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Far From Heaven: Anselm Kiefer at the Hirshorn


Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth
Recently at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oct 12, 2006 through Jan 14, 2007
By Joseph Phelan
 
 
                    
Naïve tourists from Kansas who wander from the National Mall into the Hirshorn Museum in search of the religious pictures promised by the title "Heaven and Earth" may be disappointed by this survey of the work of the contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Though Mr. Kiefer is as fascinated with the meanings of religious revelation, especially in their mystical variants, as any artist alive today, his vision of heaven and earth on the evidence in this exhibit looks more like purgatory than paradise.

Book with Wings But you can understand why the show's organizers, curators Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, where the show was organized, and the Hirshorn's Valerie Fletcher, in bringing together the 40 paintings, watercolors, book and sculptures created between 1969 and 2005 in the show choose a more upbeat title.

Kiefer, who was born during the final months of World War II, began his career in the 1970's as one of those "bad boys" of postmodern art with a series of photographs showing him in various German locations performing the "sieg-heil". Although these photographs are not in this show, there is a fine watercolor landscape titled Everyone Stands under His Own Dome of Heaven with a tiny figure performing the salute under what looks like a miraculous blue snow globe.

Some saw in these early works a sinister nostalgia for Hitler or a parody of that nostalgia. When Kiefer became world famous a few years later in the 1980's it was for his super sized paintings depicting forbidding war ravaged landscapes like The Milky Way and grandiose haunted Albert Speer like interior spaces as in The Ash Flower.

Kiefer found his mission as a kind of post modern "history painter" whose special subject was the menacing presence of Germany in the history of the 20th century. This led the distinguished art critic John Russell to write that Kiefer's art "tackles some of the greatest and most daunting issues of our century in ways that in the heyday of modernism would have been virtually taboo"

Resurrexit The series of oil paintings in the first few galleries offers an introduction to the artist's key themes and symbols. Kiefer, whose name means "pine tree" in German, has remarked "Our stories always begin in the forest," Man in the Forest (1971) depicts the artist wearing a nightshirt holding a burning branch in a dense pine forest. While the artist is dwarfed by the trees, the fiery branch he holds indicates he may either light the way or set the woods on fire.

Resurrexit (1971, pictured left) offers a different view a wooded landscape with a building barely visible in the distant clearing. In the center foreground, Kiefer has been replaced by a snake headed toward the building. A pinewood staircase is attached to the top of the painting. Some see this as a staircase to heaven. We learn that the building is the former schoolhouse which Kiefer converted into his studio. The pinewood stairs are the only access to the studio.

In Quaternity (1973), the first of the super-sized paintings included in the show, we are inside the attic studio. Attics have a symbolic significance for Germans that is where families hide their secrets. On the pinewood floor the staging area for his historical imaginings we see three small fires identified in the artist's cursive script as the three persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. From the dark area on the right another snake enters clearly labeled Satan. By his choice of the title, Kiefer presents evil or Satan, as a fundamental element in the spiritual matrix. There is eternal balance of good and evil, creation and destruction running through Kiefer's sense of history.

The artist has special affinity for troubled places and no place on earth is more troubled than the holy city of Jerusalem (1985-86) where the three great revealed religions struggle to coexist and dominate. This dynamic abstract monumental composition evokes the holiness and the troubles. Two skis like forms made from steel float before a background of gray lead illuminated by flashes of gold leaf. Thus the possibility and desire for transcendence is suggested as well as its seeming impossibility here on earth.

Melancholia (detail) Kiefer's frequently incorporates three dimensional objects into his paintings In Melancholia (2004, see detail at right), a cloud of lead seems to emit a strange polyhedron suspended over a murky desert. In this mysterious painting Kiefer hooks up with the greatest of German artists, Albrecht Durer whose engraving of an angel meditating is one of the profoundest of all his works. The subject of that work is the human conflict between art and faith and science and learning. Melancholy was understood as one of the four humors, the one which caused deep and lasting sadness if present in excess. The same tradition holds it to be present in individuals of the greatest intellectual gifts.

Kiefer has said that it is the artist's job to imagine the most impossible things. I found a few of these in the show: monumental free standing sculptures made from lead like the marvelous Book with Wings (1992-94, pictured top right) in which the book - the source of the wisdom of the past- remains flightless despite its seemingly ethereal wings. Another such work Meteorites consists of a gigantic steel bookcase with lead books which appears to have been attacked by heavy fragments of metal from space.

Kiefer's most recent Leviathan (2005) is the final work in the show. A small rusty submarine floats in a luminous tumultuous seascape where water and sky become indistinguishable. Kiefer mixed red sand with his paint to achieve the cosmic glow. It is as if a luminous late Turner seascape was repainted by the saturine Clyfford Still.



Links:

  • Anselm Kiefer Artcyclopedia entry

  • Hirschhorn Museum mini-site for Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth



 

Past Articles

2006
      Klee, Hitler and America, by Joseph Phelan
      Anyone For Venice?, by Joseph Phelan
      The Legends of Leonardo, by Joseph Phelan
      Hey, "Dada"-Dude, Where's the Rest of Me?, by K. Kimberly King
      Cézanne in Provence, by Joseph Phelan
      Angels in America: Fra Angelico in New York, by Joseph Phelan

2005
      Notes on New York (NoNY), by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Painting in Britain
      French Drawings and Their Passionate Collectors, by Joseph Phelan
      Missing the Picture: Desperate Housewives Do Art History, by Joseph Phelan
      The Salvador Dalí Show, by Joseph Phelan

2004
      Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
      Philadelphia is for Art Lovers, by Joseph Phelan
      Featured on the Web: Understanding Islamic Art and its Influence, by Joseph Phelan
      Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School, by Joseph Phelan
      The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor

2003
      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, by Joseph Phelan
      Mad Max [Max Beckmann], by Joseph Phelan
      Marsden Hartley: The Return of the Native, by Joseph Phelan
      Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, by Joseph Phelan
      Frederic Remington's Nocturnes, by Joseph Phelan
      Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
      Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
      Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
      Studies for Masterpieces, by John Malyon

2002
      Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
      Renoir's Travelling, Bonnard's "At Home", by Joseph Phelan
      The Philosopher as Hero: Raphael's The School of Athens, by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization
      Celebrating Heroes; Celebrating Benjamin West, by Joseph Phelan
      Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan
      Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan
      Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan
      Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan
      The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
      Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings

2001
      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

2000
      Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
      The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
      Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
      Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan
      Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

1999
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
      Spotlight on The Louvre Museum
      Spotlight on Impressionism
      Spotlight on Optical Art
      Spotlight on Animals in Art
      Spotlight on Surrealism
      Spotlight on Sculpture
      Spotlight on Women in the Arts
      Spotlight on The Golden Age of Illustration
      Spotlight on Vincent van Gogh
      Spotlight on Great Art


 
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