Anselm Kiefer: a visual feast at the Royal Academy

IMG_1130.JPGAnselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013.

Anselm Kiefer was one of those artists I regularly viewed in museums’ permanent collections, without knowing him well and wishing that a solo exhibition would be organised to learn more. The Royal Academy has granted my wish by holding a landmark exhibition that covers Kiefer’s 40-year career, showing his painting, sculptures, monumental installations and lesser-known books.

The exhibition reveals Kiefer’s interest in alchemy, including the process of transformation of base metals into precious metals, including gold. The Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf recently held an exhibition on artists’ fascination of artists for alchemy and I was lucky to catch ‘Art and Alchemy – The Mystery of Transformation’, which comprised some contemporary artworks including Kiefer’s. Kiefer was particularly fond of lead, the “only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history”, according to him. Lead is typically used in original equipment batteries and the presence of fire in Kiefer’s paintings may suggest the furnace used to smelt lead.

More controversially is Kiefer’s apparent fascination with Nazi Germany. In his early works, he painted himself performing the Nazi salute in his ‘Heroic Symbols’ series. A decade later, he depicted Nazi architecture in the Mosaic Room in the New Reich Chancellery, Hitler’s government offices in Berlin destroyed in 1945. He also referred to Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal in a series of four large paintings, with which Hitler identified and appropriated to fit his own ideology. Kiefer today describes his re-enactment of the Nazi salute as naive, admitting a somewhat repulsive fascination. This fascination turned into willingness to reclaiming German history in my view, creating distance from those trying to hide and forget Germany’s past.

Kiefer’s works are characterised by a steep perspective and vanishing point and are generally dark and sombre. They give the impression of being burnt, related again perhaps to ash and furnace involved in the lead production process. Black is a recurring colour in Kiefer’s works, even sunflowers are painted black for instance. I was therefore surprised to learn that Kiefer typically started painting canvas with raw colours, and then worked on them until they turned dark to grey and black.

Kiefer has signature motifs, including the forest, which he considered a refuge from the war, and books, which often feature in lead sculpture form. Gazing at his paintings close-up, the materials appear to take on a life their own: clay, ash, earth, straw, sand and shellac, some of which live and crackle on the canvas. Kiefer also used diamonds, which create a subtle eerie visual effect – unlike the bling-bling of Damien Hirst.

The audioguide is worth listening to and includes the artist’s comments. The Royal Academy show is a visual feast and includes a spectacular site-specific installation, ‘Ages of the World (2014)’, which takes over an entire gallery, as well as other recent 2014 works. Anselm Kiefer is on show until 14 December 2014. Don’t miss it.

IMG_1129.JPG Anselm Kiefer, Ages of the World, 2014. Private collection. Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts.

6 responses to “Anselm Kiefer: a visual feast at the Royal Academy

  1. Ce sont tes tweets postés le jour du vernissage qui m’ont donnés envie de me confronter à mon tour aux œuvres de Kiefer… et je ne l’ai pas regretté ! Quelle expérience !
    Plus précisément, l’exposition m’a permis de réfléchir à la “matière” de ces dessins (mais ça, c’est dans mon blog).
    Merci !!

    • Oh ça me fait plaisir ! J’ai apprécié ses dessins, sans remarquer les couches de papier superposées. On m’a aussi conseillé la lecture d’Arasse, je vais tenter la version courte. Joli blog, merci !

  2. Indeed an interesting artist. I recently saw some of his works in Museum Küppersmühle in Duisburg, where they are in the permanent collection (a museum woth a visit).

      • Definitely a Museum worth a visit. I was there earlier this year for the K.O.Götz exhibition they where showing there ( Duisburg is in the Ruhr-Area which is actually just one big megacity although technically, it consists of several separate cities. You have a lot of museums and galeries there inside a relatively small area of several tens of kilometers, so for an art-fan like you, it might be worth a trip (Düsseldorf and Cologne are also not far 🙂 )

      • I had not heard of that museum before although the collection and temp exhibitions look very good. I may combine it with my next business trip to Dusseldorf. Thanks for the info!

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