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June 21, 2010

"For me, poems are almost the only reality." — Anselm Kiefer


Who knew that one of the world's greatest artists believes that painting is "unable to reach the metaphysical realms of poetry," as described in Rachel Spence's penetrating May 22, 2010 Financial Times review of the protean artist's new show; the FT piece follows.

Above, from the show: "The Order of Angels" (2010; paint, clay, ash and charcoal on board with iron, resin, ferns, and cotton and linen dresses; 280 x 140 cm [110" x 55"]).


Anselm Kiefer's Latest Paintings

“They are not paintings,” said Mark Rothko of his late work. By then, the American was exhausted after decades dedicated to rendering the “single tragic idea” that, he believed, animated human existence. Yet his judgment was not the obliterating self-criticism it appears. Rather, he felt that finally he had transcended his chosen medium to reach the heights of expression attained by literature and music.

Rothko’s comment is brought to mind by the latest work from Anselm Kiefer. On show at the Lorcan O’Neill Gallery, Rome, the nine canvases and two sculptures are so drenched in allusion to literary sources it is as if the texts themselves – from classical and Teutonic myth to modern German poetry by way of the Torah and the Kabbalah – had been unscrolled across the walls.

Kiefer’s love affair with text puts him at risk of valuing his ideas over their execution, a trap into which many of his contemporary peers have fallen calamitously. Yet the artist who recently said “For me, poems are almost the only reality” knows, as Rothko did, that only painstaking manual labour will permit him to express his own lyrical vision.

The urge to build was planted in Kiefer’s childhood, when his parents gave him bricks to play with because toys were non-existent in Donaueschingen, the German town where he was born in 1945. Although his earliest works were photographs of himself miming the Nazi salute, from the 1970s onwards his oeuvre has been animated by a materiality so visceral it hovers on the compulsive. Laden with paint, glass, straw, lead, ash, plant matter, earth, concrete and rusting metal, the intolerable physical burden that characterises Kiefer’s landscapes has been art’s most eloquent response to the last century’s most ineffable horror.

Yet recently, Kiefer has leavened his bleakness with fragile seeds of hope. In Aperiatur Terra (White Cube, 2007) he sewed his signature rubble-scarred terrritories with splashes of brilliant poppy-like colour. His 2006 "Palm Sunday" installation – now in the Tate Modern collection – is a trope for resurrection as well as suffering.

His latest work pursues this voyage between redemption and despair. The show’s title, The Order of Angels [top], suggests a world where divine intercession is possible. Yet the images themselves are poignant reminders that God’s celestial messengers were never invulnerable.

The structure of the paintings is simple: at the bottom of each tall, narrow canvas, a rough, cracked, crater-like pyramid of clay evokes a terrestrial land that dissolves upwards into an ethereal void of paint – in black, cement-grey or brick-pink – stained and spattered with pigment, ash, soil and, in the case of “Danae”, a shower of gold. Climbed by ferns, roots and, in a painting entitled “Jacob’s Dream”, ceramic ladders, these formless, infinite spaces evoke both celestial galaxies and infernal chimneys.

What makes these paintings shocking are the dresses. Smothered and splattered with paint and ash as if long buried under rubble, then suspended on skeletal, rusty hangers, these heartbreaking, doll-sized frocks float up and down the canvas. Their empty sleeves outstretched like stubby wings, the textiles conjure not only Jacob’s oneiric angels sailing to and from the heavens, but also the ghosts of girl-children such as Shulamith, the doomed protoganist of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue”, who – together with her Aryan sister Margarete – inspired Kiefer’s most famous painting cycle.

Yet with their suggestion of souls drifting in a boundless cosmos, the paintings could also be illustrations for Celan’s more joyous imagery, the “times when/only the void stood between us we got/all the way to each other.”

These references barely ruffle the surface of possible interpretation. Even if one canvas were not entitled “Lilith’s Daughter”, the Old Testament she-devil who roams the night skies looking for babies to smother would come to mind. Seen here in Italy, Kiefer’s vision summons up the cherubim of the old masters such as Beato Angelico and Filippo Lippi. Choreographed around the newly crowned Madonna with neo-Platonic grace, they are surely the alter ego of Kiefer’s grotesque, Gothic anti-order.

Don’t doubt that the German master is alive to every nuance. On show in a separate room, the latest in his “Woman in Antiquity” sculpture series is entitled “Regina Coeli”, the ecclesiastical Latin translation of “Queen of Heaven”. Showing a mannequin in a plaster-resin period dress with a geocentric astrolabe as a substitute for her head, it is a manifestation of Kiefer’s intuition that the rules of science can, occasionally, be creatively contradicted.

He articulated this sentiment in a speech given at the Louvre in November 2007: “It is only art, poetry, music that can establish a real coherence beneath the quantum plane.”

In an epoch when so much art is only for its own sake, we should be grateful for the range of Kiefer’s ambitions. Yet he also knows that there are limits. In the same speech, he claimed that art was unable to reach the metaphysical realm of poetry: “When I’m reading poems I am connected to an invisible field that always knows what is happening everywhere ... Painting pictures I come closer [to the invisible field] without crossing the border. Art just barely avoids perishing, it halts just before the horizon of the black hole from whose depths no communication can occur, since even light is devoured.”

You can be sure that Kiefer, the man who once played with toy bricks, will keep building.

‘Anselm Kiefer: The Order of Angels’, Lorcan O'Neill Gallery, Rome, until September 1.

June 21, 2010 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Love folk music! Country music satisfies that need!


Posted by: I Will Comment! | Jun 22, 2010 2:29:20 AM

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