially all about indelible taint, smoking pyres, memorial candles and the ugly tattooing of the aryan myth into the German historic landscape. The RA, which should be commended for the curation of this show, helpfully print the poem next to this painting. I quote here from the final verse.

“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink
and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in
the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is
a master from Germany”

It is a dark, scorched, ugly painting in which Kiefer awkwardly writes the name Margarethe in black paint in a seeming afterthought. There appears to be no careful planning in this choice to wind these letters around the paint and pressed-in straw, which provides a hostile and bumpy surface for this text. I stop rueing Kiefer’s penchant for writing so clumsily into his work, moving from a sense that this is overkill (my first response) to understanding. Kiefer is literally writing back in both poetic and factual truth - he is of course, as from the beginning with those ‘sieg heil’ gestures reclaiming history. Of course I must now pick myself up off the floor - weeping isn’t enough I tell myself, only art will do, and so I move on to Ash Flower 1983 - 1997.

This painting comprises three panels with a more subtle architectural suggestion than it’s painterly room mates in which he moves out of the studio for inspiration and gains a greater sense of space. I like the subtlety, the sublime suggestion of a burned out, ashen shell, parched and dusty with a single dried sunflower suspended the centre. The head of this once bloom whitened and ghostly hovers. It is interesting in comprising both painterly and sculptural elements and, in my view, represents a successful union - squint, hold you hand up to block the sunflower head from view and you have nothing. This is a painting in which we are unsure of our own location, are we inside or outside - there is a feeling of being inside-out, dazed indeed. I loved the stairs to this wreck viewed more closely as abstraction - a stairway to hell, indicating the steps we must take to such abhorrent actions on a mass scale. I notice a lone straw poking out of the canvas.

Room 4 The Orders of the Night, 1996 finds another repeated motif of a man, the artist, supine, impaled or flowering, we are left uncertain. There are variously branches and sunflowers emanating from or lodged in his chest in all these re-visitings, we have first met this figure in Room 1 among the watercolours. I notice that this work is on two canvas’ of vastly unequal proportion, supine man can be removed and I practice holding up my hand and squinting first to eliminate him and then to isolate him from these towering flowers brooding with menace. I leave behind a mild irritation with Kiefer for failing to care about the proportions of his figure, in the realisation of course that the important relationship here is between the upright sunflowers and the prostrate figure. I truly believe this work and the motif to be about the weight of this work on Kiefer the man and of course the responsibility of the artist - it surely relates to his much smaller works where a palette features, one suspended (Palette 1981) on ropes aflame, another (Resumptio 1974) in which the palette emanates on wings like a soul from a tomb and finally (Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974) where we look into the blackened scene through the ghostly aperture of a palette in outline. I unreservedly love these intimate early paintings, while faced for the first time with The Orders of the Night I’m less enamoured. I don’t think Kiefer minds. These aren’t works to be loved, the proof of which I reckon probably follows. My very first association on seeing Orders of the Night was with the Billy Holiday rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. The dead headed sunflowers are of course abhorrent - they should be resplendent, as golden as straw or Margarethe’s hair, but they can never be so. Germany has passed through a nuclear winter and the artist has no choice, he must work with the dead heads, the strange fruits of our inhumanity.

My own work is with objects, I also paint and as a such I am an abstract artist committed to texture and the evocation of exile. My primary textural medium is sand, which signifies the beaches of France on which thousands of Spaniards were held captive at the fall of Spain in 1939. It is with some joy then that I approach Room 5 and find a painting which makes me want to cheer. Gone (almost) is the awkward painted writing, there are no worrisome proportions to bother us and there is sand. For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns 1998 - 2009 had me scribbling even harder at my improvised notepad (the verso of the print out of a play). This is what I wrote, “ …a painting of such subtle beauty! I want Kiefer to let his paintings speak and my small regret about the letters on this canvas diminishes - they are smokey, whispered only. Kiefer is learning to pipe down.”

Room 5 also houses Osiris and Isis 1985 - 1987 in which Kiefer again seeks to combine sculptural and painted forms with both wit and success. I gaze at the tangled wires emanating from what the gallery notes tell me is an old television fuse box. They cascade down the sides of a painted pyramid off which fragments of ceramic are suspended like archeological finds, only while carefully numbered like valuable exhibits, are probably bits of household plumbing. I get close up and see if I can piece together a toilet, but it’s only a suggestion and probably pieces of sink. I’m a little disappointed. Wouldn’t a nod to Duchamp be fun? Then I remember, we’re not here for that.

By the time I find myself in Room 6 I need to sit down and am joined by two delightful women who want to talk to me for quite some time about the show. It’s the kind of exhibition where people engage you. Untitled 2006-8 is a vitrine triptych - a sculpture which incorporates dead branches, curiously ashen structures and a painted forest landscape. We are back in the nuclear winter but there is also a fairytale feel. These charred structures are uncertain, and we don’t have a clear sense of the function of these buildings, which could equally be Rapunzel like towers, or bird houses. The ambiguity works. The nuclear winter is preserved for viewing behind glass. The scene cannot be changed or erased. We are invited to imagine. The very lack of a title tells us so.

Room 7 contains Kiefer’s site specific installation for the RA entitled Ages of the World, 2014, billed as ‘part totem, part funeral pyre’. This provokes another conversation, several people join in. The question becomes whether the sunflowers weaving through this racked up pile of canvas’ and rubble are real. The gallery assistant claims they are too tall to be real, some visitors agree. We are allowed to touch them, proving them to be light and thus not casts. Finally my old friends from Room 6 reappear and testify as to the tallness of their own sunflowers. Of course they’re real these women say and I have to agree that I thought them so all along. Another conversation begins about the smell of this work - dusty - we agree. It smells of rubble says one man. My attention turns to a large boulder resting improbably on the edge of the pile above my head. A health and safety matter surely! I reach up to feel the boulder and find that it’s a fake. Suddenly I feel cheated and find I dislike this piece, having initially fallen for it’s superficial charm. It’s like a window display and I move on looking once more for the authentic Kiefer whose company I’m coming to so enjoy.

It doesn’t take long to find him. The spirit of Paul Celan is with us again in Room 8 with two enormous visual responses, again to his poetry, from Kiefer which take up the entire wall space and sit opposite one another as if in conversation. I don’t even mind the writing on Black Flakes, 2006, as I feel all the elements here work. The writing is in any case subsumed by the visual and dances to the tune of Kiefer’s composition. In fact, the success of this work lies in the harmonious orchestration of all the disparate elements and forms, twigs become crosses, words become furrows, the leaden book floats just below the vanishing point on the oppressed horizon. Ash Flower, 2006, is the partner piece in which lead books lie pressed into or suspended in a painted ground. Of course you think of tombs, fallen bodies and the fall or civilisation all at once. A black strip of oppressive sky presses down against violently scraped or scratched in lines to suggest a geography, grimly furrowed ashen soil. I am not quick enough to stop my mind from making a devastating association with marks made by the clawing fingers of those trying to escape destruction in the gas ovens, or observing that Celan though a survivor of a work camp committed suicide in 1970. That these works are capable of evoking such powerful associations are surely a mark of artistic and creative triumph.

Oh dear. My next stop is Room 9 and I am confronted with the works in lead on a grand scale of such twinkling abstract beauty that again I must sit down to take them in. I didn’t know lead could sparkle. Yet something isn’t quite right and a strange dance like ritual is taking place. Viewers appear mesmerised and as they peer into these leaden canvas’ their feet take on a disobedient turn and step over the grey lines that demarcate the boundaries of contact with the art. Alarms bleep on and off in rapid succession and as the peering dance goes on I dimly note that this has certainly not taken place in any of the other rooms. Of course, this is because there are no diamonds in rooms 1-8. Yes, I begin to see that the twinkles are indeed genuine sparklers and that to gaze upon the surface of these works is rather like scoping out a jewellers window. It’s not a joke, there must be one hundred diamond solitaire settings in For Ingeborg Bachman: The Renowned Orders 1987 - 2014. What is it with certain artists of the 21st century and diamonds? How can this not seem vulgar and of questionable morality. I liked it better when I didn’t know and could enjoy Room 9 as a beeping installation.

Room 10 contained books in cases and I must confess to experiencing switch off (I blame the shock of the diamonds) and can’t say much about them, aside from the glorious textures of some of the book covers which ranged from rusting and verdigris lead to impasto oil painted surfaces. Under the Linden stood out and I longed to break open the glass cases to reach in and touch. The oil paint in some cases looked still wet and extremely tempting. I began to feel I was nearing the end and indeed I was.

Nothing really prepared me for Room 11 in which my empathy with Kiefer paradoxically swelled as I observed what looked like a head on collision - a car crash of a room. Here again are my hastily scribbled notes. “I feel like Kiefer - only I work on small scale, with a difficult war and in a way that acknowledges what I can’t do or what I feel doesn’t work. Kiefer says to hell with that I’m doing it anyway because I can. Some are more successful than others but he is content to risk all.” The ‘Morgenthau’ series is an astonishing group of paintings in which Kiefer kind of throws everything in but the kitchen sink. At first glance I observed how sculptural elements and the painterly had yet again been married in each of these huge canvases. Someone needed to call a divorce lawyer. A fight was surely about to break out as in most cases the objects suspended from the canvas’ seemed at odds and in conflict with the garish and corn embedded picture plane. I can’t believe that I missed the Vincent Van Gogh references as once you know that they are they, they are blinding obvious and in addition to all the iconographic and gestural borrowings there is the manic energy, the crazed undercurrent to give the game away.

Further context is given by the Morgenthau reference. It was news of the Morgenthau plan to cast Germany back into the pre-industrial era to thwart it’s potential to wage future wars, proposed in 1944 by US Secretary to the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, which is said to have fuelled German efforts to withstand the allies, prolonged the war and to have led to further loss of life.

Thus in many ways the visual pile-up before me is so apt I can only sit and nod in wonder. I consider my journey taken in but a few hours with Kiefer. From the sieg heil photographs and paintings, through the nuclear winters, the supine figures, strange fruits and floating palettes, the engagements (diamonds), marriages and divorces there has been both a tortured and at times demented energy at work (how couldn’t it be so given the history). My feeling is that through it all Kiefer carries an unusually sound compass, despite my reservations on certain aspects of the show.

By the time it came to walk through the woods with Kiefer in Room 12, an installation of huge woodcut panels, I had had much too much and made my way out through the mandatory gift shop exit with just a glance around me. I simply couldn’t respond to this sudden change in emotional temperature. Perhaps I was still in the shock of Morgenthau?

This has been a highly personal response to Kiefer. His work could be considered overblown and the product of white male privilege. However, as another artist working with post memory (the imbibed history of ones immediate family, not lived through but present as inherited memory) I recognise many of Kiefer’s compulsions and his deep need to work through this material in the way that he does. My journey takes me full circle to the question of scale and I respectfully revise my opinion. After an afternoon with Kiefer I have come to believe that scale matters in his process, it really does. Proportionality is after all an important component of justice and redress.