Royal Academy of Art s 27 September–14 December 2014
As I gazed upon the monumental paintings in Anselm Kiefer’s show at the Royal Academy, I wondered where these works go after they’re bought. It must be necessary to have access to vast palaces, or major galleries just to install them. Or perhaps the collectors construct buildings in which to house and enjoy them? It’s not just the scale of Kiefer’s paintings that’s intimidating; their price tags, like all mega-successful products of the art world, suggest the kind of purchasing power that induces vertigo in the average human being.
Kiefer is clearly collectable, as evidenced by his continued ability to go on making more and more work, with increasing scale. His evocative paint gloop embodies hard currency as organic matter, now hanging up to rot, decay and deteriorate. The sparkling, diamond-encrusted paintings entice the viewer to peer closely at the pretty twinkles but get too close and you will cross the invisible line causing the electronic alarm to sound.
Kiefer’s two-hundred-acre art studio enables him to take the long view while he makes his work, and provides the kind of distance necessary to really appreciate his recent dynamic landscapes created especially for the Royal Academy exhibition and displayed in Gallery Number 9. A plaque by the door describes how this gallery was wrecked in a German air raid in 1917, which is apt considering Kiefer’s obsession with symbolism and European history.
The new landscapes of grass and sunflowers seem to be inspired by Van Gogh’s ‘Butterflies in the Long Grass’, although on a CIA-sponsored abstract expressionist scale. It was this part of the exhibition that I looked at the longest. The paintings are suggestive of abandoned battlefields, endless territories and lost civilizations overtaken by nature, and recall the descriptions of a post-war wasteland Europe, known as ‘The Zone’, in Thomas Pynchon’s 1971 postmodernist novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
Two 2013 paintings here, both titled The Morgenthau Plan, refer to a proposal, never implemented, by United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. who suggested that the post-surrender programme for Germany following World War II could include measures to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war by eliminating all industrial plants and equipment. Kiefer alludes to this with these paintings of empty, rolling grasslands.
Paul Celan’s poem ‘Death Fugue’ is also explicitly referenced in these paintings, although many other literary works also come to mind. The alchemical aspect of Kiefer’s painting Lapis philosophorum evokes Primo Levi’s short story ‘Lead’ from his 1975 collection The Periodic Table. Obviously the element lead has particular symbolism in Kiefer’s work, for example the lead books that he assembled on bookcases in Zweistromland/The High Priestess, 1986– 89, and his purchase of the entire lead roof of Cologne Cathedral in 1981.
Among other works on show here, L’ origin du Monde (2014), Ignis Sacer (2013), Für Walter Vond Voquelweide (2014) and Für Aldebert Stifer (2014) are so new that they might still be wet. Their sizes are not given, nor are they reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, which went to print before they were complete. With so much to absorb and reflect upon at this exhibition, the Royal Academy could almost publish a dictionary of symbolism and literary references in Kiefer’s work to guide the visitor through the space.
In conclusion, imagine, dear reader, a science fiction story set in a parallel reality where the failed painter Hitler is reincarnated as an artist born in 1945 who, in this next life, becomes the world’s most successful painter, whose destiny is to create vast works of art reflecting upon the deathly obsessions of the Nazi party and the disaster of uncontrolled power and environmental destruction that feeds the dreams of a megalomaniac consumerist society. As the images and sculptures proliferate and this imaginary society is unable to stop and take stock and be wise, so civilisation terminates, leaving an infinite mausoleum of “beautiful ruins” and ashes created by the reincarnated artist.