A wry view of life for the world-weary

Art Is Difficult. It Is Not Entertainment


Too right, mate, if this major exhibition of his (Anselm Kiefer’s) work at the Royal Academy is anything to go by. We have had a bit of a Teutonic invasion this autumn what with this exhibition, Polke’s at the Tate Modern and Germany – a 600 year history in objects at the British Museum.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is the sheer size of his works – there is a major “structure” containing rusty submarines and ships in a big glass case in the courtyard to the Academy and what I found one of his most effective works, The Language of Birds – an enormous structure in wood, lead, metal and plaster – at the top of the stairs before you enter the exhibition proper. A Kiefer is not something you buy to hide a damp spot, instead you could replace your wall with one. Ash Flower is 7.5 metres wide and 4 metres high and as well as featuring a range of materials beside paint such as clay, ash and sunflower seeds and features a giant upside down desiccated sunflower in the middle. A stunning and breath-taking piece.

The second impression is the repetition of symbols and images. Sunflowers feature a lot as do three chairs, supposedly representing the Holy Trinity, fire – representing both the power of destruction and re-generation – swords and writing across the pictures. Rivers and forests feature prominently in his work.

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Kiefer courted notoriety early in his career by portraying himself in his father’s Nazi uniform and giving the Nazi salute, albeit the tip of the saluting arm is lost in the scenery. Of course, his adherents say, it was done ironically but as those of us who use irony know it is a double-edged sword.

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Not unsurprisingly the Nazi past and attempts to come to terms with recent history are prominent themes in Kiefer’s work. Perhaps the most effective of his works for me was one entitled Sulamith, the Hebrew word for peace, which features a crypt with smoke marks on the roof, which is clearly modelled on the proposed Soldier’s Hall in Berlin, but unlike that building the room is blocked off – a powerful image representing in my mind the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a wonderful example of Kiefer’s use of different media – acrylic, woodcut, emulsion and straw – and techniques.

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I also liked his Attic series based on his stark wooden attic studio which he uses to stage pictures full of religious and Wagnerian imagery and to explore the intricate patterns in the grain of the wood.

Kiefer doesn’t have Polke’s sense of humour and provides us with a much more serious attempt to come to terms with Germany’s past and resurgence. Death, destruction, carnage, blood are prominent in most of his works. But there is also hope and resurrection. It is not a totally dark message that he purveys.

There is a strong alchemical interest running through his work, both in his use of metals, particularly lead, and in his imagery, especially in his use of the philosopher’s stone. Some of his work left me cold and some of it seemed a trifle self-satisfied and pretentious.

For a modern art exhibition I found I enjoyed it more than I had anticipated but, as the quote indicates, you have to work hard to understand what it is all about. Based on their respective shows Kiefer is a more substantive artist than Polke but whether he will be viewed as a great in a couple of centuries time I somehow doubt.


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