Anselm Kiefer, at the Royal Academy of ArtsSo So Gay magazine
Bang in the centre of the Royal Academy’s courtyard sit two giant square-edged fish tanks. What’s inside? From a distance it could be sharks; predatory, menacing. Up closer they reveal themselves to be submarines, at all heights and angles, staring out at the ornate façades of the embracing courtyard. They are unexpected, even absurd, but act as fitting gatekeepers for the world of destruction, desolation and damage which has been wreaked within the Royal Academy’s galleries.
Anselm Kiefer is the artist responsible for these vitrines and his work also fills the capacious halls inside for his first major retrospective in this country. The pre-eminent artist of his generation, he was born into a German society broken by realisation and reflection, a landscape ripped apart and an artworld reforming its approaches and ideas (led in some ways by Kiefer's one time tutor Joseph Beuys).
Both his aesthetics and subjects are drawn from this post-war fallout of place, people and meaning, and how a rebuilding can take place which has space for remembering the myths and ideas of identity whilst acknowledging and facing the truth of its fascist period.
This may sound dull and worthy, but stay with me because it’s not. Not in the slightest.
The scale and magnitude, both physically and emotively, of Kiefer’s work needs the massive walls afforded to it by the Academy because his paintings can be large. Very large. Though, due to a chronological approach to his career the work starts small with the opening gallery given over to watercolours and gouaches which firmly set ideas and approaches which repeatedly are picked up on as motifs over later decades. There is referencing of national tropes - Casper David Friedrich views, Germanic statuary, the Nazi salute – re-appropriated and addressed to rebuild the role of the artist in a culture which had turned the craft into a tool of the state. Speer’s architecture, Wagner’s music, Hitler’s watercolours…
Paintings like Winter Landscapeand Ice and Blood (both 1970) present Kiefer’s aesthetic ideas which are still being developed in his 2014 work, which forms a large part of the exhibition. Both these paintings have a strong horizon across the image, only visible because of the total destruction of the forests which would otherwise occlude this sense of distance.
The rawness of an open wound pushed further by red leeching into the image. Remaining stumps of a reduced forest as metaphor for the trace of what once was is picked up later in the show with a magnificent room given over to just two paintings. For Paul Celan; Ash Flower and Black Flakes, vast canvases facing one another were both made in response to poems by Paul Celan, survivor of the death camps. These rotten limbs of trees again litter the scene – but this time the canvases are larger, near six metres wide with the artist intertwining actual parts of trees into the canvas.
Kiefer’s work is synonymous with these features – the magnitude and liberal use of objects embedded into or suspending off the canvases. Shellac, volcanic rock, blood, oil, plants and lead are mixed with more traditional painterly materials. In some hands use of these may seem a gimmick, but in Kiefer’s it is masterly and profound. Each material has deep philosophical and emotional resonance and the sheer scale draws the viewer inside his landscapes.
As well as wide, his paintings are deep. Physically – some canvases took over a decade to make, with fissures opened up where materials layer and weather into a new geology of the artist's making - and in meaning. They are littered with references to classical paintings, artists, poetry, Wagner, Norse mythology, alchemy and politics. But done so generosity and excitement, rather than as some conceptual game of cleverness, and as a viewer you are welcome to pluck what you wish from the paintings.
These are beautiful objects, and if all you take away is the sense of beauty and craft then that is fine, but spend longer in front of the works, get sucked into them and you will find a richness which resonates long after you leave the gallery, past those submarines and return to the city streets.