Anselm Kiefer: The Sword
in the Stone
For those who love art, who love politics, history, and genius, the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It ran for less than three months, drawing huge crowds and a great deal of attention. If only it could have been a permanent installation! I was able to go only at the end, knowing as soon as I entered the RA’s normally staid 17th-century courtyard—to be confronted by a fleet of dented German submarines that had been rusting since World War Two—that this was going to be a life-changing experience. It was also clear that none of the images of Kiefer’s work that I’d seen could begin to prepare me for what filled almost the entire building…the work itself.
I had heard of his iconoclasm; of the confrontation with the Nazi and collaborationist guilt of WWII (beginning in the 1960s when no one in Germany would talk about it); and about his idiosyncratic ways of structuring his startling photos (building on them with layers and layers of paint and other materials) and installations (found objects, broken metal, wood, cement). No matter what I’d heard or seen reproduced small, I had not expected the constructions to speak to me with such immediacy, energy and utter power.
But above all, no one had prepared me for the amazing textures that surrounded me; the astounding technical audacity, the corrosive wit of what he had painted and sculpted and hewn; or the sheer size of what he had made (with Kiefer, size matters). Or how masterfully The Royal Academy displayed all of it. Kiefer is as provocative, shocking and moving as reported. His works have multi-layered impact, and are appalling and moving simultaneously. He is quintessentially modern, and yet somehow classic, a Michaelangelo of shattered concrete, of vertiginous suggestions of ruin, and historic guilt imagery.These works embody what W. B, Yeats meant when he talked about “monuments to unaging intellect.”
One of the images that haunts me the most is The Orders of the Night (1996), a huge canvas with a tactility that is astonishing and bold. Like many of his works, it’s an image that works on its own but also can evoke all the terrors and insanities of the 20th century, especially of World War II and what has followed since. It stands for all destructive and horrifying impulses that mankind is still overwhelmed by; and yet it also, somehow, excites and redeems because of the direct, staring confrontation with it all.
Kiefer’s latest works – referential of Van Gogh and his cornfields – are images just as mad and marvellous as the early works that made him famous. Ash Flower, roughly 12 feet tall by 21 feet wide, has ash scattered over its entire surface; it creates a kind of veil over the image of a building, a neoclassical construction reminiscent of the insane and grandiose architecture that Hitler loved to build for his new empire. At the bottom of the painting there is a layer of cracked earth that is actually crumbling; and from top to bottom, a single, huge, dried sunflower. Like the best metaphors, like the greatest art, it is impossible to define what it means exactly, though that meaning is terribly clear at the gut level. You have to stand in front of it, you have to see it, you have to experience it to “get” it. What was almost as overwhelming as the exhibition itself was seeing how excited, enthusiastic, and deeply affected everyone was—and what a great mix of ages they represented. Perhaps some may hate some of the works (or be frightened by what they express), or be put off by some of the philosophy that is difficult to acknowledge. But you don’t need to “understand” everything. This is viscerally engaging imagery that speaks a language of its own, best absorbed by simply experiencing it.
If far from conventionally attractive, these works are of seminal importance to art today and you need to be aware of them, to think about them. Without question, they can only be experienced properly in person. The photos and films are souvenirs, memory joggers; but are no substitute for a one-on-one confrontation.
The RA has done a real service with this monumental retrospective in which the development of a life’s unusual work (so far) can be grasped, reflected upon and experienced in a suitable setting. It also inspired me to visit Kiefer’s extraordinary factory/studio in Barjac, France.
But above all it showed me that so much energy, raw intellect and emotion, even when producing fragmented images in unexpected materials, creates its own kind of intense and emotionally charged beauty.
The British critic, Jonathan Jones, reviewing this exhibition wrote in London’s Guardian newspaper:
“This exhibition is an exhilarating roller coaster ride of beauty and horror, deeply exciting and enriching – yet, at its heart is a knowledge of history that puts all those pleasures in question. At some level, Kiefer, who began by equating … the German romantic art of Caspar David Friedrich that he loves and the evil of Nazism – wonders if he even has the right to make art.”
The most frustrating aspect of this extraordinary experience is that the show is not travelling. So you will have to buy the catalogue, or make do with the occasional Kiefer gallery show.
Philosopher, historian, iconoclast, observer of human frailty and human heroism: whatever you have heard or thought about the artist in the past, this show confirms that he is indubitably a giant of contemporary culture and art. And yes, seeing what he has made will change your life.