The Orders of the Night – Anselm Kiefer – Royal Academy of Arts
From the lingering drone that opens Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ to the riotous satire of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Three Penny Opera’, German culture is nothing but consistently stirring and the work of Anselm Kiefer stands at the forefront of the Germanic cultural panorama. But in the years since the Second World War, this stack or artistic riches has not always been fully acknowledged by Germany’s own people, a fact Kiefer has been instrumental in correcting.
Like many who have visited the current Royal Academy retrospective of his work, I was acquainted with Kiefer’s art, but perhaps was not aware of the breadth of his practice or the scope of his influences. Over a forty five year career he has embraced painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, woodcuts and architecture, examining universal questions of belief and meaning as he progressed with each of these disciplines.
Addressing the Nazi tyranny is another considerable plank of his work something every German artist emerging in the immediate postwar years had little choice but to consider. At the same time as producing an examination though, Kiefer has also participated in an act of reclamation, retaking the iconic fields and forests and mythological heroes of his homeland for use in his work, freeing them from the Nazi propagandists who had twisted their meaning.
The best examples of this attempt at reclamation can be seen in his ‘Occupations’ and ‘Heroic Symbols’ collections. ‘Occupations’, created for an exhibition in the late 1960s features self portraits of the artist in his father’s World War II uniform performing the banned Nazi salute in front of historic European sites. Naturally the paintings caused outrage, but they were not devised to shock, rather to make the point that the Nazi legacy could not be cloaked in a veil of silence and forgotten about, rather it had to be approached. Kiefer made plain that his generation owned their nation’s past whether they liked it or not and willful ignorance would not be the best foundation on which to construct a new Germany.
Kiefer again slips into the guise of a Nazi in ‘Heroic Symbols’, depicting himself standing in front of statues of Roman warriors while performing a Nazi salute. As well as raising a subject that had been cloaked in a grim public silence, Kiefer also dons the uniform in order to try and reenact what his forebears did in an attempt to understand them and to try and conclude if, in their position, he would have participated in the horror.
Some have tried to label Kiefer’s work as ‘Neo-Romantic’ a title that has been challenged, but does bear some credence when one considers his often barren landscapes. In ‘Winter Landscapes’, Kiefer depicts a snowy scene, the white stained with blood that drips down from the severed head of a woman that floats ethereally over the forests and fields.
Trees figure in many of Kiefer’s landscapes, Germany being a nation where the forest is as important to its national identity as the sea is to Britain. Kiefer’s trees reference ‘Yggdrasil’ the Norse myth that depicts an immense tree of life linking all the worlds of the universe.
This mythological, almost alchemistic element, is a theme that is consistent throughout Kiefer’s practice and in the 1970s he began to examine the link between the earthly and celestial more closely. In ‘The Orders of the Night’ the artist portrays himself lying beneath huge sunflowers which embody the connection between the Earth and the sky as the flowers follow the sun. “When I look at ripe, heavy sunflowers, bending to the ground with blackened seeds,” Kiefer says, “I see the firmament and the stars.”
Kiefer was particularly inspired during this period by Robert Fludd, the Elizabethan astrologer who believed that for every plant on Earth there was a corresponding star in the sky. Fludd famously published his ‘Diagram of the Spheres’ in ‘Utriusque Cosmi’, one of the most famous occult symbols ever created. The diagram is constructed from a series of concentric spirals, each representing angels, stars and elements, which stretch downwards from God to our own terra firma. The document resembles the rings of a tree trunk, a Kiefer influence already discussed, but half circles, arcs and crescents are also recurring in his work.
The artist shows himself lying beneath an arc in one painting representing the progression of life, while in another painting Kiefer draws inspiration from the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, noting that clay writing tablets in the area were created from the same material as bricks, questioning if building bricks, like tablets, can contain the notes and memories of a lifetime. In ‘The Ages of the World’, a piece of sculpture created by Kiefer especially for this exhibition the artist presents a funeral pyre representing geological time and the history of art and culture, a totem pot-marked by meteorites and fuel, suggesting the cyclical nature of our planet’s birth, death and rebirth.
In the final gallery of the exhibition the artist turns to the primary inspiration of many German artists throughout history and the lifeblood of the country, the River Rhine. He presents the river in woodcut form and in doing so remembers the role it played in his youth when the Rhine would regularly flood the basement of his childhood home near the French border and he would wonder if the neighbouring nation had invaded his house in liquid form.
One of the most impressive elements of Kiefer’s work is that it exists at all. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in the wake of the Holocaust: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ and the quote bears testament to the challenge Kiefer faced, as a young German born just two months after Hitler’s death, when he chose self expression as his life’s work.
In his 1981 works ‘Margarethe’ and ‘Sulamith’, Kiefer attempted what Adorno had deemed impossible and approached the Holocaust in two paintings. On the two canvases of oil, acrylic and straw he depicted the mythic ideal of German womanhood Margarethe on one and Sulamith representing Jewish womanhood on the other. Margarethe and Sulamith were both referenced in Paul Celan’s poem ‘Death Fugue’, which he composed in Czernowitz, a German labour camp after his parents had been murdered by the Nazis. The poem depicts Jewish prisoners referring to the two women in a song as they dig their own graves under the watch of a blue-eyed German commandant holding a serpent in his hands. The words of the song note that the women’s hair, once beautiful, was now streaked with ash from years of war.
Kiefer unites the two in the artworks. He does not depict the women themselves but instead the Margarethe canvas references the once black hair of Sulamith with shadow curving and worming its way through the painting, while the Sulamith canvas is streaked with golden straw, a reference to the lost lustre of Margarethe’s blonde hair, the two paintings together reunifying the Germany the Nazis tore apart.
“The Germans have cut themselves off from half of their culture,” Kiefer said in response to his work, “they have disabled themselves. One thing is the Holocaust, the other this amputation of oneself. All the culture of the 1920s and thirties, in all its fields, theatre, philosophy, cinema, science etc, disappeared.” It is not too much of an overstatement to say that Anselm Kiefer began the German people’s reacquaintance with their artistic soul.
All photographs courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.
The Alligator Summer
I was born in Serendipity on a Wednesday in July. The temperature had been so hot that week in Hampstead that my mother had been forced to give birth to me with all the sash windows in the front bedroom wide open. I would forever hear about the heat of the summer of my birth, about the lunchtime my father fried an egg on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Talbot and the tale of the three alligators that crawled out of a sewer in Kensington in the middle of the day, prompting a citywide panic and newspaper sensation. Many people over a particular age still remember those blistering weeks in the middle of 1949 only as the ‘Alligator Summer’, but it’s a piece of history that never meant very much to me.
Serendipity was a magical house to grow up in, nestled amid the greenery of West Heath Road. It had seventeen rooms, living rooms, sitting rooms, single bedrooms, double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a library, a study for my father and a greenhouse. The greenhouse stood at the far end of the garden, bordering the fence, its rusting metal frame filled in with squares of glass, some of them cloudy with mold and condensation, others cracked and broken. Low hanging branches from the great elm tree next to it brushed the top of the glass on a breezy summer’s day and in the autumn leaves cascaded down and covered the glass entirely rendering the insides obscure to me.
Winter was the best time to be in the greenhouse, winter was the best time to be anywhere. There was light inside when the leaves were cleared away and the glass got too hot in the summer. I would brush aside the terracotta plant pots and rusting spades and trowels and I would climb up on the bench that ran around the edge of the interior, in my parka and my gloves and sit with my back to the wet glass and read for hours. Under the benches there were crates and crates of brown bottles, the labels all faded from the damp, I assumed they were beer, stashed there for storage before a party years ago and forgotten about. I kept quiet about them.
My father bought the house from an eminent psychologist Dr. Louis Rose, my nominal godfather, who was not exactly Freud, but he could spin an engrossing sentence out of thin air.
His wife, Maria, had been a Christian Scientist and she would refuse any medical intervention favouring the power of prayer to cure any ill. Serendipity, she told my mother as she handed over the keys, had a remarkable sense of serenity, which she believed enabled her to tune into the Almighty more easily. Four weeks after they moved to Belsize Park, so Dr. Rose could be nearer to the Royal Free, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I can remember vividly running madly from one room to the next at great speed, dashing across landings and down staircases. If you run down staircases, as fast of you can, without holding onto the balustrade, your feet barely touching each step, you can sometimes, very briefly, get the sensation that you are flying, that you aren’t touching the steps at all, but are some how staying upright.
The staircase wall was lined with pencil pictures in varnished frames of scenes from fairy tales by the Brothers Grim and I used to sneak out of bed and stare at them long after I should have been asleep because the flickering shadows cast by the electric lights from the floor below seemed to bring them to life.
I was sat there one night when Dr Rose called by. He’d never called before, not since the move, so it was strange. My mother had taken me to see him a few times in Belsize Park and we’d sat in his consulting room me lying on his red settee like a patient while my mother sat opposite him as his desk imploring him, in cooing tones, not to abandon his love life despite his loss.
“Do you want me to analyse your dreams Miles,” he would always ask me.
“Yes, tell him your dreams Miles,” my mother would say, expecting revelations each time.
“I don’t really have any,” I’d say, which was true then, I wasn’t really a dreamer in those days, my dreams would only liven up when my surroundings became duller.
I liked Dr Rose there was something very real about him. I think it was because he was a very honest man and it’s only through honesty, as I was to learn later, that you can project any kind of sincerity.
“If you want it back you can have it, we can make other arrangements,” my mother would say of Serendipity, at least twice during every meeting with Dr Rose.
“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would reply every time.
“Yes, but she loved that house,” my mother would counter. “You loved being there with her, surely being among all those memories would be a comfort.”
What a stupid thing of her to say, looking back, she hadn’t lost anybody close then, she’d lived thirty seven years seemingly untouched by real grief. She’d lost her mother, who she wasn’t very close to and numerous sets of grandparents and great grandparents. She seemed to put all the stock of her life into the men that surrounded her. Other women never interested my mother much, they were like a conquered country to her, nothing much to see.
“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would repeat, “there is no telling when these things are going to happen the bricks and mortar of house couldn’t have stopped it, nor the power of prayer, or any of that hokum.”
I often wondered how Dr. Rose could claim to be so much in love with a person who’s faith and appraisal of life he so doubted, but that night I realised, when he called round and I was sat at the top of the stairs, you have to let some things go for the sake of the greater whole. Just like for some people the summer of 1949 is an agonising memory and for others it’s only alligators.