Anselm Kiefer once said, “art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.” Indeed, when I first encountered Kiefer’s art at his retrospective in Royal Academy of Arts in London in late 2014, I found his art almost unbearably heavy and dark. His first retrospective in France is happening right now, and gave me a better understanding of his art.
Now held at Centre Pompidou in Paris, the retrospective showcases 150 works by this 70-year-old German artist who emerged in the art scene of post-war Germany in 1969, spanning almost half of a century. Organized chronologically and thematically into 13 sections, the retrospective exhibits around 60 selected paintings alongside drawings, installations, artist’s books and 40 “display cases” of micro-fragmented environments or ruins consisting of broken machinery, rusty metal, old photographs and filmstrips.
Firstly, the large-scale installation in the Forum of Centre Pompidou, Steigend, steigend, sinke niede [In climbing, climbing towards the heights, fall into the abyss] with materials resembling hundreds of filmstrips, symbolizes the exhibition as a film running backwards, which simultaneously echoes the perpetual theme of memory in the art of Anselm Kiefer.
“Memory”, “history” and “myth” are some of the keywords to understanding Kiefer’s art as he is one of the first artists in post-war Germany to look into Nazi history by means of his art. In 1969, the artist made a series of photographic self-portraits in which he performed the Hitler salute, dressing in his father’s old Nazi army uniform. In the painting Notung, the sword bears Kiefer’s fascination with the Germanic heroes who are part of the national identity. It is also stained with blood, simultaneously becoming a witness to the nation’s history of the past century. Representing Germany at the Venice Biennial in 1980, Anselfm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz opened a Pandora’s box by making references to German history – the history that the whole nation wanted to forget. With the series Wege der Weltsweisheit [Ways of Worldly Wisdom], Kiefer insisted on the need to face the Nazi history by painting a web connecting the portraits of German intellectuals with some Nazi figures with a forest at the background representing Germany. In Kiefer’s philosophy, “only by going into the past can you go into the future.”
This links to another significant aspect of Kiefer’s art – the sublime and regenerative power of art. Kiefer explores the role of the artist after Nazism, with a drawn palette superimposed on a ruined landscape in Malen [To Paint]. As the bluish rain showered by the palette seems to be refreshing the burnt field, Kiefer illustrates the power of art to salvage and regenerate from the wreckage. Therefore, one could say Kiefer’s art is bipolar – it bridges joy and hope with gloomy catastrophic ruins.
In the painterly Bose Blumen, the expressive colors of flowering meadows, with references to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, does not only witness the transformation of Kiefer’s art from monochrome black to a variety of colors, but also denotes cycles of perpetual regeneration as the essence of Kiefer’s artistic philosophy. This is reinforced by the final, site-specific installation, For Madame de Staël: Germany, with cardboard mushrooms indicating various German intellectuals sprouting from sands that are spread over a large gallery space in front of a painting of a dark forest that signifies Germany. With this latest piece indicating transformation and rebirth growing from his nation’s tormented past, Kiefer is determined to emphasize the transcending power of art.
As Kiefer once said art may not be easy, as his art deals with the past, the present and the future in this complicated world. Take a chance to experience and understand Anselm Kiefer’s art at Centre Pompidou until 18th of April, 2016.