Saturday, 3 March 2007

Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Gallery

On reflection, it was probably a bad idea to have read Simon Schama's Guardian review of this exhibition before actually seeing it: nothing on earth (or in art) could ever have lived up to the Schama hyberbole. Added to that, this was my first experience of Kiefer's work 'in the flesh' (or paint) so I was, in a sense, viewing it out of context. My response, therefore, was simply based on an assessment of what was before my eyes - a response somewhat modified by having read the aforementioned review.

In fact Schama's review was couched in such adulatory terms that one could be forgiven for feeling a tad sceptical before ever setting foot in the gallery.

At one point, Schama says:

The practice of perspective, invented to imagine a bucolic world where pastoral fancies were enacted in a neverland of happy radiance, is recycled in Kiefer's landscapes to exterminate the fantasy. Kiefer's skies are often black, streaked with the phosphoric licks of a descending firestorm, and what vanishes at the vanishing point are the balmy consolations of rusticity. Bye-bye Hay Wain, hello the Somme.

This is just glib - we didn't just jump from Constable to Kiefer.

For a more measured response, try this:

Hearing the artist vigorously (disingenuously?) disavow any resonance about September 11th a few nights later on the radio – in what seemed to me a deeply shocking diminishment of the significance of that day - I went to White Cube to see the new “wall works” with mixed feelings. With Simon Schama’s recent eulogy in The Guardian in mind - an anointment of Kiefer that must have embarrassed the artist in its fulsomeness - I went to White Cube prepared to be transported by greatness, or conversely disappointed. In the event, I was neither.
I am well aware of Kiefer’s reluctance to be “understood” and his dislike of interpretation. I enjoy the deliberate opacity and complexity of his iconography, and appreciate his desire for the viewer to use his or her own stores of cultural memory. The didacticism of so much recent art shown in this gallery is tedious, so this show, Aperiatur terra (et germinet salvatorem et iustitia oriatur simul (Let the earth be opened and bud forth a saviour and let justice spring up at the same time) is very liberating and resistant to pat interpretation.
On the ground floor of this exquisite space there is Palmsonntag. Museum vitrines of plaster “embalmed” palm fronds stand sentinel over a palm tree – magnificent in its death upon the pristine gallery floor. This work is heavy with reverence and ideas of renewal. The tree is an emblem of nature in all its magnificence and Kiefer is giving its growth a form of eternity in the glass cases. The archivist in him is very present; the taxonomist too. But there is mortality and the fragility of nature in this room. Of course there is also a more human, if numinous reckoning too. We are well aware of the poignant story of Christ’s joyous arrival in Jerusalem, before the agony on Golgotha. This is Kiefer after all.

Downstairs, there are three large paintings, Aperiat Terra et Germinet Salvatorem, Olympe – für Victor Hugo and Rorate caeli et nubes pluant iustum. Though I feel Kiefer would not have it so, these are noble failures. They are almost conventional landscapes with evident vanishing points upon the horizon. Kiefer negates the eye’s natural travel into the paintings with smeared, kitsch images of poppies, with all their tragic associations, upon the paintings’ surfaces of baked earth, paint and shellac, and the result is awkward. I suspect the garishness is entirely desired, but the result is curiously antipathetic towards looking, and surely this is what he wants us to do? Kiefer’s flaws as an artist are courageous and interesting – if disturbing. In his own words the gallery holds work that takes us to “that place where we can find the goal which we can never find on purpose” but it is worth the detour to find that place in central London.
(Robin Richmond, writing on A World To Win’ website, qv: )

Tnis book review, by Sarah Rich (1917 –2006), is also helpful:

Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger. - MATTHEW BIRO Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 327 pp.; 109 b/wills. $79.95
LISA SALTZMAN Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 186 pp.; 40 b/w ills. $39.95
As an artist of the generation born just after the Second World War, Kiefer has frequently referenced Nazism and its impact on German culture, albeit in rather ambiguous terms. In his early work, Kiefer had himself photographed in his studio and outdoor locations as he raised his right arm in the "Heil Hitler" gesture. In subsequent decades, he has produced "expressionistic" canvases of epic magnitude that, in both tide and pictorial content, evoke narratives of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. However, much of Kiefer's work, in all its Wagnerlust and return to the German soil, can seem Teutonic in the extreme, wavering between critique and complicity. Kiefer has thus been praised for his courageous attempt to recall wartime histories all too frequently repressed in Germany, even as he has been condemned for cavalierly reproducing pathos-laden scenes of wartime destruction without unequivocally condemning Germany's role in the conflict.

My response to the glass-cased collages was purely subjective: I love the idea of using found objects - especially plants and ex-living objects - as a basis for art; it takes me back to my Cornish childhood, when we used to use early-flowering rhodendron and camellia flowers to 'embellish' other, less floriferous shrubs. Also, the earthy colours of Kiefer's backgrounds add a subtle romanticism to the over-all effect - the shades and tints of the sandstone landscape in which I live.


Olga said...

Thank you for this post. I have enjoyed developing a personal understanding of Kiefer's work over the years, and was sad not to be able to see this particular exhibition. I so agree with your comments about Simon Schama's review, and having read it myself vowed never to read another of his. They do just irritate me too much!

Celia said...

Hello, Olga,

I'm awaiting with interest my daughter's comments on this show - she was going there yesterday. She also is very keen on Kiefer's work, which she studied when doing her degree in Art History. (I'm just an interested amateur viewer of contemporary art!) I'll post when I hear from her.

Schama is most often awful - we're agreed!!

Thanks for linking to your Blog - I've reciprocated.