A visit to the Anselm Kiefer retrospective exhibition at the RA can be a daunting prospect for many reasons, the scale of the work, the complexity of themes and the sheer overwhelming volume of diverse media on display in this huge exhibition.
Kiefer has many interests among which German history, mythology, alchemy, poetry, ritual, metaphysics, cosmology, are explored and transformed into a special, unique vision of our world.
Kiefer was born in Germany on 8 March 1945 just before the end of the Second World War, so growing up in post-war Germany has been a major conditioning factor in his development and a defining influence in his practice.
As a young artist he found that there was a reluctance to acknowledge and confront the recent Nazi past and the damaging distortion that had been inflicted on German culture.
Reacting to this he made provocative photographs and paintings of himself wearing his father’s coat (he had been a Nazi party member) giving an illegal salute.
But in these images, the pose looks weak and limp and pathetic. In one painting there are references to Classical sculptures, favoured by the Third Reich, hovering in ghostly form in the sky above the saluting figure seen standing beside the Rhine. This painting, despite the unsettling subject matter is full of beautiful passages showing Kiefer’s command and expressive use of oil paint.
He is also a skillful and fluent watercolour painter exploiting the potential of the medium to great effect as seen in Winter Landscape 1970, where the delicacy of the paint starkly contrasts with the violence of the image. Any idea about watercolour being a soft medium used for pleasing subjects, easy on the eye and brain, will be rapidly dispelled here. It is this quality of employing seduction with repulsion that forms a consistent element flowing like the Rhine through the show.
A major characteristic of Kiefer’s work is the use of elemental materials that includes ash, clay, straw, wood, blood, lead, sunflowers, copper and recently, gold and diamonds.
The physical manipulation of materials has given him opportunities to explore his themes and concerns resulting in awe-inspiring work, gigantic in scale and ambition.
As his practice has developed over the years, the surface of the 2D work becomes increasingly 3D to the point where it seems as if a vertical canvas cannot support the weight of the material.
Because many of the materials employed are by nature fragile, paint and other additives trowelled on in heavy impasto, the monumentality of the work increases a sense of its precariousness and possible disintegration.
Kiefer apparently, is not worried by this possibility!
One of the preoccupations that recurs in the paintings is the forest. Being aware of recent history, these paintings can have different readings dependent on whether they are viewed as places of refuge or murder.
Kiefer’s understanding of the way in which paint behaves is seen here, dripping, contrasting thin with thick textures, implying spatial depth and volume. There is always an underlying sense of perspective in the composition of the visual elements giving, however obscured, structure to the painting.
The use of single point perspective is especially strong in the converging parallels employed in the huge paintings of the bombastic Nazi Neo-Classical architecture, destroyed in the war, but reimagined by Kiefer as charred ruins.
Railway lines and tracks in the landscape take us nervously towards an ominous vanishing point.
With his high status in the art world justifiably recognized he now has the power and means to do anything he dreams of, demonstrated by the increased use of very expensive materials and huge installations. I was left with the feeling that because he “can do” he “will do”.
Is there the possible risk that the priceless value of the materials will overwhelm us and act as a barrier in our ability to reach further into the meaning of the work?
The exhibition continues until 14 December.
Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe), 1975
Oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm
Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida
Photo Collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer