Viewed- Wed 24th September 2014 (members preview)
As I left the house I grabbed a book to read on the train. I had listened to Anselm Kiefer talking with Tim Marlow on the RA website and heard them talk about the notion of the romantic in relation to his work. Kiefer acknowledged that it was of interest to him as philosophical system, like Buddhism, and made reference to the artist Casper David Friedrich. It was this artist that was the subject of the book I selected.
I had not previously made a connection between these 2 artists. When I think of Kiefer, I think of his early works considered controversial for the depiction of the Nazi salute, his paintings on an epic scale and his use of materials. Of Friedrich, I think of more modest landscapes from the early 19th century. As I settled into my journey I started to flick through the book just initially looking at the images. Before long I got a sense of something being revealed. I started to see Kiefers work in the work of Friedrich. The themes and motifs started to leap out. Vast landscapes, seascapes, boats, ruins, death, gnarled and broken trees, tombstones, forests, crosses, crows. These misty landscapes of early morning and evening vistas of transition to night evoking an atmospheric scene and often feature a lone figure.
Martin Gayford makes the point that ‘although figures appear in some of his work (most frequently that of the artist himself), as a painter Kiefer is essentially a landscapist.’ And he makes the link to Friedrich- ‘He is a painter of landscape and buildings that express states of mind. But where Friedrich painted bleak terrain lit by distant hope of divine salvation, in his earlier works at least Kiefer presented a post apocalyptical world of menace and destruction.’ These insights add gravitas to his place in the line of great German art.
The exhibition is 60% retrospective with 40% new works made for the space. And it is of interest that in a space specifically designed to display paintings, for an artist whose oeuvre includes all media, much of the work here is on canvas or paper. Known as an artist who is drawn to extremes it is interesting to see the contrast between his modest watercolours alongside what can only be described as paintings of an epic scale.
There are some sculptural works- the courtyard entrance houses his first ever vitrines for outdoor display, one containing ships and the other a lead work referencing work of a Russian Futurist, Khlebnikov, who suggested that great sea battles occur at cyclic intervals of around 300yrs. It was interesting to see that as part of the battleship vitrine there was water dripping through onto the ships that will inevitably bring about some change during the course of the exhibition. Michael Prodger refers to how mutability fascinates Kiefer. The artist himself acknowledges that many of his works are in a constant process of change and one of the reasons he likes lead as a material. In the film ‘Over your cities grass will grow’, Kiefer describes how lead behaves like a liquid and will over time change its structure, citing the roof tiles of Cologne Cathedral as an example.
For me room 4 held the works I found most awe inspiring. ‘Ash flower’ 1983- 1997 at a phenomenal 382.3 x 761.4cm covered almost the entire end wall. The materials used include oil, emulsion, acrylic, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas. Its presence couldn’t help but draw your attention. The lines of a cavernous interior pull you into a surface encrusted with paint and clay, earth and ash. The contrast in these lines and the materials applied over them suggest both elements of order and chaos, another interest of Kiefer. He explores this idea further by leaving many works outside for nature to play its part, allowing it to disintegrate, then possibly working on them some more, perhaps explaining the 14years in the making.
Kiefer’s newer works reflect the range that is evident over the 40 years encompassed by the exhibition. Diamonds feature as a material and the appearance of colour on his giant canvases. There are new watercolours on plaster on board, bound into 16 page books, and books made with electrolysed lead that have the most beautifully distressed surfaces. The final installation made up of a series of giant collages of woodcuts in black and white on canvas give a sense of entering a forest, but also of taking a journey along the Rhine. It features many motifs from previous work, so a sense of looking back, but perhaps moving forwards too. This is a quality about Kiefer highlighter by Kathleen Soriano, who curated the exhibition, ‘he’s dealing with the fundamental questions in the world……….. and that’s what makes his work as much about the present as the past’.
I’m glad I grabbed that book about Friedrich. I feel I have a much better understanding of the context of Kiefer’s work and ideas that he spoke of with Marlow. He uses history as a material and in his quest for answers, adopts a Hindu doctrine to ‘look where you are’, hence his investigation through his German past as a way of exploring himself. There is much more, Kiefer visits a spectrum of other references in his work, including literature and poetry, which add great depth but can also be baffling or mysterious. There is no doubt however that the work has great presence.
Fiennes, Sophie (Director) 2011. A film of the work of Anselm Kiefer- Over your cities grass will grow. Artificial Eye.
Gayford, Martin 2014. ‘I like vanishing things’: Anselm Kiefer on art, alchemy and his childhood. Online at-http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts/arts-feature/9315992/meet-everyones-favourite-post-catastrophic-romantic-anselm-kiefer/
Gayford, Martin 2014. Weight of the world: Anselm Kiefer at the Royal academy. Online at-http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1055440/weight-of-the-world-anselm-kiefer-at-the-royal-academy?utm_source=BLOUIN+ARTINFO+Newsletters&utm_campaign=38b3dd18d5-Daily+Digest+SEPT.26.2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_df23dbd3c6-38b3dd18d5-83499321
Marlow, Tim 2014. Anselm Kiefer in conversation with Tim Marlow at the Royal Academy, London. Online at-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlm5tgistqA
Prodger, Michael 2014. Inside Anselm Kiefer’s astonishing 200- acre art studio. Online at-http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/12/anselm-kiefer-royal-academy-retrospective-german-painter-sculptor
Soriano, Kathleen (curator) 2014. Anselm Kiefer. Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Wolf, Norbert 2003. Casper David Friedrich- The Painter of Stillness. Taschen, Koln, Germany.