Archives for posts with tag: Anselm Kiefer

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 three…(part one can be found here and part two here).

Sir Joshua Reynolds Reflected In The Giant Vitrine, 2014 by David Cook

Sir Joshua Reynolds Reflected In The Giant Vitrine, 2014, Digital Photograph by David Cook

David: Apologies for previous slightly brain-dead 2.40 am response. I do remember the submarines in the courtyard and I took this pic of Sir Joshua Reynolds reflected in the giant vitrine. I thought they were impressive when I was standing next to them, but clearly they passed out of my mind very quickly!

I must have been resisting the idea of Kiefer as Sculptor because I see him as the last bastion of Painting. I sort of resent the idea that sculpture can nowadays ‘claim’ artists who make anything that is not an absolutely flat wall painting. I would rather see sculptures as drawings in space. I mean it’s obviously just a label, but somehow it seems important to me to consider Kiefer primarily as a painter on account of the relationship between his work and the history painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. It allows him to simultaneously be part of a tradition and simultaneously expose its darker side – how art can be used to bolster tyranny, how we are susceptible to it and yet how beautiful its ruins can be. He seems to be able to make me question my aesthetic responses – to art, to buildings and in some ways to politics. The language of contemporary sculpture on the other hand is about irony and detachment. All that Jeff Koons makes me question is whether we are really as shallow as he seems to think we are. Which seems like not such good value for money!

Richard: No worries. Nice picture! It’s interesting that you forgot the subs. Perhaps they are just too definite as objects – freed from the context of the paintings they have other associations – toys, strategic markers on a plotting table – but nothing except where they are (randomly) sited to interact with, to rub up against and generate meaning. (I agree with you about Koons (allegedly currently being sued again for copyright infringement. See Eric Wayne’s blog for more). My main objection to his work is I think he overestimates his audience’s boredom threshold. It’s interesting that a Chinese firm, VLA, have started mass-producing a version of his steel balloon dogs and are selling them online – I wonder what he thinks of that.) Last week I visited the Sigmar Polke retrospective, Alibis, at Tate Modern.  He and Kiefer make very different paintings, but I think there is some crossover in their approach to German history. Oddly some of Polke’s work reminded me of Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis). Is it the Beuys connection?

David: Yes the submarines (well, let’s be honest…U-Boats) were just a little bit too iconic, a bit too much like models I made when I was 10. They looked like he had a little bit too much fun making them!! Really liked Eric Wayne’s blog and not only because he’s not a Koons fan! I might order a pair of small balloon dogs to stand guard outside my front door – they would look rather handsome…the only thing that could be said for them as art for me is that they reflect the question of taste back at the viewer (the metaphorically unsubtle reflective finish). But as furniture, they might make a bit of a splash. Oh dear. Is that irredeemably bourgeois? Osiris and Isis could not really be quite as easily reassimilated into mass production. Does that mean it’s better or worse or does the reproduction value of a work of art have no bearing on its artistic value?

I am a relatively recent convert to Polke, and I still find some of his work maddening, but I am coming round. I haven’t seen the show yet though. He is a very enigmatic figure I think, more so than Kiefer for me – his work seems to tread the line between art and anti-art. He is the only artist that springs to mind (except perhaps for Beuys) to be able to pull this off convincingly. Kiefer is firmly in the art camp I think, but Gerhard Richter plays for the anti-art team. Doubtless both Kiefer’s and Polke’s work resonates with German history, but Kiefer seems to me to be trying to understand and come to terms with the past, whereas Polke seems to be looking at the Post War world. Both their work is very sensual, but Kiefer seems to want to take his paint back to the earth it came from (and they are mostly earth pigments…) but Polke seems to want a kind of exotic floating kind of paint where solidity is banished hence his obsession with varnishes etc. What crossover did you see? It could well be of course that Kiefer was looking at Polke for ideas…I don’t think it was the other way around, do you?

U-Boat by Richard Guest, 2014

Anselm Kiefer U-Boat photography by Richard Guest, 2014

Richard: Not sure reproduction value has any bearing on artistic value – except maybe with someone like Tretchikoff where the extent of his popularity is like a work in itself.

I love the idea of “playing for the anti-art team” – there’s a great Subbuteo set in this somewhere. The similarity I see in Osiris and Isis and some of Polke’s work is, I think, the use of unexpected materials to make the viewing experience jarring, to make the viewer question what they are doing by looking at a painting and what the experience might mean. (There are several Polke works which are physically difficult to look at and easily assimilate – in Negative Value II (1982) he uses a synthetic purple pigment-and does something to the surface to create iridescent gold, purple, green, and bronze colours that change the viewer’s perception of the painting depending on their position in the gallery, emphasising the fact that it is impossible to come away with a fixed idea of the image.)

The works widen the viewing experience and ask a question, “What are you doing here, looking at this painting?”, about context: physical and historical. Which ties in with…a general similarity between Kiefer and Polke is that both artists confront Germany’s Nazi past in their work. Their work is full of questions – and scepticism about the function of art, their nation’s history, human nature, themselves.


David: The reproduction thing is probably a red herring. But I think I brought it up because Polke uses found images and Kiefer doesn’t. At least not from popular media…when you are looking at a reproduction of a Kiefer it is a picture of that singular image, pretty much as you would see with a Rembrandt, whereas with Polke you feel you are either looking at a nested reproduction of a reproduction (if he has used media) or just one aspect of his painting (if it has all that varnish, or iridescent type paint). One angle of his painting’s reflected light or whatever. It seems as if he is considering those reproductions as tendrils or spawn of his original work reaching out to viewers through its reproducibility. Kiefer’s images seem more traditional, more self contained, a bit more intense and a bit less aware of those media translation issues. But like you say they both challenge the viewer to reassess the way they look at images and that must to some extent come down to the trauma resulting from the Nazis’ manipulation of the media. But like I say I haven’t seen the Polke yet so I could be talking absolute bollocks.

Think I would always back the Art Subbuteo squad against the Anti-Art one…it would be the Spanish and the Italians against the Brits and the French with a couple of Germans on each side. A pretty one sided contest I reckon!

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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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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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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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