3rd December 2014, David Cook and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We were slightly pushed for time and, wanting to carry on the conversation we were having, decided to do so by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. We’re doing something we shouldn’t and urging you to go and see an exhibition that’s no longer on. Apologies, the few reproductions we’ve used here are no substitute for the originals.

Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87

Anselm Kiefer
Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87
Oil and acrylic emulsion with additional three-dimensional media, 381 x 560.07 x 16.51 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange, the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund
Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / © Anselm Kiefer


Richard: This painting, Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87, was in room five of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Anselm Kiefer exhibition – at about the halfway mark.

Attaching objects to the canvas is a technique Kiefer uses for a while and then seems to discard. Was he heading somewhere with it, pursuing a purely painterly enquiry? Trying to make a signature style? Or do you think he was responding to the demands of each work in an intuitive way?

David: For me Osiris and Isis comes in the period directly after Kiefer’s best work, which is in the previous two rooms in the show. His huge themes of history and myth are still here but they have lost some focus. He was very brave in confronting the Nazi legacy, and his personal standpoint gave his work a heroic resonance. This on the other hand seems to be referring to something outside his personal experience – Ancient Egypt – and I think that makes it less strong than his work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s not immediately obvious though, because it is so very huge!

Richard: The works in the previous two rooms, where he’s representing WW2 era architecture, appear to be more firmly rooted in reality. They seem to offer an honest response to a hot subject. And for the most part they are paintings with nothing added. Although they’re not on the epic physical scale of Osiris and Isis, they have a more powerful presence. Osiris and Isis‘ size, the addition of wires, television parts and broken pots seems like compensation for a loss of “reality” in the subject. To an extent, the elements of Osiris and Iris seem to operate like puzzle pieces – the job of the viewer is to piece them together and “solve” it. Other paintings in the exhibition (Black Flakes, 2006 for example) have additions to them in the form of branches, lead books etc, but don’t seem this contrived.

David: I think it must be a little like a band who have just recorded a series of classic records but have exhausted their primary source material. Or a writer looking for their second novel. Difference being that because Kiefer had the whole history of the Third Reich and foundation myths of Germany to draw on he could go on for a little longer on those themes than someone singing (for example) about their youth in the dance halls of Sheffield. This painting for me seems like a slightly misconceived attempt to go even bigger in terms of theme and scope as well as size and it doesn’t come off because it does not draw on his personal experience, but it rather gives free rein to a kind of romantic fantasy. This was an element of the earlier pictures but was balanced (brilliantly) by anchoring it in the reality of recent history. But Osiris and Isis is purely mythical and he is struggling to give it the weight it needs – for instance the stormy light is over dramatised, and it draws attention to itself a bit too much. The understated lighting of the Tomb of the Unknown Painter, or even the flat lighting of the log cabin pictures works better.

Anselm Kiefer Nothung, 1973

Anselm Kiefer
Nothung, 1973
Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer


Richard: Osiris and Isis seems forced to me. Thematically it’s not a natural progression from the previous work and the personal is missing. Which can work – “poetry lies its way to the truth” (as John Ciardi once said), but when the truth is elusive…it’s obvious to the viewer on a visceral level, (but not necessarily on a conscious one – you know something is amiss but what is it?). There’s also something about the way Kiefer has handled the paint that’s different – to me it’s looser, there’s less rigour (than in Interior, 1981 or The Orders of the Night, 1996, for example).

David: The way we are talking sounds like we’re not Kiefer fans, but I really am a big admirer of his work. In a way it’s reassuring to know that the quality of his enormous output is a bit uneven. Standing in the big third room, I felt that I was in the presence of more than one masterpiece, which is pretty rare – and like you say it is visceral, and pretty obvious too. No-one can consistently perform at their very highest level for years at a time though, like a tennis player…and I think Kiefer is more like Nadal than Federer. A big hitter, but it must take a lot out of the tank…the performances are uneven. The best are among the very best, but when they come unstuck they come very unstuck.

It’s funny really because I can imagine a (much younger) more naive version of myself thinking that Osiris and Isis might be a great idea and treatment of the idea. It’s the sort of painting that the fourteen, or even seventeen year old me might have dreamt of making. And maybe if I had seen it at that stage I might have felt very differently about it, but for me right now it does not move from the particular to the general: that’s to say it doesn’t translate the artist’s emotions and thoughts into terms that I can feel and understand.

Richard: Yes, I agree. We’re coming at this exhibition from a strange angle by concentrating on Osiris and Isis. It’s not representative. The 70s and 80s works are a great marriage of concept and execution, and some of the later works are their equal in terms of emotional and visual impact. I keep thinking about one in particular – The Orders of the Night, 1996. It combines intense gestural marks with poetic imagery – Kiefer’s reclining figure dwarfed by giant sunflowers, black-headed and gone to seed. The palette is limited to sickly autumnal hues and thick black. I thought it was the ugliest thing in the exhibition when I first saw it, but after a period of really looking, the light breaks through. Kiefer has this incredible way of sneaking up on you with light – he paints in the gaps between the objects (he achieves the same effect with the light spilling through the sky light in Interior, 1981) and there it is, this unremitting presence, the beauty of fact in a realm of fantasy.

To be continued…

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 Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest.

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