Sunday 24 April 2016

Anselm Kiefer - the woodcuts

Anselm Keefer, The Woodcuts

at the Albertina in Vienna.

This is the first retrospective of Anselm Kiefer's monumental paper collages, most of which have been assembled from woodcuts. Kiefer has been integrating woodcuts into his complex works since the 70s. Each artwork is unique: the individual woodcuts are all printed by hand. Mostly combined with acrylic oil, shellac and - in the most recent works - charcoal, they amalgamate into monumental compositions. The subject matter of the earlier works largely finds its point of departure in Germany, with its history, mythologies and cultural episodes condensed into complex, innovative visual statements. From the mid-90s onward, the artist devoted himself to new themes, telling the story of limits that have been overcome, including the limitations imposed on human beings. In the most recent woodcuts, Kiefer revisits his earlier subject of the forest.

This exhibition is exciting, enriching and exhilarating - a complete experience. Memory and history are entangled in the art, a negation of our illusion that we live in the present. Seeing the woodcuts was as overwhelming as was the retrospective at the Royal Academy, which you can see here

Sol Invictus Elagabal, 2015-16

The Rhine:

For centuries, the Rhine has been considered a national symbol of Germany and at the same time delineates the political and cultural border with France. During the epoch of Romanticism and its sentimental idealisation of nature, an enthusiastic fascination for the Rhine valley developed fired not only by numerous travel reports by such writers such as Friedrich Holderlin, Heinrich Heine, and Lord Byron, but also by the paintings of William Turner. With his opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, which is set on the Rhine, Richard Wagner paid a musical tribute to this Rheinish Romanticism. Kiefer, however, also concentrates on the political challenges that have always been associated with the Rhine. In this group of works, a built culture - which also encompasses bunkers and National Socialist buildings - is combined with a nature laden with cultural meaning. Germanys complex history is reflected in these pictorial motifs.

The Rhine, 1982

looking closer

The Rhine, 1993

looking closer

To the Unknown Painter, 1982-2013

Maginot, 1982-2013

Atlantic Wall, 1982-2013

In the Rhine series Kiefer frequently combines the depiction of the Rhine landscape with architecture. For its military and stately buildings the German Reich employed the architects favoured by Hitler: Paul Ludwig Troost; the future NS Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer; and Speer's protégé Wilhelm Kreis. The buildings depicted quote designs for the new Museum district in Berlin and the military fortifications of two historic defence lines: the Atlantic Wall was built by the German regime from 1942 onward along Europe's northwest coast as a protection against an Allied invasion whereas the Maginot Line had been built by France from 1930 onward along its eastern borders, between the Mediterranean and the Belgian frontier. It was named after Defence Minister Andre Maginot.

The Rhine, 1982

The Rhine, 1982-2013

The Siegfried Line, 1982-2013

The Rhinemaidens, 1982-2013

The Rhinegold, 1982-2013

In the Rhinegold, the first part of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde appear as the guardians of the gold hidden in the Rhine. Having fought for the Rhine maidens' love in vain, dwarf-king Alberich steals the treasure but forgets a ring from it. The renunciation of the love and the gold from the Rhine, now forged into a ring, lend him great power. The ring passes into the  possession of Wotan, the king of the gods, who uses it as a payment for his castle in Valhalla. The Rhine maidens try to retrieve the ring, yet without success. Only in the final part of the myth does Brunhilde manage to return the ring to the three guardians, so that they would be able to dissolve it and give the 'pure' gold back to the river.

In the Rhinegold works, Kiefer combines the central motif of the Rhine with female nudes. The confining vertical bars in the form of trees have disappeared. The Rhine maidens are viewed from close up as keepers of the Rhine gold, with the words Die Reintochter (a play on words with the German terms Rhein for Rhine and rein for pure) inscribed in the sky.

Threadsuns - for Paul Celan, 1982 - 2013

Melancolia, 1982-2013

'I grew up on the Rhine, the border river. But even then it was not just a geographical border. When I think back today, there are roots that trail off at the threshold to the prohibited area, the area that, in a wondrous way, is always empty due to the incongruence between desire and fulfilment. As a child, of course I still had no idea of that country called France. There were the rows of poplars, the beginnings of roads. But, for me, behind this lay an empty, uninhabited area, which would have to be filled up at a later point'. Anselm Kiefer.

Madame de Stael: de l'Almagne, 1982-2013

Maginot, 1982-2013

Fugit Amor, 1982-2013

Father, Holy Spirit, Son, 1982-2013

To the Unknown Painter, 1982-2013

Atlantic Wall, 1982-2013

Untitled, 1982-2013

The Rhine, 1982-2013 (open book in vitrine)

Kiefer loves creating books which are unfortunately hard to display and are designed to be perused over time.

That Obscure Clarity that Falls from the Stars, 1997-2015

Kiefer borrowed the title Cette Obscure Clarte qui Tombe des Etoiles (That Obscure Clarity that Falls from the Stars) which he inscribed along the woodcut's upper margin, from the play Le Cid, written in 1636 by Pierre Corneille. Within Corneille's play, the combination of seemingly contradictory elements (obscure clarity) contained in this quote stands for the tension felt in the face of an imminent fight of the protagonist Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar alias El Cid, a knight of the Reconquista, who became a national hero in the modern age. In Kiefer's woodcut, the tension between light and dark alluded to in Corneille's play is reflected in the complex symbol of the sunflower. The picture's light-coloured surface is almost completely dotted with dark sunflower seeds, which seem to fall from the sky onto the wavy furrows of a landscape like black rain.

a closer look at those sunflower seeds that are to be found all over the painting

Hortus Conclusus, 2007-2014

In medieval iconography such as in Martin Schongauer's Madonna of the Rose Garden, the Virgin Mary and the Child were often depicted in a hortus conclusus (Latin for 'enclosed garden') which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the paradisiacal garden. The term generally describes secluded and secret gardens surrounded by tall walls or hedges. They served as private sanctuaries for contemplation and meditation.

Kiefer has depicted himself lying on the ground underneath sunflowers in a yoga posture called Savasana (Corpse Pose). The aim of this rest position is to release tension from body and mind and connect the floating body with the earth and cosmos. At the same time, Kiefer refers to the idea of a constant exchange between microcosm (the human being) and macrocosm (the universe) which can be traced back to Plato and was revived by the English philosopher Robert Fludd in the Renaissance.

The Starry Sky Above Me and the Moral Law Within Me, 1997

The title The Starry Sky Above Me and the Moral Law Within Me, a quotation from Immanuel Kant, first appeared in Kiefer's work in 1980, when it was used for a photograph reworked in acrylic and emulsion. With his statement, the German philosopher relates the external, physically perceptible world to morals as part of human inner nature and brings both concepts together in human consciousness. But different from the predetermined laws of nature, human nature is characterised by the phenomenon of human free will. For Kant, the development of a well-ordered co-existence resulting from a freedom of decision based on reason is just as great a miracle as is the complexity of natural laws. In Kiefer's work, a man - the artist himself - lies beneath the infinite expanse of a starry sky.

In the image, the quote from Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and the English scholar Robert Fludd's microcosm-macrocosm analogy merge. According to Fludd, each plant on earth has its analogy in the sky in the form of a star. In his natural philosophy, macrocosm, i.e. the universe, is reflected in microcosm - the human being and its terrestrial environment. Everything that happens on the one level has its correspondence on the other.

For Robert Fludd, 1996

Since the 90s Kiefer has been preoccupied with the treatises of Robert Fludd whose observations which hark back as far as Plato, are based on the assumption of a fundamental analogy between microcosm and macrocosm.

In this woodcut, a male figure - Kiefer's self-portrait - has been turned upside down, with a giant, apparently dried-out black sunflower looming over it. A multi-layered symbol, the sunflower also represents the South of France and pays homage to Vincent Van Gogh.

I hold all Indias in my Hand, 1996

The title is borrowed from a 17th century poem by the Spanish writer Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, with the upright standing male figure also representing the artist's self-portrait. The figure is surrounded by a geographical sketch of the countries that once formed the East and West Indies.

Brunhilde - Grane, 1977-1991

The subject matter of Brunhilde - Grane goes back to a story in the medieval heroic epic The Song of the Nibelungs. Brunhilde's horse, Grane, is the only faithful companion of the heroine, who is beset by intrigues. In order to escape the curse of the ring forged from the stolen Rhine gold, Brunhilde volunteers to die by fire; her steadfast horse carries her into the flames

The Song of the Nibelungs was instrumentalised in the Third Reich to glorify 'German virtues' and nationalist ideas. Richard Wagner, who in the mid-19th century composed the four-part opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung, was appropriated by the National Socialist regime and exploited for its ideas. After WWII, The Song of the Nibelungs was tabooed for a long time and was only gradually rehabilitated.

Grane, 1978

The Sorrow of the Nibelungen, 1974 (open book)

For some reason that I could not understand, we were not allowed to take photographs in the last gallery of the exhibition. I was told this after I took this photograph, which I include here.


  1. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post. I am thoroughly enjoying returning to it again and again. It is such powerful work, both aesthetically and politically. And on show in such a politically and aesthetically significant city.
    I have the catalogue on my Amazon wish list.

    1. Olga, it's wonderful being able to share one's enthusiasms and passions!

      I was so excited about seeing this exhibition... the anticipation... seeing the first woodcut as we were going down the escalator ... then being in the galleries themselves.... it was wonderful. It's an awesome exhibition from one of the greatest contemporary artists. I was so pleased to be able to see more of his work so shortly after the RA retrospective.

      You mentioning the catalogue has made me realise that I did not even look at it. I was so awed by what I had seen and there were three (yes, three) more exhibitions to be seen in the Albertina that day, (I was able only to walk through the fourth one, as we were totally arted out) that I did not even go in the shop. I am sorry about that now.

      The art in Vienna was awesome. There was so much and we were only able to see a small fraction of it. But, the Kiefer and the de Bruyckere were the most memorable and exciting ones.

    2. I used to be like an art vacuum cleaner: sucking up as many exhibitions as possible when we visited places. Now I find that I want fewer artists, but in more depth. I'm fortunate that exhibition catalogues are now not only more accurate in their reproductions, but also that they contain excellent essays.
      I've just received the catalogue of the current Degas exhibition at MOMA NY - about his experiments with monotype prints.

    3. I was like a vacuum cleaner last week, or like a child in a sweet shop, as I said to Ken, and we know what happens if you eat too many sweets - you can sick. I do not regret it however. Catalogues just don't 'do it' for me. I have to be there in order to experience. Being there, it was impossible to resist, even though as I said to you in my previous comment, there was so much we missed. But, I can see how owning a catalogue on Degas' monotype prints, an artist you know well, would be very useful. Plus, it's better than not seeing the art at all. And, I agree about the essays.

    4. By the way, I also enjoyed the YouTube film on the Kiefer exhibition:

    5. Thanks for this, Olga. It was nice revisiting the exhibition - the commentary is particularly thoughtful and insightful.