Anselm Kiefer

I once took a friend to see a major show of the work of Anselm Kiefer at AGNSW years ago. The gallery has long shown one or two of Kiefer’s earlier works and currently displays one – Order of the Seraphim, 1986.

The first one I saw at the gallery was called faith hope and love in English. Kiefer often writes the title on the surface of the work in what looks like white chalk. This work has an airplane propeller made from lead projecting from canvas that reflects a grey ocean rolling its waves forward. It has about it a sense of Armageddon, the end times of humanity. Kiefer was born in Lübeck after the Allied bombing that razed the community in World War II, and lived there for the early years of his life. The small boy would have heard stories of the raids of thousands of bombers of the Allied air forces and he’d have walked in the destruction they had caused.

If one currently rides down AGNSW escalator to where hangs another of the gallery’s Kiefer acquisition, one experiences the weight that’s carried in his works. ‘Hangs’ might be a euphemism because this work includes concrete stairs on a canvas coated with cement. I have stood in front of this work on a few occasions. I didn’t understand it. I just wanted to experience it, standing in awed silence. I read the notes on the wall and they didn’t really help me. A concrete staircase in two pieces, metal construction rods projecting in an untidy way reminiscent of a building, either unfinished in construction, or destroyed, somehow affixed (with welded metal frame) to the front of the canvas. I associate this work with Biblical stairway images: Jacob and his ladder, the vision of Peter in Acts 11 where there was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven; images that speak of transcendence; a connection between this world and a world beyond. Days after my first contact with the work, the question formed: How do we transcend the destruction brought about by evil in our world? How do we ascend or rise above the pain and darkness that destroys life?

In Kiefer’s survey show years ago I remember one of the first works was a pile of cut glass on the floor, each piece with a number written in black ink. Through the scattered and broken glass was human hair. There was a description of the work on the wall pointing us to some mythological connections. I knew enough about the Holocaust to see in the glass and the hair, allusions to the death camps of Nazi Germany, and Pol Pot in Cambodia, and Russia, and Rwanda, and Iraq; and in the sharp edges of the glass, in its fragility, in the numbers, in the randomness, and in the human hair, allusions to evil and destruction of life.

I have watched Kiefer himself speak about his work in documentaries. Ideally I had imagined him to be big, heavily muscled, rough hands, weathered. On the film he looked my size, my age. He wore a grey suit-coat, a black t-shirt, he was bald, clean shaven, wore glasses. He was articulate in English (not his first language), he was thought-filled, could have been mistaken for a lawyer (in fact he had done his early study in law) or even a doctor.

Kiefer is to my mind one of the greatest artists in the world. I stand in awe of his vision, his imaginative ability to conceive the ideas that become his works and the technical genius that is able to construct them.

Born in Germany in 1945, living his childhood in the midst of a country devastated by massive and continued bombing, his work has always suggested to me that somehow he carried the guilt for the Nazis. His paintings and constructions have been dark, grey, heavy, leaden and voicing lament. The material with which he ‘paints’ is so much more than paint: lead, earth, cement, fragile grasses, oil, emulsion, acrylic, sand, glass, hair, glue, bitumen, sticks, branches, trees… anything he can find that gives voice to the emotion he feels and the questions he asks.

Kiefer’s work has pushed me to do some of the most intense ‘reading’ that I have done in a long time. I can remember waking in the middle of the night after first seeing his exhibition and recalling vividly each work, and thinking on the significance of the art as a whole body of work. It seemed to me that Kiefer had moved from images of guilt and despair to images of hope and resurrection. One room in his survey show, entitled Palm Sunday revealed a quotation from the book of Isaiah (45:8). Kiefer recognises Palm Sunday as the beginning of the epic, archetypal journey of Jesus to his death on the cross and his resurrection. These works use colour in ways that suggest hope. It is warm, encompassing, gentle and inviting. Its openness suggests hope and a new beginning.

On the floor of that room was a huge palm tree; its roots trimmed, its fronds or branches cut back, and the few that were there had the earthy brown of death in flora, with loose dirt on the floor – will that tree live or die? Replanted, it may have lived.

Scale is everything in Kiefer’s work – some of the works are huge. When I stood in front of the painting Die Nachricht vom Fall Trojas, 2006, I could see the landscape that Kiefer had represented so many times, with its furrows all converging on a central point, the scarified land, and below those furrows, what looked like barbed wire and skulls and on the surface that was earth and charcoal, dried straw and oil paint is a white line going through what looked like towns on a map, each with a Greek name. This work engaged me through memories of my father. The white line looked like it documented a path that wound back upon itself a few times. It was like the march my dad went on as a prisoner of war in World War II and seemed to go around in circles, just to keep the prisoners moving. So, as I looked at this work I thought of my dad’s involvement both with the planes bombing Germany and in the death march of 1944–45.

There were splatters of black paint on the surface and they looked like small explosions going off… some lively colours too, the ultramarine blue, vermillion, yellow ochre and rusty browns. Beyond the Palm Sunday section; two more colourful works were in that final room. What had astounded me about these works were the warm and generous colours: pinks and soft orange/ ochres breaking forth from the greys. There was a road going into the canvas, bending into the horizon. Initially I thought of Vincent van Gogh’s near to, or, perhaps, last painting – Crows on the Cornfields (July 1880). The road disappears into the golden cornfields, the black crows in flight in the impasto-ed blue sky. The structure of the works are similar, maybe the content is similar, but the scale of the Kiefer work, the materiality of the paint and earth, grass, the physical shaping of the surface, the scratching and scraping and throwing and splashing of paint… and then the colour. There is something in how the physical earth can grow the flowers again and again, there is hope, there is joy in the colour, there is life, there is resurrection. Palm Sunday begins a journey that ends in hope. It is transcendent.

For me to remember these works from those years ago speaks of the power of the experience of art and the strength of vision in great artists’ work that can trigger memories and touching experiences years later. The poet Audre Lorde speaks about ‘poets giving form to something in order that it can be thought’. To my mind, Kiefer’s life work is doing just that. It shapes who we are.

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