A few years ago I was asked to write an article on an Anselm Kiefer exhibition in Vienna. I approached the job and the artwork with great trepidation and uncertainty. Upon seeing the exhibition, I became immersed, enthralled and transfixed. I felt small, yet a part of everything. I felt connected:
“It is utterly beyond our power to measure the changes of things by time… Time is an abstraction at which we arrive by means of the changes of things; made because we are not restricted to any one definite measure, all being interconnected.” – Ernst Mach
A dark and turbulent scene displays the power of nature in shades of grey and blue; sea and shore converge. The elements collide, blend and swirl in a transitory, impassioned dance. A leaden book attached to the canvas floats in a tempestuous sky, as a reservoir of achievements in knowledge or imagination. Memories to revisit, perhaps, that humanity has for so long elevated above nature, as if it can somehow be separate from what it is merely a part. The book open to a page that can never be read, never be understood.
I encountered this striking painting from artist Anselm Kiefer at the Essl Museum, in a contemporary building located in a in a quiet little town just outside of Vienna, Austria. Even with the pleasant natural lighting of the gallery falling through the skylights, the works of art–grand in dimension, darkness and decay–command an overpowering presence. I wasn’t sure what to think of Anselm Kiefer’s work at first, although my first experience of his work was through viewing pieces on the internet. Not remotely in line with experiencing his work in person, physically…with senses.
Upon first entry into the airy exhibition space, I was overwhelmed by the massive, contrasting presence of this piece, Nur mit Wind mit Zeit und mit Klang [Only with Wind with Time and with Sound], the title taken from the Ingeborg Bachmann poem, “Exil”. I felt tiny–just an element, helpless to nature’s kinetic mysteries and diversity. But I also felt a part, a part of nature, a part of the elements, a part of change; a part of the mysteries of life and art and time.
In his works Kiefer addresses the transience of memory, nature and civilisation along with diverse subjects, such as Norse mythology with TBC (Hödur) and the structure of the cosmos in Horlogium [Shooting Stars]. This latter piece leads my attention to the centre of the room and its accompaniment piece: Black tape on the floor squares off a section wherein lies fragments scattered around a stack of leaden books, Skulptur mit Sternen [Sculpture with Stars]. The books appear worn, their covers and pages abused with overuse, ready to exhale their restrained words into the aether.
I can understand why the museum’s founder, Karlheinz Essl, curated this exhibition on Anselm Kiefer himself. The pieces are all featured from his own personal collection and carefully presented “in order to make the power, radiance and spirituality of the works tangible and experienceable.”
Kiefer also takes inspiration from religion, with Samson and Ich bin der ich bin [I am who I am], and literature, including 17th century scholar Robert Fludd and the poet Paul Celan. Literary references appear in the title of some pieces, such Tönend wie des Kalbs Haut die Erde [Ringing out, as on the calf’s hide, the earth] from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, and are handwritten directly on some works of art themselves. The words of the poet cycled through the mind of the artist, mixed with the gritty elements of nature, blended and painted onto the tensile canvas.
Born in Donaueschingen, Germany on 8 March 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, Kiefer grew up amongst the ruins of the war, which ended up being his childhood playground as he used the rubble to construct little houses. This early influence in his life carried through in his artwork, such as his controversial use of themes relating to his country’s guilt and remembrance of World War II.
The cycle of growth, destruction and renewal is evident in work such as The Fertile Crescent, also featured from Essl’s collection. The Fertile Crescent being the area in the Middle East considered formative in the development of human culture, wherein early human civilisations developed. Here in Kiefer’s painting, mixed media on a colossal canvas show monumental ruins—civilisation decayed. Perhaps these ruins are only in a moment of transition, as time plays itself out into unknown possibilities.
“Ruins represent the future,” Kiefer states and then comments on his childhood: “The house next to our home was bombed to the ground. I never felt that the debris was something negative. This is just a state of transition, of change, of evolution. The postwar rubble and debris from the big cities cleared up by women, the so-called Trümmerfrauen [rubble women]—a term of almost mythological significance today—is what I employed to build houses. This debris has always been the starting point of something new being conceived.”
The fragility of the organic materials Kiefer uses accompanies the themes of decay, transience and renewal, the physical future of the pieces being uncertain. Besides lead, materials Kiefer uses include oil, acrylic and charcoal as well as more unconventional media such as soil, plaster and mistletoe leaves. In some works, branches, objects and sculpture are affixed to the front of the canvas, providing dimension to the textural surface. Art and nature reach into the controlled space of the museum, as if at any time they could pull you into their world for a change.
“In my pictures I tell stories to show what is behind the story. I open up a hole and I go through it.” – Anselm Kiefer
Walking through the exhibition, winding through the rooms, I waver between observer and element—apart from, then a part of—as if we are all interconnected sculptures in transition, works by the greatest artist of the universe. Anselm Kiefer’s work would allegedly be contemporary art, but I find it to be of a timeless expression: The present in a dance with the effects of humanity and the past, the mysteries of mythology and the cosmos, and the uncertainty of decay and the future. Artwork that may not only cause one to question its meaning, but leave those questions never fully answered.
Kiefer’s art presents an alchemical, elliptical system: One of civilisation, recollection and fantasy affected by the mysteries of time and transformation. Each work can be seen as an extract of this system—a moment caught as emotions and interpretations are released. The cycle of nature is endless; a work of art is but a glimpse of the eternal expressed.
I am dead, a wanderer
no longer registered anywhere
unknown in the prefect’s domain
of no use in the golden cities
and the greening land
long dispensed with
and provided with no more
than with wind with time and with sound
I who cannot live among people
with the German language
this cloud around me
which I hold as a house
drifting through all languages
Oh how it grows dark
those dark sounds,
only a few fall
It will carry the dead into brighter regions
– Ingeborg Bachmann
translation via Project Muse
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Vienna Review.
All artwork in this post © Anselm Kiefer.