Art Chronicles: Anselm Kiefer

Watching William Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection shortly after my first visit to Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition, Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, at the White Cube in Bermondsey, I was struck by the similarity between the setting for the film’s final shoot-out and the larger pieces in Keifer’s show. The police have pursued the drug smugglers to a derelict  industrial area by the river, and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chases the leading smuggler into an abandoned factory building with high windows running along both sides, bare pipes and rusted iron work, peeling paint on the walls, water dripping from the roof and glassily puddled on the floor. Half-blinded by the variations in light, by the intensity of his own anger, Doyle shoots a fellow cop my mistake and lets the smuggler escape. The film’s final shot is of the empty factory; the final sound a bang that could be another gun shot or a slamming door.

A great location dressed up by  Ben Kasazkow and Ed Garzero, art director  and set director respectively, and nothing more? A metaphor for the disintegration of those parts of America laid waste by drugs? A visual metaphor for the unravelling of Doyle’s mind? All those things, if we wish, and maybe more. See as you find.

No doubting the metaphoric intent, I think, in Kiefer’s work. From the beginning, when, before turning almost exclusively to paint, he photographed himself giving the Hitler salute in a variety of incongruous foreign locations, Kiefer’s overriding concern has been with German history and German myth – more specifically, the extent to which German culture has been distorted by the ideology of the Third Reich.

Kiefer uses as a basis what has become a recurrent theme in his work – a blackened German landscape of ploughed earth, rendered pictorially dynamic by the high horizon and offset vanishing point. *

In the larger pieces at the White Cube landscape has moved from ploughed field to urban wasteland, architectural now rather than agricultural – the most prominent setting being Berlin’s now-deserted Tempelhof Airport, built on land that had belonged in medieval times to the Knights Templar and redesigned in the late 1930s to be the central gateway to Hitler’s world capital “Germania”.

Constructed from large panels, each thick with richly augmented paint – and reminding me a little of the exaggerated impasto of Auerbach’s paintings of London landscapes after the Blitz – together these works are staggering in their force and size and, not least, their verisimilitude. And though predominantly urban, the natural world is not forgotten: giant atrophied sunflowers lean and lurch across the work, like the now-silent instruments of mass production, minature model aeroplanes dangling between them.

As Nazi ideology corroded Germany, German culture and the German people,  so Kiefer’s work shows the corrosion that has laid waste what was once an object of absurd grandeur, and to achieve this, he literally corrodes sections of his canvasses, subjecting them to the effects of the elements and – in keeping with his long-held interest in alchemy – accelerating the process through oxidisation. Thus, the note from the White Cube suggests, Tempelhof is “transformed into a latter day cathedral – a mystical site of aspiration, of absurdity, even apocalypse.”

Does it matter that the size, the brilliance of Kiefer’s creation bring us to such a state of admiration and wonder that we are in danger of forgetting the deep criticism that lays behind it?

* Charles Harrison & Paul Wood: “Modernity & Modernism Reconsidered” in “Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties” Yale/OU Press