Royal Academy, London, until 14 December 2014
Walking round this exhibition I was reminded of the first day I met my German pen-friend. He asked me: ‘Have you heard of Hitler? A very bad man.’ And over the next 40 years we never mentioned the Nazis again. According to Anselm Kiefer, that may indeed have been the extent of my pen-friend’s education in the subject.
Kiefer was born in southern Germany one month before the end of the war. He spent his childhood playing in the rubble, but was never taught what had brought his country to this state. The first half of his career as an artist was dominated by attempts to return the reality of the Nazi era to public discussion. He dressed in his father’s wartime greatcoat, and painted or photographed himself, in various iconic locations, giving a rather limp-wristed version of the Nazi salute. Some dismissed him as a poseur; others suspected him of neo-Nazi sympathies. But his target was the reluctance of German society to face up to the realities of their recent national history.
He then moved on to a series of huge, grim interiors of wooden block huts, based on his own studio but carrying overtones of concentration-camp barracks. In these he embedded symbols of German myths that had fuelled the Nazi ideology.
Although these works have the form of traditional painting, they act more like conceptual works. They have little in the way of beauty in content or paint handling, nor any sense of exactitude in their composition. They are not the kinds of works to hang in your living room. But they are clearly serious statements, intended to confront the viewer and induce us to reflect on the interactions of belief and reality, and lingering effects of memory and guilt.
For a self-confessed atheist Kiefer is intriguingly strong on the reality of guilt, and the yearning for redemption and restoration. This perhaps is the key to the slightly more optimistic note in the second half of his career. Drawing on imagery from other cultures, such as ziggurats, pyramids and deserts, he is overtly searching for meaning and the hope of a new beginning. But he ends up with an eastern-influenced hope in cyclical time and, apparently, a form of reincarnation. He frequently references alchemy, with its desire to take base metal and turn it into gold. Fire plays a large part in these images: fire that purges and destroys, so that something new can emerge.
It is interesting to compare the early work Sick art with the later The painter’s studio. In the former, a painting of a lake and mountains is covered in pustules: given the role that art played in the early life of Hitler and the development of the Nazi state, Kiefer keeps poking at the question of whether art itself can be redeemed. The later painting shows flames coming up the stairs towards the studio door: burn it down so something new can grow. Among his many quotations from the poet Paul Celan is the line that art will survive ‘beyond humanity’.
Among several works made specifically for this exhibition is Language of the birds, a pile of large ‘books’ made out of lead. Books are an important part of his art output, as if symbolising the desire to accumulate such knowledge as is possible. At the same time, lead is one of his favourite materials, the only one, he feels, heavy enough to bear the weight of human history. The pile of books is surmounted by a pair of wings. It is a richly ambiguous image. Can these ideas fly, if they are leaden? If they do fly, will this bird, whose wings are not unlike those of a German eagle, use them for good or ill?
In one of the later rooms there are some delightful works with diamonds embedded in black canvases, offering some hope of distant light in a dark universe. But the overall effect of the exhibition is a melancholy view of humanity, albeit fuelled by a commendably serious, indeed relentless, search for truth which, Kiefer says, he is sure art can get close to. I hope he finds it.
[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, November 2014]