Material Witness – Anselm Kiefer at Anthony D’Offay

I think a great deal about religion because science provides no answers.’

Anselm Kiefer

I suspect that the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, and only the library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.’

            Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

 Anslem Kiefer is considered by some to be the most important artist of the middle generation. The reasons for this kind of acclaim are relatively obvious. Kiefer deals with the kinds of issue many feel serious, heavyweight artists ought to engage. The big issues – history, mythology, metaphysics, kultür. And Kiefer patently deals with them in a visually seductive way. The visceral, shamanistic, ritualistic qualities of art are not thrown over in favour of dry academicism. Neither is he simply an exponent of overblown expressionistic rhetoric. Kiefer is both a good ‘view’ and a good ‘read.’ A telling combination of beguiling narrative with supercharged surface. He combines the exuberant mark-making of a Pollack, a de Kooning or a Johns with the figurative weightiness of a Bacon, a Rauschenberg or a Lucien Freud. To link him with such names provides an instant indication of his stature, if not his appeal.

In the earlier part of his career, Kiefer may be said to have been a ‘history’ painter – in that his overwhelming preoccupation was the German past codified through German myth. Although he always displayed a tendency to transcend this narrow Teutonic breastbeating, Kiefer exemplified the cultural identity crisis afflicting post-war German art, and was instrumental in reclaiming the German psyche as a fit leitmotif for German artists after many had sought the less politically troubled waters of international modernism. Kiefer’s mission was of heroic dimensions, like that of his hero, Richard Wagner. Both artists share the same overriding theme – redemption. Specifically, the redemption of German culture. Indeed, no small part of Kiefer’s mission was to redeem the great redeemer himself, the meister tainted both by his own virulent anti-semitism and the perverted embracing of his work by Adolf Hitler. As Kiefer sought to purge the past and expiate both his own and the collective guilt of his countrymen, the Master of Bayreuth could not fail to be a particular problem, and therefore one of Kiefer’s most enduring themes. Of all German artists, in Wagner the ambivalence between the man and the art, between aspects divine and sinister, has been the most pronounced. Kiefer’s willingness to explore this ambivalence, to face, even embrace the negative, has earned him the criticism of certain of his compatriots. He has been accused regularly by those more echtdeutsch than he of ‘flirting with the ghosts of the Fatherland.’ That is to say, of rattling the skeletons in the closet.

Thus Kiefer has functioned both as archaeologist and confessor. If his goal has been redemption, if his means have been the necessity to reinvent himself and history, his agency has been the restorative power of art. As an artist, he recreates the accumulated accretions of history and myth, painstakingly building up narrative strata of paint, lead, straw or ash on his canvases, attaching photographs, woodcuts or three dimensional objects to the painted surface. Kiefer is a natural collagist – mixing, sifting, synthesising – coaxing history to collide with its representation by using art as the catalyst. The techniques are complex, the ideas and the surfaces are rich, encrusted, opaque. Yet the message, paradoxically, is direct and eminently readable. If, as the artist indicates, a more than nodding acquaintance with ‘Norse myth, Wagnerian opera, Nazi war plans, theological and biblical history, and alchemy’ is required to appreciate the minutiae of his convoluted iconography, the basic tenor of the work remains inescapable to almost anyone. His recent work, if anything, has become even clearer, without losing either its basic complexity or its power. Kiefer’s mythological trawl becomes ever more expansive, the archaeological excavation deeper and more primordial, the implications more universal. He has maintained his stance as historian, necromancer, archivist and alchemist, and has added a few more strings to his bow. He has become a shaman and a seer.

Recently, the artist’s own ‘Operation Sealion’ met with considerably more success than those of the Führer in 1940 or the soccer team of 1966. With impeccable timing Kiefer conquered London just ahead of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf – a formidable treble, it must be said. Virtually the whole of the fickle London art establishment capitulated in the face of his formidable talent, with hardly a token volley of critical resistance. For almost seven weeks, Kiefer occupied Anthony D’Offay’s three West End galleries, plus a satellite pressed into service for the occasion, the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.

Some twenty-three paintings, photographic works, and collages – each piece usually a combination of all three – act as the starry enough supporting cast to what is undoubtedly one of the major artworks of the late eighties, Kiefer’s monumental sculpture, some four years in the making – The High Priestess (Zweiströmland).

The High Priestess is a formidable piece, either one of the most profound works of its time or a tour-de-force of extravagant self-indulgence. It consists of two overscale steel bookcases standing together at an acute angle, like an enormous open book itself. It is eight metres long overall by four metres high and a metre deep. The huge shelves are filled with almost two hundred books, some as much as three feet high, made from Kiefer’s current talismanic material – lead. It is a heavy work in more ways than one, as leaden witted commentators have pointed out almost to a man.

The combination of book and lead has a special, emblematic significance for the artist.  The book, of course, is a metaphor for civilisation, representing culture, knowledge, prophecy, thought, ideas. Those who oppose culture – despots or narrow totalitarians – tend to be suspicious of books, afraid of the liberalising power of the word. Hitler burnt books, and others do so to this day. Lead is the base material of the alchemists, and Kiefer views the process of making art as a kind of alchemy – the manufacturing of a more valuable commodity – new knowledge – from the remnants of existent, commonplace materials. For Kiefer, both alchemy and art involve physical and metaphysical processes, like transfiguration, purification, filtration, concentration. He certainly subjects his materials to a wide variety of technical processes. In this latest work, he has exposed lead sheets to the ravages of caustic soda and other salts or acids. He has cut, ripped and folded the metal. He has dripped molten lead onto his canvases, burnt or torn them, mixed his paints with sand, earth, and ash. He has introduced photographs, dried flowers, roots of trees, and elements of urban detritus into the mix, ensuring that each work projects an intense physicality.

Some of the book works on the shelves have had their pages fused together, rendering them unreadable, their knowledge sealed forever. Indicating that, for a time at least the Hitlers of this world would seem to be in the ascendant. But the English title of the work, The High Priestess, relates to the Tarot, invoking the possession and retrieval of arcane knowledge. When lead is subjected to fire, it is purified, and the process of alchemic conversion begins. By using these various methods of divination – alchemy, the Tarot, the making of art – lost or suppressed knowledge may always be rediscovered, retrieved, or reinvented. Thus the majority of the volumes still function perfectly, notwithstanding the physical reading difficulties imposed by their sheer material weight.

If The High Priestess is seen as some kind of culmination in Kiefer’s work, and it is tempting to read it as such, then it is the culmination of the bookworks which he has made throughout his career. He has been considered a key figure in the revival of the figurative painting tradition, but it should be remembered that one of his artistic gurus was Joseph Beuys. Kiefer studied during the heyday of conceptualism, and has made conceptually orientated photographic bookworks since his student days. The photograph, despised by many figurative painters, is an important constituent of Kiefer’s alchemic brew. Many of his most painterly canvases are overpainted photographs, and his recent work, including that seen here, has tended to become even more overtly photographic. Like everything else in Kiefer’s artistic order, conceptual elements function on a number of levels. He might utilise the photograph in a purely pragmatic way, as the figurative base for a painting, obliterating it totally from the final scheme of things. Or the photograph might play a much more central, allusive role. However, as indicated by the title of a major work incorporating photography – Iconoclastic Controversy (1980) – this role, like many in Kiefer, is one of extreme ambivalence. Much of Kiefer’s photographic work seems to question whether the photograph can be relied upon. The photograph of a historical event is a dubious record at best, more dubious than most, yet more dubiously potent because of its presumed veracity. But since the artist’s precise game is to puncture the hubris of historical myth and expose the moral bankruptcy of heroes, the shadowy medium suits him well. He often reinforces this shadowy ambiguity by solarizing his prints, employing what is in effect a contemporary alchemic process. The sheen of the reconverted silver in the prints emphasises the images’ magic symbolism, and the resultant reduction of tones, blurring distinctions between positive and negative, heightens the unreliability of these material objects of witness.

The iconography of Kiefer’s photography follows well worn paths, parallel to his concerns when using other media. The artist lives in the small town of Buchen, and draws much of his initial inspiration from the interior of his own studio and the surrounding countryside. Not surprisingly for one who creates objects ravaged by considered abuse and encrusted with applied patina, detritus features heavily amongst the favoured subject matter for his camera. Interiors of abandoned industrial workings, piled up objects within the studio, receding railway lines, barbed wire fences, and determinedly scrofulous landscapes evoke decline, decay, and a metaphorical catalogue of familiar holocausts. In tandem with his use of lead, which is both a poison and a protective shield, the imagery of urban detritus has all too clear contemporary connotations. Yet in the recent work, images of vast deserts, of clouds or sprawling conurbations seen from above have changed the tenor somewhat. Kiefer’s images of infinite landscapes, of massive centres of modern civilisation rendered insignificant by virtue of being viewed from a great distance, change such a narrow, history specific context. History would seem to be transcended, and universal, ‘timeless’ truths evoked. Kiefer, the historian, has become Kiefer the prophet. By reconstituting the lost artefacts of the past, and thereby unlocking their dark, arcane secrets, the artist holds the key to the future – and warns us to take heed.

Culture, infers Kiefer, is of the past, present, and future. The title of the Riverside’s major work, The High Priestess, invokes the Tarot, and prophecy. The piece’s German title, promotes a similar conclusion by conjuring up another set of metaphors altogether. Zweiströmland (Land of the Two Rivers), refers to the ancient culture of Mesopotamia, the ‘green and fertile land’ between the twin rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates (as each bookcase indeed is named).

Mesopotamia . . . Cradle of Civilisation . . . Site of the Garden of Eden . . . Birthplace of the first books which, if we need to be reminded, were clay tablets, fashioned from the earth. Lead and clay, of course, react to the pervading metonym in Kiefer’s ouevre – fire – in different ways. Lead becomes liquid, runs away, is ‘lost’. Clay becomes ‘fired’, hardened, preserved. And if we look to Wagner (always a reasonable thing to do in Kiefer’s case), we might note the following. In Wagnerian/Norse mythology, the keeper of knowledge was Erda, the earth goddess. Erda was the all-wise, the goddess of wisdom, the Sybil, the oracle. And in the music drama, Siegfried, when she is summoned by Wotan, the compromised, unredeemed king of the gods, Erda appears as a shimmering grey, hoar encrusted apparition from the depths of the permafrost.  Grey, the colour of lead, is associated too with Wotan and the source of his power, the world ash tree.

The overwhelming impression one takes from this overwhelming exhibition is of the melancholic beauty of the colour grey, seen in the silvery greys of Kiefer’s photographs, in the many coloured greys of the lead books and lead ‘paintings.’ In the face of such an overwhelming allusion the question asked by commentators has been whether Kiefer has abandoned all hope of redemption for mankind and culture. For his grey would seem to be the grey of battleship and field uniform, or of the ash that subsumes everything after the terminal holocaust, the ash that he frequently employs as a painting medium. For example, in the photographic piece, Ice (1968-88), the lone hero – distinctly out of Kaspar David Friedrich – contemplates not a magnificent cloudscape, but a desolate vista of puddles and barbed wire, perhaps pondering the outcome of vainglorious deeds, a final Operation Barbarossa that has led only to the dark hell of a nuclear winter. Its companion piece, Alexandria (1987-88), is Kiefer’s most direct image of the destruction of culture, the specific allusion being to the great library of Alexandria, destroyed by fire in ancient times. Lot’s Wife (1989), features another classic Kiefer leitmotif. Desultory railway tracks lead across a desert landscape. The leaden sky beyond might be a pillar of salt or a mushroom cloud, the theatre of operations ancient Sinai or modern Basra.  This theme is repeated in Princess of Siberia (1988), but here we might be offered a desperately ironic comment upon glasnost.

Yet Kiefer surely also offers continual hope in this magnificent exhibition -though any ultimate ascendancy of hope over despair is a decidedly close run thing. The High Priestess herself, that gaunt, terrifying Brobdingnagian bookcase, exudes the gnarled defiance of survival in the face of all odds, a battered guardian of the flickering flame of civilisation. And a group of key images would seem to relate to the redemptive theme of the climax to Wagner’s Ring cycle. At the apotheosis of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in the quartet, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde lights the funeral pyre of the dead hero, Seigfried. The flames reach higher and higher, until they burn down Valhalla, the tainted home of the gods. Everything is destroyed by fire and turned to ashes, but as the waters of the Rhine rise and cover everything, Wagner’s theme of redemption – perhaps the loveliest melody in the work of a supreme melodist – rises even higher and is the final echo on which the vast work ends. A new beginning is heralded, the tentative birth of a new order rising from the muddy, ashen detritus. As in Niflheim-Müsplheim (1988), where a thorn bush seems to force itself down into an ash soil and take vigorous if precarious root. Or in Mültatüli (1989), which features a line of pressed and dried tulips, scattering their seed and struggling upwards towards a leaden sky.

The very fact of Kiefer’s undoubted excellence in a world of often overinflated reputation and outrageous hype is positive enough in itself. He is an immensely serious, even grave artist (like Francis Bacon) but what may cheer us in his work (as it might in Bacon) is the keen intelligence and wonderful vigour employed in its realisation. Kiefer sets himself an epic brief, as he notes below, but on this form he is close to realising such immense ambition:

Shakespeare is my idol. His world is full of blood, food, and mind. I want to have that same richness in what I make.’

From Creative Camera (1989)