Tuesday, November 04, 2014
ANSELM KIEFER AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Like or dislike do not apply and Wow, though appropriate, is unacceptably lightweight for such weightiness. Weighty is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to gather my impressions of this stunning - as in stunned by a heavy blow to the head - exhibition. Literally heavy: sky's-the-limit kilos of lead, plaster, clay, sand, ash, wood, straw, brick-thick slabs of paint and other stuff making the stately walls of the R.A. groan in pain, awe or ecstasy. Weighty as in authoritative, serious, ponderous.
Anselm Kiefer is a heavyweight in a lightweight contemporary art world. His works are like slow-burning coals in that world's flashy fireworks. Do I like his art? Like - a word now and forever degraded by FaceBook and other social media - does not apply. Kiefer's work is anchored, you could say trapped, in gravity, in gravitas. It aims at immortality with iron-willed determination and pre-empts the destructive effects of time by imitating them.
I'm going to risk stereotyping and say that you can't separate Kiefer's work from German history and culture. Wagner and Nietzsche could be the soundtrack to this show but a thoughtful silence is better. German identity - historical, cultural, political, mythological, psychological, personal - is a theme that Kiefer has intensely and consistently explored in unorthodox, often controversial ways and although he's travelled the world and now lives in France it seems to me that, wherever he goes, he carries his German-ness like a heavy back-pack which is both a burden and a useful source. Whether or not his astonishingly productive, energetic and successful career owes something to the Hero-As-Conqueror Teutonic gene, Kiefer demonstrates that you can conquer the world without invading and occupying it (turns these into art-actions). If proof is needed of his artistic dominance take a look at the list of some honours Anselm Kiefer has received:
Grand State Prize for Fine Art, Germany 1983. Wolf Foundation Prize in the Arts, Israel and Goslarer Kaiserring, Germany 1990. Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association 1999. Federal Cross of Merit and Austrian Decoration for Science and Art 2005. Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2008. Adenauer-de-Gaulle Prize (in recognition of his contribution to cultural dialogue between Germany and France) 2009. Chair of Artistic Creation, Collège de France 2010. Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, French Ministry of Culture 2011. Leo Baeck medal for German-Jewish reconciliation, Leo Baeck Institute, New York 2011.
Among the pieces in this vast exhibition that my egocentric eye focused upon were, of course, Kiefer's giant books. I'd only seen some in reproduction before and the materials themselves, up close, excited me: watercolour on plaster on cardboard! Pages as tall as I am! Pages you need a weight-lifter's help to turn. Allright then, I won't make the pages so heavy. And those electrolysed lead books, so fabulously distressed... No way. No lead. No lead poisoning.
To make up for my shortcomings as art reporter, here are some relevant links I found after writing this post. If any of them don't open when you click on them, copy/paste the link into your browser.