Kiefer’s fascination with history seeps through every pore of his work, and he draws upon a vast archive from Norse legend to Wagner’s “Parsifal,” the Old and New Testaments, alchemy, philosophy, past masters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Vincent Van Gogh, and the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann to interrogate the darkness of recent German history and the complex relationship between art and spirituality. In Kiefer’s paintings, inspired by the poetry of Paul Celan (who survived the Holocaust), it is as if the only way to shrive himself of the horrors of the recent past is to paint about them, thereby preserving them in the memory.
His work offers no simple affirmations of life rising anew from the devastation of war. In much of it, he grapples with the collective absence of memory following the fall of Nazism in his country and his country’s unwillingness to confront its uncomfortable past. Heroic symbols (winged statues, German eagles, swords) take their place alongside a tiny figure, an arm raised in a Nazi salute, while the motif of a tin bath — a reference to the zinc baths issued to all German households by the Third Reich — is another provocative reminder. Black sunflowers haunt his canvasses like scorched bodies. The burden of history weighs heavily in Kiefer’s work: his message is no polite plea “lest we forget.” Kiefer is forthright: he insists that the viewer confronts the brutal realities of history.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins with an examination of the importance of books in Kiefer’s life, which have remained central to Kiefer’s practice since 1968. Regarded as works in their own right, he also sees them as intimate visual diaries where he can recreate and preserve memories. He regards books as primary sources of knowledge and repositories of history and religion, which can be perused over time. These artist books are displayed in simple metal and glass cases, which the artist himself might have created.
In the 1980s the “vitrine” (glass display case), long a subject of art-historical discussion, began to play a more signifficant role in Kiefer’s work, used as both a container for sculpture and a picture frame. Two vitrines occupy the courtyard at Burlington House. Filled with tiny submarines, on first sight these look like a cruel parody of the work of Damien Hirst; on closer examination, they become strange war memorials, erected by the defeated. There are sculptures in the exhibition too. Imbued with suffering and splendor, these are monumental and uncompromising works, just like the paintings, which span time and space, literally and metaphorically, and force the viewer to confront the ugly detritus of history.
Kiefer’s experimentation with new techniques and materials is given expression in the works in rooms 8 and 9, which are created from lead. In 1985 the artist acquired the lead roof of Cologne Cathedral when it was replaced, and used it subsequently in his work, in the belief that lead is the only material capable of supporting the weight of human history. He enjoys its changeable qualities, which reflect our own constant state of flux, and in the works in room 9 he adds diamonds to the sheets of lead to create his own cosmos and to comment on our place within the greater scheme of things.
The final gallery is filled with a vast woodcut of the Rhine of his homeland, and the river which marks the delineation between Germany and France. The concept of borders is another of the artist’s concerns, both symbolic and physical. “The Rhine” is constructed from large panels, which echo the pages of a book and allow the viewer to walk between and around them, as if wandering through the forests which line the banks of the Rhine. In the work, Kiefer makes reference to the great German writer Goethe, as well as to Paul Celan and the artist Albrecht Durer in quotations and symbols, and the panels are rich in references to some of the artist’s key obsessions: wartime bunkers and blazing fires.
This is an ambitious and provocative exhibition, though not the first show at the Royal Academy to focus on a single artist (recent exhibitions have featured David Hockney and Anish Kapoor). But the grandeur and confidence of Kiefer’s work holds its own in the graceful rooms of Burlington House, and there is much beauty amongst the shocking to explore here.
Frances Wilson (date reviewed 23 September 2014)
This review was first published on CultureVulture.net
Royal Academy of Arts, until 14th December 2014