Bryan R. Monte
AQ38 Autumn 2023 Art Review
Anselm Kiefer, Bilderstreit exhibition, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, The Netherlands, 14 October 2023–25 February 2024
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains….boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
from Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Anselm Kiefer is one of the most prolific and successful artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. From humble beginnings in an small attic atelier in Hornback (Walldürn), Germany to his 50 hectare art village in the south of France, his art has gone from strength to strength after being recognized by the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in the early 1980s. For more than four decades his art has won many important international (American, French, German, Israeli, Italian, and Japanese) prizes and honours. As Barbara Vos, Museum Voorlinden’s head of exhibitions explained at the press preview of Kiefer’s Bilderstreitexhibition, Kiefer’s CV and the access he gave Voorlinden’s curators to his galleries and depots—to choose what they wanted for their museum’s exhibition—made this show even more remarkable.
Kiefer is best known for his immersive, 3-D, impasto-style extra-large canvases, with imbedded objects, such as straw and scythes that actually project from the canvas into the room. Another aspect of his art is its provocations. As Simon Schama says in the new Wim Wenders film Anselm Kiefer: ‘Kiefer’s art prods incessantly at the wound of German history’, (See film review also in this issue). For example, in the late 1960s, Kiefer had photos and paintings made of himself giving the Nazi salute in his father’s WWII military uniform and in his dressing gown. (This is still illegal in Germany). He also created a series of watercolours of himself giving Nazi salutes in a book entitled: Heroic Symbols, in the New York MOMA’s collection. (See Metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/486542 and Metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/486543).
What is on view at the Voorlinden, which includes two of Kiefer’s historical provocations, is his Winterreise (2015-2020) ballet stage set in silver, grey, and black, metallic-like furniture and giant mushrooms. On its floor are cards with the names of important 19th century composers and writers such as Franz Schubert, Heinrich Heine, Herman Hesse, and Hugo Wolf, along with one notorious member from the Rote Armee Fraktion terrorist group: Ulrike Meinhof. The Rote Armee Fraktion was responsible for kidnappings, bombings, bank robberies, and dozens of murders in the 1980s and ’90s. It has been reported that Kiefer created these provocations because no one was talking about the war (WWII or the violent, more contemporary German politics for that matter).
Lastly, Kiefer’s work is concerned with the mythic past: Biblical, classical, and Germanic with specific artistic references to the Garden of Eden, The Iliad, and Walhalla especially. It also refers to the mysterious pseudo-science of alchemy: changing base metals into gold. Museum Voorlinden’s Bilderstreit exhibition features work from these themes and provocations.
The exhibition begins with a 3D grain field punctuated by scythes entitled Aus Herzen sprießen die Halme der Nacht. The title of the piece is taken from a line from a poem by Paul Celan, a poet frequently quoted in Kiefer’s paintings. It refers to ‘the stalks of the night, and a word spoken by scythes, inclines them into life.’ In it, the actual stalks of grain and metal scythes stick out from the canvas, the scythes glistening in the gallery light. Like many of Kiefer’s paintings, this one is metres long and wide and takes up most of the wall space. If one stands close enough, the artwork’s construction takes one right into the scene it’s depicting.
The next two galleries had plaster books with portraits that resembled those of ancient Greece and Rome painted on marble. It also included a three-level vitrine with work from Voorlinden’s permanent collection and some Kiefer pieces displayed on tables from the mid-2010s, including some Parisian drawings.
The third gallery had canvases with bicycles projecting out of them, one of which is a memento to Kiefer’s time in Amsterdam with the date 5.3.90 in the upper left corner. The next gallery featured bicycles as self-standing sculptures: bikes with fern wings, bikes carrying straw or bricks (one of Kiefer’s most-prevalent post-WWII motifs). Then we passed a gallery with heavy, lead books that were being gently placed onto a lead bookcase by a heavy lifting crane. The guide mentioned that some museum floors sometimes needed to be reinforced to carry the weight of this sculpture. Next, was a gallery of paintings or etchings on wood, which featured WWII bunkers along the Rhine River. One painting, Melancholia, was a tribute to Albrecht Dürer and included his mysterious, impossible polyhedron he had at the top of his own Melancholia (1504) Another piece features Kiefer, as a barefoot and bare-chested old man, lying down in a sunflower field looking upwards at the stars.
In the next gallery, we viewed Der Morganthau Plan, (mixed media installation, 2012-2023). The principal elements of this artwork are stalks of grain made from plaster-soaked wheat staffs, supported by a piece of metal, standing in sandy field. Three objects are partially hidden therein: a book, a watering can, and a snake. The installation was inspired by US President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Finance, Henry Morganthau, Jr.’s plan to de-Nazify the Germans post-WWII through starvation and de-industrialization. However, Kiefer provides no historical context for this project, which was suggested by Morgenthau in 1944 at the height of WWII, when the Allies were making uncertain progress on both their European as well as their Pacific fronts.
And thus we have the exhibit’s second provocation. What one writer refers to as a false, ‘counterfactual’ event. (See thecounterfactualhistoryreview.blogspot.com/2013/05/anselm-kiefers-counterfactual-art.html Though the Allies did consider starving and de-industializing Germans in order to de-Nazify them, this part of the plan was never done by the Western Allies. However, a territorial loss for Germany was mentioned in Morgenthau’s plan. Russia and Poland were given territory in the East: Köningsberg became Kalingrad, Danzig became Gdansk and most of the disputed Franco-German western Rhinelands were returned to France.
However, instead of starving and de-industrializing Germany, the Western Allies, principally America, helped rebuild Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, a system of economic loans, which enabled countries to rebuild with newer factories so that that by the 1970s, Germany was able to outcompete American. Far from exacting tribute, the Western Allies brought peace and prosperity to Western Europe and West Germany. However, this was not mentioned by our guide, nor was there any signage to this effect at the museum at the time of the press preview on 13 October 2023. Unfortunately, this is a textbook example of how a visual, alternative (fictional) history without context can be dangerous and inflammatory.
Next we viewed what I can only describe as the gold galleries. One painting in particular, seemed to be a homage to Van Gogh reminiscent of one of his works, Wheat Field with Crows, (1890). Kiefer’s version features straw and reapers’ scythes, paint applied with a knife, embossed in gold. Its title could be Vincent in Heaven. Other gold paintings include a sunflower, (another one of Kiefer’s recurring motifs), in the middle of a canvas almost completely surrounded by a layer of gold.
The last two galleries held what Bos referred to as Kiefer’s container art. The first featured large canvases with NASA numbered stars on predominantly dark brown and black canvases, fired first by Kiefer with a flamethrower and extinguished with water hoses by his assistants. One of these recycled paintings was Sterrenval (1998-2016). However, these stars are not bright, swirling, and captivating as Van Gogh’s, but rather distant, unremarkable points of light hermetically identified by international astronomical numbers. The second were a group of vitrine sculptures composed of bricks, wire, leaves, an old scale, a forest diorama, and a stack of old wheelchairs.
The best of these works is entitled, Karfunkelfee (2009), (gold paint, chemise, jesmonite, snake, brambles, concrete, acrylic oil, emulsion, ash, and shellac on canvas in steel and glass frame). It features a white chemise hovering in a wood. The case’s glass also reflects the viewer so that unexpectedly a ghost version of one’s self appears inside the diorama as one views the piece. However, other works in this room, such as Valhalla (2016) and especially Im Herbst dreht sich die Erde etwas schneller (0,06 sec.) (2018), are far more static, which is ironic considering the latter sculpture is made out of leaves strung on an almost transparent wire to simulate their falling. Morovalvat, a sculpture of eight stacked wheelchairs (the three towards the bottom being increasingly crushed by the others on top), was for me, enigmatic, even though I am wheelchair user. What is Kiefer trying to say with this sculpture? Does this sculpture reflect the teetering balancing act wheelchairs users must often perform as they try to see and navigate exhibits in many European museums, where accessibility is sometimes an afterthought? Even in modern ones, let alone older ones, architectural integrity always seems to trump building accessibility, the location and number of toilets, (usually no more than two for museums with thousands of visitors per day), and sometimes the lack of space between the exhibits themselves as reflected in my past reviews of museum exhibits AQ6, AQ12, and AQ33.
Hanging on the wall behind these last four vitrine sculptures is a typical Kieferesque painting of a post-war, barren, snowy, winter field with protruding stalks or fence posts. However, on the wall to the right, is a painting of Templehof Airport with a mason’s compass hovering over the scene inscribed with a German and French phrase on each of its legs. This compass, which takes in this enormous airport landscape, reminds me of William Blake’s painting, Ancient of Days, where God uses a similar instrument to construct and measure his creation. Another Blake painting, Newton, has the inventor of calculus and the discoverer of the laws of celestial motion holding a similar instrument.
However, our guide or someone from the press, referred to Templehof as a disused Berlin airport. Once again, if they had known their history, they would have realized the historical significance of this airport. From June 1948 to May 1949, it was the centre of the Western Allies Luftbrücke (air bridge). At Templehof, the C-47 Skytrains unloaded their cargo, one landing and another taking off every five minutes. This airlift kept West Berlin well-stocked from the air, and ultimately broke the Soviet’s land blockade, which was designed to put all of that city, even the French, British, and American zones, under Soviet control.
In addition to the lack of historical signage, I have another issue with one of Kiefer’s signature pieces, his lead books, which are so heavy they must be placed carefully on to bookshelves with a crane. Here, I believe, I concur with the dean’s response to Lord Risley’s comment in EM Forester’s novel Maurice. Risley says that Maurice ‘shall soon forget the cutlet he is eating, but never our conversation’. The dean interjects that Risley is confusing ‘what’s important with what’s impressive.’ Yes, the heavy, lead book sculpture is impressive, but is it important? I don’t believe so. A book is weighty and important due to the ideas it contains, not due to the weight of its construction.
Coincidentally, a few days later, I received a copy of the 2 November 2023 The New York Review of Books with an article on the rapid rise of Nazis to power in March 1933. However, what made this article most memorable was a photograph with the caption: ‘A book burning after SA troops stormed the offices of the Dresdener Volkszeitung, a newspaper allied with the Social Democratic Party, Dresden, Germany, March 8, 1933.’ (‘When the Barbarians Take Over’, Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books, Vol. LXX, #17, [2 November 2023], p. 8). I’ve seen many photos of Nazi book burnings. This is the first I’ve seen taken in broad daylight, with dozens of SA soldiers milling about the burning stack, which is guarded by two policemen with rifles. I can tell you the weight of this photograph on my memory was far greater than any piles of bricks or lead I’ve ever seen.
And yes, Kiefer’s output is impressive, but I miss the change or evolution of newer, innovative styles as by other 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, or Henri Matisse. Kiefer’s Klimtic transformations of Van Gogh’s previously tortured, crenulated, cerebral furrows of black crows and a dark, ploughed field and threatening sky, are meant as a homage. However, drenched in gold they actually miss and negate the point of Van Gogh’s mental disturbance and suffering which he graphically projected onto his landscapes.
In Wim Wenders’ film, Anselm Kiefer, (see review also in this issue), we see an exhibition by Kiefer of wall-size canvases in a Venetian palazzo. Here, Kiefer used the same motifs, endlessly reworked in the same style. These are the relics of war, empty, snowy fields, bunkers along the Rhine, building bricks from bombings, old sunflowers with bulging seed heads, or lying in a field as a boy or as himself: a shirtless, barefoot, old man, perhaps contemplating the stars like Elon Musk and the world’s rich clique of financial titans, dreaming of living on another planet among the stars, instead of depicting the urgency of saving this one, in less than a decade, for everyone. Where are Kiefer’s images of our warming, polluted, storm-tossed, dying planet, and its hundreds of millions of displaced persons as well as the world-wide current rise of totalitarianism, the decline of free speech and a free press? Where is Kiefer’s call to save the earth and its climate-displaced inhabitants within the next decade?
There are only seven years to go to stop the earth’s looming environmental disaster. What if Kiefer painted canvases entitled: Miami or Venice 2050, where most of that state or city were underwater, or Siberia 2050, with holes burnt into a snowy landscape by his flamethrower to show the increasing occurrence of underground, Arctic, methane explosion craters that now pockmark the landscape there? These would definitely be a provocative clarion call to the super-rich in the art and the fossil fuel energy industries (almost one and the same these days) to pay attention to the global climate crisis before it’s too late.
Kiefer should address these subjects or visitors, both earth-bound or perhaps from other planets, may someday report on his art village and the planet in centuries to come, the same way as Shelley described Ozymandias’s ruined ‘great works’. AQ