Tuesday 15 January 2019

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry

An exhibition where Kiefer investigates identity and memory on different levels, both personal and collective, individual and national.

Identity and memory: Heroic Symbols:

The impact of WWII and the Nazi regime weighed heavily on Germany. The artist remembers receiving only minimal teaching on the subject at school. Kiefer approached it in the work that he made for his degree show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe in 1969.  He took pictures of himself, raising his arm in the Nazi salute, both in his studio and against a backdrop of historical monuments or different landscapes around Europe. Some of the photographs were made into an artist book called Heroische Sinnbilder (Heroic Symbols) and later, in 1975, published under the provocative title of Besetzungen (Occupations) in an avant garde Cologne art journal.

The six Heroic Symbols here show Kiefer in different poses. In three of them he is making the Nazi salute, an act that had been forbidden in Germany since 1945. At the time, this gesture was interpreted by the public and critics as an act of sympathy for the regime. But Kiefer's intent was to halt the silence around Germany's Nazi past and to confront his country's history. Only then could Germany begin to be healed and reclaim its culture.

You can see more of Kiefer's work  herehere and here .

Heroische Sinnbilder, 1969, (photograph on paper)

This photograph of Kiefer shows him in his untidy studio wearing a crocheted dress, standing on a chair and holding a branch, to which are attached various ribbons and ornaments. It is common in German households in spring and particularly at Easter to bring budding branches and twigs inside, the decorate them and celebrate the arrival of new life.

By holding such a garlanded branch, Kiefer presents himself as a living tree, a symbol held dear in Germany since ancient times. It was given mythical form in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil, an immense, sacred tree.

Heroische Sinnbilder, 1969, (photograph on paper)

Here, Kiefer is lying down and the branch seems to be growing out of his body, 'like an umbilical cord', according to his own description.

Tree symbolism has a long tradition in German art and was adapted by the Nazis as part of their visual propaganda. Through this work, Kiefer draws attention to the way that traditions were corrupted by Nazi ideology.

Heroische Sinnbilder, 1969, (photograph on paper). 

This photograph was taken in the artist's studio in Karlsruhe. It shows Kiefer wearing his father's heavy overcoat and a pair of riding boots. This military appearance is intentionally unconvincing.
Kiefer seems to be standing on the water in a bathtub, but on closer inspection it is clear that he is standing on a stool. The biblical reference to Christ walking on water is plain to see. More significantly in the post-war German context, Kiefer plays on the well-known joke during the Nazi period that since Hitler couldn't swim, he walked on water instead. Kiefer uses ridicule to deflate the pompous false heroics of Nazism.

Heroische Sinnbilder, 1969, (photograph on paper)

In this Occupations 'action' of 1969, Kiefer had himself photographed in front of several ancient Greek and Roman sites. In this image he is seen giving the Nazi salute in front of the Greek Temple of Athena at Paestum in Southern Italy. Although well-preserved, the temple is clearly in ruins.

The Nazi salute was based on the ancient Roman form of greeting, so having himself photographed in this context is particularly resonant, referring perhaps to Nazi claims that their new Reich would last a thousand years. Kiefer's presence, wearing his post-war, modern suit, highlights the fact that the Third Reich lasted barely 10 years.

Landscape, Myth and Symbolism:

Landscape, nature, myths and symbols are of prime importance to Kiefer. From the 1990s, Kiefer has looked more at the relationship between heaven and earth. Works such as The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within Us, combine photography and painting to reveal the vast sky in comparison with the earthly figures.

Following his move from the Black Forest to a rural property in the south of France in 1992, giant sunflowers like those in Hortus Philosophorum became a regular motif.

Kiefer adds geometric forms such as polyhedrons onto some of his images, as seen in Distance Between Skew Lines, in an attempt to impose structure and order onto wild, open space.

An exploration of mythology has led to works inspired by a vast range of cultures. He has studied Norse, Greek and Egyptian mythology, and religions and traditions including the Old and New Testaments and the Jewish Kabbalah.

Symbols and motifs are also seen through his work. Fire is used to symbolise both destruction and purification, the forest to represent German mythology and show-covered empty fields to signify the Holocaust. The use of the palette represents the artist in general, or, more specifically, Kiefer himself.

Untitled, 2006, (photograph on paper with paint)

This work is based on a photograph showing burning timbers, probably of a house. The image may refer to the notorious decision by the Wehrmacht to leave behind a scorched earth as they retreated back to Germany from the Soviet Union. Kiefer began to deal with this subject in paintings and artist books in the 1970s.

The high horizon line creates a sense of distance, emphasising the vast expanse of the land. This is a reference to a style of painting encouraged by the Nazis which depicted German farmlands in a way that idealised the importance of the land and those who work it.

Palette, 1981, (oil paint, shellac, emulsion, paper and nails on canvas)

Kiefer began exploring the motif of the artist's palette in 1974, to represent the idea of the artist connecting heaven and earth, or connecting ideas and matter. This work depicts a traditional palette suspended between two strands of burning rope, suggesting that the artist's ambition was under threat in post-war Germany. Seven flames are depicted on each strand, spaced at regular intervals along the rope's length, a possible reference to the seven flames of the menorah, a candelabrum that is a symbol of Judaism. In Palette, Kiefer may be referencing the Holocaust and the difficulties he faced creating art in the post-fascist world.

Johannislogen, (St John's Lodge), 2007, (photograph on paper with paint)

The title refers to the Freemason's lodge and to its patron saint, St John the Baptist. The grand building the lower half of the work with its tiers of pyramidal structures may be part of an actual masonic lodge. This building opens up above into a giant image of the moon, with its craters clearly visible.

Johannis Nacht Gefallene Bilder, The Secret Life of Plants (St John's Eve. Fallen Pictures. The Secret Life of Plants), 2006, (photograph on paper with paint)

Kiefer began to construct huge concrete towers after he had moved to his large tract of land in Barjac in the south of France. Soon after, they appeared in his photographs and paintings. Storey after storey they reach upwards, seemingly rickety and destined to fall, attempting to link earth with heaven.

In this image pictures lie at its base, the 'fallen pictures' of the title. The title also refers to St John's Eve, the night before the midsummer Festival of John the Baptist when traditionally fires were lit to ward off evil spirits and medicinal plants were gathered in order to protect and preserve.

Sternnenfall, (Falling Stars), 2006, (photograph on paper)

The text used in this image is taken from NASA's numerical system for identifying stars. It appears to be falling into an abyss, together with the debris from the collapsing structure.

Kiefer said: '100 million years for a star is maybe like a minute for us. And when a star dies, it explodes and becomes incandescent, while, exploding and sending all sorts of debris and dust into the universe at unimaginable distances. This matter comes together, coagulates and forms a new star, another star. Sternenfall speaks of this universal metabolism, this metabolism or nature and stars. The title encompasses not just our lives but the universe'.

Odipus auf Kollonos (Oedipus at Colonus), 2006 (gouache and sand on photographic paper)

The ancient Greek play Oedipus at Colonus was written by Sophocles around 406 BC. It is set in the village of Colonus near Athens and describes the end of Oedipus' life. The bottom photograph shows a tomb-like structure, meant to suggest Oedipus' final resting-place. Theseus, the ruler of Athens, refuses to tell anyone where the tomb is. By keeping its location secret, he was told by Oedipus that Athens would be free of harm forever. The Fates had been cruel to Oedipus. Unknowingly he had killed his father and committed incest with this mother, but in death he was able to protect Athens.

Untitled, 2007, (photograph on paper with paint)

The tower image is seen again in this work, combined with another of Kiefer's themes, sea vessels. The tower seems to be on the point of collapse under the weight of the water, or is it rising through it?  Kiefer's towers, many of which can be seen at this studio complex at Barjac, are constructed from concrete casts of shipping containers.

Leonardo Pisano Practica Geometriae, 2007, (gouache on photographic paper)

Leonardo Pisano Bigolo, is better known as Fibonacci. He is considered to be the most important European mathematician of the medieval period. The photographic images in this work show two large-scale astronomical instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India, which was completed in 1734. The instrument in the lower half is the world's largest stone sundial and accurate to within one minute.

The mathematical knowledge that Fibonacci introduced to Europe enabled all branches of science, including astronomy, to flourish. The work reflects Kiefer's fascination with geometry and the relationship between the earth and the heavens.

Hortus Philosophorum, 2010, (photograph on paper with paint and chalk)

The translation of the Latin title of this work is 'philosophers' garden', hence the linking together of books and plants. Irregular stacks of huge books that Kiefer has made from lead are photographed here with shellac-cast sunflowers and other natural materials protruding from them. Kiefer has described lead as 'the material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history'.

Winter Ode, Scheiden Tut Wehh/Doch dein Scheiden Macht/Dass mein Herze Lacht (Winter, adieu, parting hurts/but your parting makes my heart laugh), 2010, (sand on photographic paper)

Reflecting on national identity, the title of this photograph comes from a German folk song by the Romantic poet, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, written in 1816. The poem refers to the departure of winter and the imminent arrival of spring and new life.

The two photographs that make up the work show a desolate studio, with lifeless trees forming a pathway to an old wheelchair, and a barren landscape. Winter still holds its grip on both scenes, but there is hope of renewal soon.

Amfortas. 2010, (sand on photographic paper)

The photographs in this work are closely related to those in the work above. Amfortas is the ldeader of the Knights of the Holy Grail in Richard Wagner's opera, Parsifal. He was seriously hurt by the evil Kingsor using the Holy Spear that had been used to pierce the body of Christ. The old wheelchair refers to the wounded Amfortas, but the fact that it is empty suggests that he will soon be healed.

Wagner was Hitler's favourite composer, particularly his operas about German myths and legends. Amfortas is one of several works where Kiefer represents German culture and tries to reclaim it from previous associations with the Nazis.

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