Anselm Kiefer: Texturing the Truth

A child of the post-war era, Anselm Kiefer approaches art as the ruins of his past and as a new beginning. Through layers of upheaval and debris, themes of the eternal re-emerge

Karlheinz Essl standing in front of Anselm Kiefer’s work The Fertile Crecent, a piece from the art-lover’s private collection | Photo: Peter Kuffner

The pleasant natural lighting falling through the skylights of the Essl Museum is not enough to override the grand dimensions, the darkness and decay of Anselm Kiefer’s works. His themes are elemental, like the structure of the cosmos in Horlogium and Norse mythology in the painting TBC (Hödur). Their presence is overpowering, addressing the transience of memory, nature and civilisation.

The Essl in Klosterneuburg, one of Europe’s leading museums of contemporary art, considers Anselm Kiefer “one of the most significant artists of the present day”. The current show includes 15 works by the often controversial painter and sculptor – including four new pieces from 2011, and for the first time, all of the artist’s works in the private collection of the museum’s founders, Agnes and Karlheinz Essl. Special care was taken in the presentation, wrote collector Karlheinz Essl in the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition, which he curated himself “in order to make the power, radiance and spirituality of the works tangible and experienceable.”

Just inside the exhibition space, a massive turbulent canvas Nur mit Wind mit Zeit und mit Klang (Only with Wind with Time and with Sound, 2011) is nearly overwhelming. The title taken from the Ingeborg Bachmann poem “Exile”, this is a dark, storm-tossed scene enacting, in shades of grey and blue, the power of nature where sea and shore converge. And high above, in the tempestuous sky, an open book made of heavy, polished, steel grey lead hovers in three dimensions fixed to the canvas. Here are held “the collective repository of all memories that can be retrieved,” according to art educator Mela Maresch in the exhibition catalogue, a theme that reappears elsewhere in Kiefer’s work, as in Skulptur mit Sternen (Sculpture with Stars), an accompaniment to the painting Horlogium.

Books take the foreground with Samson and Ich bin der ich bin (I am who I am, God’s words to Moses through the Burning Bush), inspired by stories from the Bible and literature, including 17th-century scholar Robert Fludd and the poet Paul Celan. Literary references appear in the titles of some pieces, such as Tönend wie des Kalbs Haut die Erde (Ringing out, as on the calf’s hide, the earth) from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, and are handwritten directly on some works of art themselves.

Kiefer’s early work reflects turbulent times. Born in Donaueschingen, Germany on 8 Mar. 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, Kiefer grew up surrounded by the ruins of the war, which became his childhood playground, He used the rubble to construct little houses. This experience infused his art during the 1970s and 80s, repeatedly taking on themes relating the guilt and remembrance of World War II and the National Socialists, questions that have long been difficult for the German-speaking world.

Anselm Kiefer grew up in post-war Germany. To him, rubble meant potential | Photo: Renate Graf

Elemental themes dominate much of the work, like the cycle of growth, destruction and renewal in The Fertile Crescent, also from the Essls’ private collection. Referring to ancient Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet in what is now Iraq, this lush region is considered “the cradle of civilisation”. Here, Kiefer’s painting, mixed media on a colossal canvas, shows monumental ruins of a once great civilisation now decayed and gone. Although perhaps these ruins are only in a moment of transition, as time plays itself out into unknown possibilities. In any case, this is the attitude of Kiefer.

“Wrecks actually represent the future,” Kiefer noted in a 2005 interview. “The house next to our home was bombed to the ground. I never felt that the debris was something negative. This is just a state of transition, of change, of evolution. The postwar rubble and debris from the big cities cleared up by women, the so-called Trümmerfrauen (rubble women) – a term of almost mythological significance today – is what I employed to build houses. This debris has always been the starting point of something new being conceived.” Rubble is a state of transition, of change, of evolution.

Kiefer often uses natural materials – soil, plaster or mistletoe leaves, for example – that accompany the themes of decay, transience and renewal, as the physical future of the pieces remains uncertain. While oil, acrylic and charcoal, along with lead may dominate, he also uses more unconventional media, such as branches, objects and sculpture affixed in a kind of bas-relief to the front of the canvas, providing dimension to the textural surface.

A sign on the façade of the Essl Museum proclaims “Kunst der Gegenwart” (“Art of the Present”). In Anselm Kiefer: Works from the Essl Collection, this present is encircled in a dance with humanity and its history, the mysteries of mythology and the cosmos, and the inevitability of decay and the uncertainty of the future. This is art that raises questions it never fully answers – the meaning is in the potentials.

The vision here is of an alchemical, elliptical system, one of civilisation, recollection and fantasy affected by the mysteries of time and transformation. Each work is an extract of this system – a moment caught as emotions and interpretations are released. The cycle of nature is endless; a work of art is an expressed glimpse of the eternal.

 

Anselm Kiefer: Works from the Essl Collection
Through 29 May
Essl Museum
An der Donau-Au 1
3400 Klosterneuburg
(0) 2243-370 50 150
Free shuttle bus Tue.-Sun.: Albertinaplatz 1
www.essl.museum.at

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