I first became aware of Anselm Kiefer at the A New Spirit in Painting exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1981. Out of all the work on show it was his paintings that struck me most, for several reasons. Obviously the size of the paintings was impressive but so was the technique – thick paint, bits stuck on and scrawled cryptic words. But as interesting as any of that was the subject matter. The work often deals with early to mid-twentieth century German history and the ancient mythology that in many ways inspired it.
The Second World War was a subject that, even in the 1970s and 80s, was not widely discussed in Germany. So Kiefer rocked the fragile boat and was accused of glorifying the Nazis, but he denied this, saying his work was there so people did not forget. There is a series of early photographs from 1969 called Heroic Symbols of him giving the Nazi salute in various locations, so maybe one could understand how the problem arose. His mentor in Düsseldorf at the Academy was Joseph Beuys, an artist who knew a thing or two about the Nazis and the war first hand having been a gunner in a Luftwaffe Stuka dive-bomber and whose work often looked back to that time.
I missed the major Kiefer show at the Royal Academy in London in 2014 so the prospect of seeing his work right on my doorstep was a fascinating and exciting one.
Now, Voorlinden is a wonderful important museum in a beautiful setting and it is always a joy to visit. But, with all due respect, it is not the Royal Academy or Tate Modern, nor is it the Pompidou or New York’s MOMA so it must be considered a major coup to have secured such an important exhibition. Kiefer’s work, in general is huge and demands a lot of air around it and this is what Voorlinden is able to supply. While his work has got bigger and better over the years and his popularity increased some of his contemporaries – Immendorf, Chia, Lupertz, Baselitz, Schnabel et al who ruled the art world in the 1980s are not heard of so much.
Many successful artists, after they have made it seem to lose their impetus. They become repetitive or go off on fruitless tangents. Kiefer has got bigger (literally) and better. It is amazing that one man can produce such a huge volume of work, much of it monumental in scale. Both are made possible by his working environment. He doesn’t work in studios, his work is produced in huge factories with fork-lift trucks whizzing around, molten metal being carried, cranes hovering above and numerous assistants. Kiefer moves around his vast domain on a bicycle. For a better insight as to how he works, see Anselm, the film by Wim Wenders which is currently in cinemas.
But what of the Voorlinden exhibition? This is not a retrospective in the true sense of the word. Most of the works are newish, from the last ten years, and many of them were produced this year. The show is divided into a number of themed rooms.
Some of the first works of Kiefer that I remember were books whose pages were made of lead – two things that dominate his work even today. The first room, Leitmotifs, contains a giant steel bookcase containing chained lead books. The accompanying painting reveals two other sources of inspiration – architecture and the poet Paul Celan.
There are rooms of giant paper books of swiftly executed water-colours, vitrines of mysterious objects like a chastity belt suspended above a squat palm tree or the handful of leaves outweighing a huge rock at the other end of heavy duty scales. There are two rooms dominated by the humble bicycle. The rusty bikes could easily have been dredged from the canals in Holland but each one has been transformed into a magic object – one straining under a load of bricks, another with wings and yet another, a tandem belonging to Samson and Delilah.
One of the most interesting pieces is hidden away in the corner so you could easily miss it. Winterreise, inspired by Schubert’s song cycle, is essentially a stage set with cut-out wings, overhead drapes. A snowy landscape as a back-drop represents a forest, something that has always been an important symbol in German history and mythology. A dusty old machine gun on an old hospital bed takes centre stage. Winterreise brings together writers, poets and philosophers that have shared Kiefer’s quest.
But it is two giant works which have rooms to themselves that dominate the exhibition. The Morgenthau Plan which was dreamt up in 1944 by the US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau Jr. who proposed that, after Germany had lost the war, cities and factories would be flattened and destroyed and the whole country turned into farmland. Kiefer’s Der Morgenthau Plan is a room full of rotting corn sagging in parched earth while snakes lurk in the shadows between the drooping stalks.
Of the paintings it is probably the magnificent Aus Herzen und Hirnen sprießen die Halme der Nacht (From Hearts and Brains the Stalks of Night are Sprouting) that dominates. Measuring 4.70 meter high by 8.40 meters long it has the museum’s largest room almost to itself. On a base of gold a path winds its way through a field while six giant scythes stare down like harbingers of death. Above is scrawled the line by Paul Celan from which the title is taken.
But there is much much more to this imposing exhibition and it will take time to ruminate over and digest its potent pageant. There is a richness and depth to Anselm Kiefer’s work which stirs the soul and awakens shared memories. His work excites and astounds, and often overwhelms. He must be considered the most important living artist. His towering work – both metaphorically and literally – is beyond compare and for us, in this area of Holland, to be able to see such a breath-taking exhibition is a rare privilege and one that should not be missed. Michael Hasted 14th November 2023
Anselm Kiefer’s Bilderstreit continues at Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar/The Hague until 25th February 2024