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. Here’s part two…(part one can be found here).


The Orders of the Night (Die Orden der Nacht), 1996 by Anselm Kiefer, Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen. Photo copyright Seattle Art Museum / copyright Anselm Kiefer

David: I always get interested when I hear you use the word ‘ugly’. Partly because in the next sentence you usually say something along the lines of ‘I really liked it!’ Is that some kind of masochistic reaction to straightforward visual appeal? Do you only like to look at things that make you work hard to see the beauty in them?

Richard: Ha, ha, I don’t know – maybe it’s because the object has irritated me enough to spend some time trying to work out why – and then having changed my mind it lodges itself in there as an experience (or something), whereas an object that I instantly like, I’ll move on from fairly quickly. Right now I think I like The Orders of the Night more than anything else in the exhibition – I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about it. And it’s interesting because it’s about Kiefer rather than mythology or history. To answer your question, no, I don’t only like to look at things that make me work hard to see the beauty in them. There are plenty of Matisses and Warhols I love looking at and the beauty is not hidden in them. Paul Neagu told me he thought beauty in a work or art was the revelation of truth. I always took that to mean a moment of honesty as communicated by the artist (by whatever means, including lying and obfuscation, ha ha). And I think a truth can be ugly, which can be interpreted as beautiful. Have I stopped making sense? Do you have a favourite painting in the exhibition?

David: No I think you are making a lot of sense. Sometimes awkwardness and irritation can be very positive qualities in art, especially living as we do in a sea of banality. It’s a hard thing to cultivate since repetition immediately becomes banal itself. So if you find yourself thinking about a particular work it must have planted its barbs in your consciousness (!) and that is a testament to its power. Irrespective of whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful at first glance. I am not sure whether the beauty = truth equation really is reversible, but I am not about to disagree with Shakespeare, or even Paul Neagu.

My favourite painting in the show was Interior, 1981 – one of the monumental architectural paintings in the third room, in fact there were three or four paintings in that room that seemed to have equal ambition and delivery. Kiefer seems to have envisioned the future ruins of a thousand year Reich, and suggest the morally ambivalent beauty to be found in them. It reminds me that whenever we visit grand palaces or castles we are tacitly admiring the architecture of despotism. The surface of this particular picture is very rich and beautifully textured. There is a subtle but wonderfully rendered light and the overall effect is very seductive. But recalling the imagined source of the ruins makes me pause and consider the whole basis of my aesthetic response to everything – whether I am beguiled by the thrones and relics of the powerful, or whether all that really attracts me is decay and entropy crawling over our fallen temples. I could look at it for a long time! I think the ambivalence and the questioning that it provokes is what holds me; which is a lesson to me because it’s not a statement – it needs the viewer to make it whole.

Interior-(Innenraum), 1981 by Anselm Kiefer

Interior (Innenraum), 1981 by Anselm Kiefer. Oil, acrylic, and paper, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / copyright Anselm Kiefer

Richard: Interior, 1981 is stunning. And the way Kiefer applies the paint in that and the other paintings in that room (and also in The Orders of the Night and the latest works), seems almost feverish. It looks to me as if he’s been engaged in a violent struggle with himself to draw an image into the open. There’s an air of risk about them (- doubly so with the architectural paintings, the subject being unsettling/ uncomfortable in itself); they are like a high-wire act, dangerous and thrillingly lit. There were so many high points in the exhibition, for me. We’ve talked about the paintings. Do you want to say anything about the sculptures?

David: I was a bit taken aback by that question, because I really didn’t remember seeing any sculptures. There were vitrines, full of paintings and books. Books of prints, books of watercolours, books of mystery – made of lead and only one page visible. Who knows really if there is something on every page? Then I did remember the giant pile of canvases in the octagonal room. I was unsure about that. Literally exhibiting one’s studio sweepings like Kiefer does here, is surely a bit questionable. Whatever the critical justification. Again it has the hint of mystery as the paintings (or merely dirty looking canvasses) were piled high. Those paintings hidden from us like the ruined images of their past: art of greatness now forgotten and left to pile up and rot. The dark side of the studio/dealer axis. Then again, with the amount of objects attached to his canvasses these could not be described as ‘mere’ paintings. This element added to the monumental aspect of his work gives it an almost sculptural presence. Perhaps he has at least for himself managed to blur the divide between painting and sculpture?

Richard: I was thinking about the piled up canvases, but also the paintings in vertical vitrines (containing tree branches) and the glass tanks full of submarine sculptures in the Royal Academy’s courtyard. But it’s a good point – are the first two paintings or sculptures? It’s not that great a leap from paintings like Winter Landscape, 1970, so maybe for Kiefer it’s just to do with whether they are hung on the wall or not. Although they’re big objects, they are quite playful. The submarines, though, are something completely different – they have that same “heaviness”, that conceptual and material rigorousness that is present in Interior and The Orders of the Night. They are not asking the same kind of questions as the piled up canvases…

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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