Anselm Kiefer’s show at the Royal Academy is a confirmation that retrospectives should not be assessed as a series of concatenated successful visual objects but as an artist’s journey through life where he negotiates with triumph and mistakes his own identity in an art system that loathes change. It is a well known fact that Anselm Kiefer was born in a Catholic family in the Black Forest region of Germany, at the very end of the Second World War. Following school he expanded his cultural education, which was wide-ranging and largely self-taught, and briefly studied law at the University of Freiburg, before attending the Academy of Art in Karlsruhe.
We can say that there are two big aspects to his work. On one hand, his project is a problematisation of German memory after Hitler. In other words, how to construct identity after the Third Reich. On the other hand, and as a consequence of the former, it is a reflection on the relationship between the earthly and the celestial, mainly, through time. He is successful at addressing the former but fails when trying too hard to stage his own humanism due to the fact that, at that point, he becomes a slave to his own success. That is the moment when he starts to repeat himself. he is bored and he bores.
Upon arrival the viewer is confronted with the most amazing watercolours that I have seen in a long time. In Winter Landscape, from 1970, not only we see the iconography of war with a decapitated head (or an orgasmic one?) hovering above a symbolically charged landscape but we also see a beautiful winterly landscape. Kiefer seems to ask the viewer whether it is possible to speak of landscape painting in Germany after the concentration camps. The way he uses colour refers to blood as the primary colour which functions as an axis that divides the paintings into two hemispheres. Having said this, it is the integration of the three dimensional perspective as conveying historical time with the bidimensional representation of the top half as conveying a heavenly reality that transforms these watercolours into essays on humanism. This compositional arrangement is not new. As a matter of fact it is the structure that all Spanish visionary images have (let’s take El Greco as an example) where at the bottom there is a saint praying (in real time) and at the top there is the vision that the saint is having and the viewer is suddenly put in the place of the saint. It is as if the viewer is allowed by the painter to be both a witness of the scene (as a second person) and the protagonist of the vision (in the first person).
The next room shows this type of compositional arrangement projected into gigantic proportions in Kiefer’s ‘Attic’ series. These paintings were made between 1971 and 1973 and are so called because the scenes they depict are set within Kiefer’s studio of the time: the attic of a former schoolhouse at Hornbach in the German district of Buchen. Here, everything becomes theatrical and painterly at the same time and I humbly think this conspires against the efficacy of these images which, nevertheless, are astonishing. I am saying this because in Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Kiefer draws us into his considerations regarding religions and the Holy Trinity, here represented by the three chairs surmounted with heavenly flames, cleansing and purifying. For Kiefer, fire is a powerful symbol that mediates between Heaven and Earth.
However, Kiefer’s own insecurity comes to the fore when trying to underline this reflection of in-betweeness. At the bottom of the painting he represents the wooden planks of the floor from above and, as we move our gaze upwards, the perspective seems to incline in order to depict the attic in its three dimensions. As we can see, in the same image we have a conflation between presentation and representation, materiality and composition, nature and humanity, past and present. By adding the Holy Trinity to this reflection he gets very close to Kitsch. Kiefer problems seems to lie on the saturation of resources. He puts far too much.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw Kiefer’s turn to the landscape of German history and the buildings of the Third Reich. Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis were commissioned by the Nazis to designs buildings to exalt the ideology of National Socialism. Hitler himself ordered that all such buildings should be made from stone so as to make beautiful ruins. In To the Unknown Painter and other works from this series, Kiefer moves outdoors the one point perspective that we had in the previous (room) series (Attic). Here, the sky functions as a foil for black bi-dimensionality which symbolically represents death as a component of history and hence, of memory. It is at this point that we see how the curators are trying too hard to transform the whole hanging into a church-like vision of death and doom. Again, the theatrical conspires against the pictorial. In fact, it is with three amazing paintings that this theatricality is shattered because apart from stage decoration, Anselm Kiefer can sometimes be an amazing painter. Those three paintings made the curators uncomfortable and they did not know what to do with them. This is obvious and evidences a certain lack of courage on their part.
After this, the show (and I believe, Kiefer’s career) becomes irrelevant. He tries to hard to be as Anselm Kiefer-ish as he can be. The result is sentimental and kitsch. . Thus when he gets Van Gogh-ish, the size of the paintings is ridiculous. Kiefer’s glass vitrines are both sculpture containers and picture frames and the installation in the Annenberg Courtyard, Velimir Khlebinikov: Fates of NationsL the New Theory of War comprises the artist’s first external vitrines. I must say that after Damien Hirst one expects more from such a display of glass. I kept asking myself where were the pickled sharks? Facing the vitrine, there is a huge installation that is a big mistake.
As I said before the curators are in such awe of him that arrange everything so as to show fascination. The guy is not even dead, for God’s sake. Chill out. In fact, the introductory texts says things such as: ‘Books have been central to Kiefer’s practice’, ‘Kiefer liked laboratories’, etc. It is as if the personal preferences of the artist were relevant in their own right. Then there is the need to explain Kiefer’s view of time. The curators say: ‘Kiefer takes a cyclical view of time and history rather than a linear and progressive one and, as a consequence, a handful of over-arching themes appear regularly in his work. Can anyone tell me in which case painting as a medium does not depict a circular vision of time?
J A T
WATCH THE PILL’S IN DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH SWISS ARTIST ANGELA LYN