In the early 2000s, I finally had access to two very important things: the internet and Tate Modern. These two led me to one even greater discovery: Anselm Kiefer.
Not only did Kiefer inspire me creatively in how I proceeded to paint but he also gave me my first real experience of researching an artist in depth. I remember visiting Tate Modern and seeing his huge painting depicting Mao behind a bed of elongated dead roses and thinking; this is my new art god.
And now almost two decades later and with just three weeks left, I waltzed over to the Royal Academy to see his retrospective. What can a super fan really say…
The Royal Academy in London embarked on something spectacular and much-needed, the first major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer’s work in the UK. No pressure for them to present an artist who in 2011 set a worldwide record on the art market when his painting sold for almost $4million at Christie’s.
The exhibition here in London spans over forty years of Kiefer’s career, bringing together works from private and public collections. Chronologically arranged, even with the early paintings and sketchbooks from the 1970s, you can already tell the artist that was fighting to get out and be seen. Kiefer is an artist of general conceptualism; not a painter, sketcher, book artist or sculptor but he is one who could cover all of the above. This is my favourite part of any retrospective, seeing that amazing development from student to artist to luminary.
Where the first two rooms act as an introduction and background to Kiefer, walking in to room three completely took my breath away. The scale of the paintings, the undeniable elements that make Kiefer’s work so instantly recognisable, I was surrounded by the paintings that made me fall in love with art all those years ago.
Moving into German landscape and architecture, I felt a fantastic link to the British Museum’s current exhibition on Germany. This idea of German memory, identity and not forgetting is naturally inherent in artists born in and around World War Two, none more obvious than in Kiefer himself.
Progressing through the galleries of the Royal Academy, and then going back and running through the show a second time, I loved the constants; architecture, perspective, monotonalities. In every gallery, in every decade of Kiefer’s life, there were these nuggets of consistencies that just continued to be amplified in every step forward through the retrospective. I dare you to walk through and find a painting where an element of architecture or perspective isn’t present.
As hard as it is to choose a few highlights from the exhibition, there are a few I can point out. Though that was hard enough to do.
Ash Flower, 1983-1987, far away looks like lines and lines of dirt, but as you get closer (which you have to do with any Kiefer work) you’re given these slight hints of red which lift you away from the depression but is it into something darker or lighter? I was in a great mood so for me the red gave me the feeling of comedy. In the recent blockbuster Mr Turner there’s a scene in which Constable and Turner are finalising their works for the annual Royal Academy exhibition. Turner, seeing Contsable’s excessive use of red, decides that is what is needed for his own. One red mark and all of a sudden there is an added dimension. Maybe that’s the mimicry I saw here in Kiefer’s work? Or maybe I’m just forcing comparisons in my own head…
A beautiful addition of any retrospective is an unexpected one. In this show, it is Palette on a Rope, 1972. Placed delicately on the side surrounded by Kiefer’s huge paintings that scale the walls, I almost walked past it until I noticed something I always love to see. The side of the canvas was covered in different colours and shapes, and that’s when I realised this was probably ten paintings in one. Getting as close as I could without setting off any alarms, I could see the workings and reworkings of years’ worth of paintings. If only I had x-ray vision…
Oh and then there was room 5, Mesopotamia. Almost Aztec in feel, the two huge scale paintings still had a massive architectural feel to them and it was mesmerising seeing line after line that Kiefer had painstakingly painted on to the canvas. This obsession with architecture stems from the same obsession he has with how they made it. The mud, brick and clay are worked in to his paintings almost as homage to those he is copying. Is Kiefer reverting to an ancient history to forget his own? Or rebuilding his own with inspiration from an exotic/foreign past?
Room 7, specially made for the RA has oxidised, oversized sunflowers, used and unloved canvases, and then debris from Kiefer’s studio in Paris strewn all over the floor. In Alan Yentob’s BBC 1 documentary on Kiefer, we’re vividly run through room after room of this rubble which Kiefer hoards year after year. Most of it comes from old paintings which have been chipped away, numbered and labelled for future use. You can’t say Kiefer isn’t environmentally conscious.
The simplicity in Kiefer’s paintings is what makes them all the more powerful. With the scale of the canvas, the weight of the painting and one simple symbol of identity, memory, history, or ecclesiastical / other-worldly life, Kiefer ties his work together to ensure his position as one of the most influential artists working today, let alone in all of history.
Royal Academy of Arts
27 September – 14 December 2014
Sponsored by BNP Paribas