Anselm Kiefer's works delve into the haunting aftermath of World War II, portraying the enduring scars of war and potential for rebirth in a disinteg
Anselm Kiefer’s works delve into the haunting aftermath of World War II, portraying the enduring scars of war and potential for rebirth in a disintegrating world
“We have certain recollections,” Marcel Proust once wrote, “that resemble the Dutch painting of our memory,” but in Anselm Kiefer’s work, memories look like the snapshots of World War II. A battle not only killed millions across continents, destroyed cities, included the extermination of six million Jews, but shattered the idea of Europe as an enlightened, progressive, and peaceful society. It took the continent years to revert to peaceful coexistence, yet the echoes still remain and occasionally are rekindled in the form of ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Serbians (1992-1995), and the present war in Ukraine.
One enters Kiefer’s solo exhibition ‘Finnegans Wake’ at the White Cube Bermondsey London (June 7 – August 20) through — memories like — multiple and overlapped stripes hanging from the top, comprising different and diffused surfaces, pictures of buildings, large-scale writings. After crossing this curtain, a viewer is confronted with an installation deep-stretched on both sides of the passage. Moving between this seems as if walking on a site of death, decay, and destruction. Rubble, rust, roughed clothes, discarded machinery, discolored bones, dry stems, disbanded structures, oversize (fabricated) sunflowers are just a few items from the itinerary of things he constructed, collected, colored, and composed on racks, shelves, slabs, boxes, arranged in continuously connected rows of this never-ending — artist-made — wreckage.
Titled Arsenal, the installation appears like a ruin. Of war, of bombardment, of the past, of hell (“Dante in the Inferno compared the boiling pitch used in Venice’s massive Arsenal to that found in hell”). The work, which dates from 1970 to 2023, is a reminder of Kiefer’s lifelong concerns, imagery, materials, and aesthetics. The artist has been dealing with Germany’s tumultuous past, of World War II, and the painful period of the Third Reich. An era that destroyed not only one nation but a considerable part of Europe.
Kiefer, like his compatriot Gunter Grass, has the courage to address that savage phase of German history, which left many gassed, murdered, displaced, dispossessed in its wake. The title of his latest exhibition is derived from James Joyce’s novel, a book of fiction, in which “up to 70 languages are present, and numerous cultures: among them Egyptian, Irish, Norse, Islamic”. Brian Dillions, the British art critic, further comments, “Finnegans Wake is sometimes spoken of as though it were a literary monument or ruin”. Most parts of the exhibition, the installations in the corridor and other rooms, as well as paintings are reminiscent of a grand ruin.
Kiefer confesses: “I do not consider ruins as something disastrous, on the contrary, they mark the beginning of the reconstruction of a cycle, or circular time.” Witnessing the aftermath of a bloody conflict, in the form of lead books, disfigured bicycles, snakes covered in golden or silver paint, iron rods, metal cauldrons, odd mechanisms, discarded shoes, stiffened clothes, withered plants, one starts smelling the scent of battles. Outside a sequence of heroic action, but in reality a chronology of disaster.
Anselm Kiefer’s work, according to Dillon, “has always been nourished by a multitude of sources: poetic, philosophical, religious, scientific… Norse mythology, German metaphysics, the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann”. The work at the White Cube is the similitude of our world — not living but the deceased one. So, a viewer comes across a human skeleton, dysfunctional tools, disused attires in a darkened and destroyed state, scorched wood, disbanded stones, an old dish antenna, an iron hammer, and sickle — composed like the symbol of Communism — all recalling a human condition that became fate for an unfortunate milieu across Europe.
Although the work of Anselm Kiefer refers to James Joyce’s novel — the English book, which may turn into a completely original piece of literature if translated into another language, for instance, Arabic, Malayalam, or even German (as “Arthur Waley said that he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation”) — but it could be compared to the German author W. G. Sebold’s writing, the combination of fiction, reportage, history, memory, commentary, which evoke distant and mournful accounts in one’s personal and societal existence. The magic and miracle of Kiefer is not only in his content but how it becomes a haunting spectacle. At the White Cube, along with the central corridor, installations in four adjoining spaces/halls also refer to the main theme.
In one of these rooms, the middle area is filled with sand, and deformed and scorched shopping trolleys, and an old wheelchair with large stems of skeletal sunflowers sprouting out of them (Marx my word fort, 2021-23); next to a massive canvas. A landscape of sorts, of light breaking in, and a crowd of people — that in reality is composed of draperies (like coffins or clothes left after someone’s demise), along with actual shoes stuck on the monumental canvas.
Several years ago, a German play was staged in Lahore that dealt with the tragedy of the Holocaust; it included only two types of props: tunics and footwear. Personal belongings that Jewish victims took off before being led to the gas chambers. In Kiefer’s canvas, the presence of shirts and trousers, and shoes glued and painted over, could remind that past, or it could warn about a coming future, a devastation caused not by a political power but due to ecological disaster. The past and the future seem to blend in his aesthetics because war, deaths, destruction, burning of fields are not new or recent phenomena. In Kiefer’s art, one comes across this in multiple manifestations, as if documented by a distant observer, a participant, or a chronicler.
In another space, one discovers opened and scattered books on and around a pedestal (Liffey, 2023), surrounded by 11 canvases of unidentifiable landscapes — with gilded skies. The earthen areas of these paintings are filled with dark, desolate, and deep tones and textures, like a war-trodden location, but the sweeping gold in the skies pushes them into sections of some heavenly — yet depressing scenarios. The golden skies connect these works to the early Christian paintings, in which gold in the sky represented heaven. Thus what took place in Jerusalem was also part of the heavenly empire. Gold of the sky also signifies the presence of light, which is not white, yellow, orange, but a luminous expanse.
Perhaps the most dramatic and devastating work of Kiefer’s solo exhibition is the room with debris of a colossal concrete structure scattered in the middle (Phall if you but will rise you must, 2017-23), including poles and oversized stilted sunflower plants. Substantial sections of some urban construction, with metal wires, rods, slabs, are a narrative of a world in turmoil, due to political, ethnic, economic, and other forces/factors.
The scale, naturalness, and abruptness of this happening are matched with canvases of similar intensity. For example, an immense landscape of an unrecognizable location, but of a desolate atmosphere with oversized artists’ palettes inserted in the middle of the canvas (And oil paint use a pumme, 2023). On these protruding pieces, you see the spread of pigment, overlying of paint, besides a snake-like form sitting in the middle. The presence of the reptile could be traced to a deeper origin, like the Original Sin, tempting the humans to taste the forbidden fruit in the Paradise. A sin that continued in many exploitations, annihilations, and extinctions — like the Jewish genocide in Hitler’s Germany.
The work of Anselm Kiefer is an archaeology of human vanity. The German artist not only critiques WWII but extends the notion of war to our nostrils, since walking inside his display, one could get the odor of blood, fluids, trenches — more in his paintings which still waft of mixing matters and liquids. Through his color, composition, construction, and expanse of imagination, one feels that the work created by Kiefer is not about the history of 78 years ago but invokes deeper pasts and innumerable possibilities. We realize that the artist not only illustrates the content of a specific location, a particular period, certain politics, but presents a disintegrating world; actually our situation, our future, our ghosts. As in a large painting (HEC, 2023), you spot silhouettes of three shouting figures next to a cropped body of another person, with his arm strategically shown.
This painting — like all works of art — can be approached as a mirror to all those who have been suffering from the power of the unknown, unseen forces out there to undo a human’s existence. In the canvas, the only visible anatomy of a hidden character is the right arm and hand, parts of the body required to shoot the enemy.
Not only this canvas, but every other impressive work of Anselm Kiefer, besides being linked to the past to his motherland, is about ourselves, our surroundings — our future may be.