A history of the world up to 1945
Although Anselm Kiefer alludes to many cultural references, it would be a mistake to just puzzle over them. His work is equally enjoyable on a purely physical level.
Review by Robbie Griffiths
Entering the Royal Academy courtyard you pass by two enormous glass cabinets, one of which contains a number of U-boats of various sizes floating at different heights as if in a real sea. This can only be Anselm Kiefer.
Born in 1945, Kiefer belongs to a German generation that had to deal not only with the country’s immediate Nazi past, but also with the fire bombing of cities by the Allies.
A series of chilling paintings depict Albert Speer’s (Hitler’s architect) monumental buildings. One building appears to be a ruin (To the Unkown Painter, 1983), the ‘ceiling’ perhaps an inky sky. A palette representing the artist stands in the centre.
Even in his latest work (Ages of the World) created in the Royal Academy especially for this show, we see canvasses piled up as if in a bonfire with ashes on the ground. One can’t help thinking of the books the Nazis burnt, or even further back to the Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who burnt books and art before succumbing himself in like manner in 1498.
Kiefer’s depictions of himself giving a Nazi salute have prompted accusations that he somehow had Nazi sympathies. However, this completely misses his parodying of Hitler’s pomposity, accentuated by the ‘audience’ Kiefer chooses to salute. Rather than the serried ranks of the SS, he salutes an avenue of trees or, Canute-like, the sea or even heaven. He believes in confronting rather than suppressing history.
For an oeuvre which is so full of cultural references, there appear to be few to any period after his birth. Though chaos, which is part of his birthright in the rubble of Germany’s Year Zero, is very much part of his work, there appears to be no allusion to the war crimes of the Allies. The inability of the post-war German intelligentsia to address this thorny issue was something that WG Sebald railed against in his On the Natural History of Destruction. Perhaps Kiefer does though. In 1985 he purchased the old lead roof of Cologne cathedral, which stood for years in a sea of destruction like a ghost. Lead is the only material that can carry the weight of human history, he believes.
It is common now for exhibitions to include artists sketch books displayed in cabinets. Kiefer’s though are giant ‘notebooks’ made from unusual materials, even electrolysed lead. There is also a series from an illustrated 18 page book The Cathedrals of France, which include a phallic like cathedral and a naked woman. Several of the women in the series are explicitly displaying their genitals, with one woman holding herself open as if she is really showing us ‘The origin of the world’, unlike Courbet’s version, which was surely made for lustful male consumption. Rather, they remind you of Rodin.
In Black Flakes we see a snowy landscape populated by rows of what appear to be emaciated trees, their trunks stripped of branches and foliage, as if as a result of a nuclear bomb. Or can these ‘trees’ be just markings, indecipherable like Linear A. Between the rows there are barely legible phrases, even if you can read German. And at the centre casting a spell over the landscape appears a book made of lead. What is the meaning of all this?
Trees are a major presence in this exhibition and German artists have often portrayed them as part of a collective German sub-conscious. This imagery was used by the Nazis as a symbol of the unity of the German people, which Kiefer subverts by presenting the woods, not as spiritual home, but as forbidding impenetrable forest.
In the last room you walk through a construction of panels, The Rhine, as if through woods of denuded tree trunks. Various words or phrases are pasted onto these images, such as ‘Melancholia’, an ancient ‘humour’, while the Atlantic Wall Nazi fortification floats above the trees.
Although Kiefer alludes to many cultural references, it would be a mistake to just puzzle over them. His work is equally enjoyable on a purely physical level. The canvasses are so full of oils, thickly applied making them almost edible. Faint marks delight the eye. Objects are implanted. Stand to the side of the paintings to notice the three-dimensionality of the impasto with objects sticking out – a scythe, scales of justice, scraps of pottery, boots, flowers.
Having given us a history of the world, at least up to 1945, it is as if Kiefer is saying it is up to us to make sense of the present and determine the future. This exhibition is going to delight many intellects and eyes.
30 September 2014