Anselm 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.