Anselm Kiefer, London

A look at 40-plus years of the artist's work, this sweeping exhibit explores his ongoing preoccupation with matters earthly and metaphysical.

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Frances Wilson
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Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945. A war baby (just) he grew up among the ruins of a country devastated by war and divided by ideology. It is hardly surprisingly, then, that on first sight many of his paintings appear to be of rubble. The dust and ash of broken buildings find their way into his art, along with other materials including clay, lead, fabric and dried flowers which add extraordinary depth and symbolism to his work.

The exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts is the first major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer's work to be held in the U.K. Considered one of the most significant artists of his generation, the exhibition spans over 40 years, brings together works from public and private collections, and includes new pieces conceived especially for the exhibition, some so new, in fact, that the room in which they hang carries the aroma of freshly applied oil paint — a potent physical reminder that Kiefer is still very active as an artist, seeking new challenges and producing ever more ambitious work.

The spacious, high-ceilinged rooms of Burlington House suit the scale of Kiefer's work and the architectural details in the fabric of the building are reflected in many of the paintings and create an interesting dialogue. Buildings, in particular the neo-classical edifices conceived for Hitler by Albert Speer, the bombed-out buildings Kiefer played in as a child, the structures of ancient Mesopotamia, and buildings he has encountered on his travels are an ongoing preoccupation for an artist whose work explores time and history as a way of understanding the world of today and events of the past, our purpose here on earth, our relationship with the spiritual and celestial, and our passage through life.

Kiefer’s fascination with history seeps through every pore of his work, and he draws upon a vast archive from Norse legend to Wagner’s “Parsifal,” the Old and New Testaments, alchemy, philosophy, past masters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Vincent Van Gogh, and the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann to interrogate the darkness of recent German history and the complex relationship between art and spirituality. In Kiefer’s paintings, inspired by the poetry of Paul Celan (who survived the Holocaust), it is as if the only way to shrive himself of the horrors of the recent past is to paint about them, thereby preserving them in the memory.

His work offers no simple affirmations of life rising anew from the devastation of war. In much of it, he grapples with the collective absence of memory following the fall of Nazism in his country and his country’s unwillingness to confront its uncomfortable past. Heroic symbols (winged statues, German eagles, swords) take their place alongside a tiny figure, an arm raised in a Nazi salute, while the motif of a tin bath — a reference to the zinc baths issued to all German households by the Third Reich — is another provocative reminder. Black sunflowers haunt his canvasses like scorched bodies. The burden of history weighs heavily in Kiefer’s work: his message is no polite plea “lest we forget.” Kiefer is forthright: he insists that the viewer confronts the brutal realities of history.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins with an examination of the importance of books in Kiefer’s life, which have remained central to Kiefer’s practice since 1968. Regarded as works in their own right, he also sees them as intimate visual diaries where he can recreate and preserve memories. He regards books as primary sources of knowledge and repositories of history and religion, which can be perused over time. These artist books are displayed in simple metal and glass cases, which the artist himself might have created.

In the 1980s the “vitrine” (glass display case), long a subject of art-historical discussion, began to play a more signifficant role in Kiefer’s work, used as both a container for sculpture and a picture frame. Two vitrines occupy the courtyard at Burlington House. Filled with tiny submarines, on first sight these look like a cruel parody of the work of Damien Hirst; on closer examination, they become strange war memorials, erected by the defeated. There are sculptures in the exhibition too. Imbued with suffering and splendor, these are monumental and uncompromising works, just like the paintings, which span time and space, literally and metaphorically, and force the viewer to confront the ugly detritus of history.

Kiefer’s experimentation with new techniques and materials is given expression in the works in rooms 8 and 9, which are created from lead. In 1985 the artist acquired the lead roof of Cologne Cathedral when it was replaced, and used it subsequently in his work, in the belief that lead is the only material capable of supporting the weight of human history. He enjoys its changeable qualities, which reflect our own constant state of flux, and in the works in room 9 he adds diamonds to the sheets of lead to create his own cosmos and to comment on our place within the greater scheme of things.

The final gallery is filled with a vast woodcut of the Rhine of his homeland, and the river which marks the delineation between Germany and France. The concept of borders is another of the artist’s concerns, both symbolic and physical. “The Rhine” is constructed from large panels, which echo the pages of a book and allow the viewer to walk between and around them, as if wandering through the forests which line the banks of the Rhine. In the work, Kiefer makes reference to the great German writer Goethe, as well as to Paul Celan and the artist Albrecht Durer in quotations and symbols, and the panels are rich in references to some of the artist’s key obsessions:wartime bunkers and blazing fires.

This is an ambitious and provocative exhibition, though not the first show at the Royal Academy to focus on a single artist (recent exhibitions have featured David Hockney and Anish Kapoor). But the grandeur and confidence of Kiefer’s work holds its own in the graceful rooms of Burlington House, and there is much beauty among the shocking to explore here.

Frances Wilson

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