Detail from Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970 Watercolour, gouache & graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6cm Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise & Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) Photo © 2014. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Facing Up To The Past

3rd October 2014

Anselm Kiefer is a very serious German painter, with some very serious themes. Suitably grim-faced, Jack Watkins went along to the major retrospective of his work which has just opened at the Royal Academy…

Never heard of Anselm Kiefer? His name and career were a blur to me, too, until this new show at the Royal Academy popped up on my radar. ‘Likes to use his art as a way of expunging the past’ was effectively all my little handbook on leading painters had to say about him. I didn’t skip along to the press view anticipating a joyful morning.

Still, The Guardian had already made its enthusiasm plain. ‘The most exciting show in Britain this autumn,’ it declared, and a little preliminary research certainly suggested an exceptional, if controversial, talent.

Kiefer was born in March 1945, just a matter of weeks before the Third Reich’s unconditional surrender to the Western Allies, and an obsession with the spirit and outward forms of the Nazi regime seem to have permeated his career. It’s run him into trouble because of the – understandable – adoption of a form of cultural amnesia towards the events of a large section of the 20th century by many of his fellow nationals. Forget it, bury it, and reconstruct has been the preferred coping method, but it’s one that Kiefer doesn’t seem to have much truck with.

“After the ‘misfortune’, as all name it so euphemistically now, people thought in 1945 we were starting all over again… It’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up all over again generates resistance and disgust,” he says scornfully.

Free-thinking, provocative fellow that he is, as a young man in 1969, Kiefer dressed in paramilitary costumes – the wearing of which had been banned – and struck poses imitating the Fuhrer in a range of natural and monumental settings. His mimicking of the Nazi salute was apparently supposed to be taken as tongue-in-cheek, but it made many deeply uncomfortable. Was it really a way of confronting and facing up to the past, or did it simply help to perpetuate dangerous fascistic ideas?

Creatively speaking, Kiefer’s standpoint was always likely to make for stimulating art, even if on a practical level it seems nonsense. Hasn’t forward-looking Germany responded rather better to the challenges of the modern world than fellow giants among the European nation states like France and Great Britain, for instance? Perhaps Kiefer would argue that’s only a surface thing. Yet, in a way, this show forces you to examine the reasons why you go to look at ‘art’. Are you an ideas person, or someone who likes to be provoked, in which case you may be comfortable with conceptual art, or are you a middlebrow, never happier than when standing before the comforting delights of a Constable? Aesthetics far outrank symbolism for me, so Kiefer, the arch modern symbolist, represents a challenge.

The first room contains some absolute shockers. Kiefer always loved the work of Caspar Friedrich and some early paintings reference the latter’s The Wanderer. They are meant to be ironic, of course, but are so childlike in execution that you might find yourself recalling the reaction of uncomprehending critics of the early 20th century avant garde (‘It must have taken years of practice to paint this badly,’ and ‘Nobody could draw this terribly without doing it deliberately’ etc). They’re important, though, in revealing Kiefer’s lifelong obsession with history. People think they live only in the present, he has said, but in reality it’s impossible to escape the past.

Be prepared to be awed as you step into the second gallery. This room displays his ‘Attic’ series of paintings from the early 1970s. They are outwardly simple studies of his studio of the time, during which the artist was “carrying out research into the origins of art,” but never can pictures of a wood cabin have been done with such epic intent. In one, the wooden floor is pierced by a sword, apparently referring to the Nibelung myths. In a smaller study, a blazing fire ascends the staircase to the artist’s studio – the furnace of creativity. I haven’t a clue what any of this means, but it’s stirring to look at.

Like David Hockney, Kiefer is a contemporary artist who is capable of working on the scale of the Old Masters. Some of these whoppas fill an entire wall on their own. Ash Flower is over 7.5m wide and over 4m tall. It took the artist fourteen years to produce. Black Flakes typifies his willingness to use materials other than paint – which itself is applied with heavy impasto – including clay, fabric, dried flowers and, in this instance lead – “the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of history,” he maintains – to depict bleak and blasted landscapes on a vast scale.

Quite staggering, too, are his ‘landscapes’ of the buildings of the Third Reich.

Hitler commissioned Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis to design buildings which exalted the ideology of National Socialism. The structures were to be made of stone so that they’d make ‘beautiful ruins’. They adopted neoclassical forms for these buildings, which to Kiefer is an obscenity And so paintings like the simply named, but unforgettable, Interior and To the Unknown Painter reveal these ghostly great halls echoing with evil, smears on the nobility and memory of classical antiquity.

Some of Kiefer’s paintings are so dark, I could hardly see the detail. Standing up close is no use, as they’re so large you need to stand well back to try to grasp what is going on. An artist to the core, he’s produced visual diaries in which he seeks to ‘re-create memory’, and the show also features several of his installations. Ages of the World looked to me as if some East End scrap merchant had just turned up and emptied a cartload load of junk in one of the corridors, but lots of people were hovering reverentially around it, looking suitably absorbed. You either get this sort of thing or you don’t – and I don’t – but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s Great Art.

A series of pictures of sunflowers connect with me a little better, even though as I read on the wall that ‘in Kiefer’s cosmology, the universe is an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction,’ I feel the will to live draining out of me on the spot. The sunflowers paintings are a partial nod to Vincent Van Gogh, another artist from whom he has drawn inspiration. Typically, though, Kiefer’s not letting us off that easy. His sunflowers are decaying, drooping affairs. Gloom isn’t the word. Still, The Orders of the Night, worked up with emulsion, acrylic and shellac, is undeniably compelling, with the artist himself seen lying full length beneath wilting stems. Kiefer’s obsessed by forests, too, which is very Teutonic, but, great painter though he is, he can get a little oppressive when the same heavy themes keep on cropping up. Some people like to live their lives in the shade, it seems – but some of us would be grateful for at least the occasional glimpse of the sun.

Anselm Kiefer is sponsored by BNP Paribas, and
continues at the Royal Academy until 14 December.
See www.royalacademy.org for more info.

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