From the Forest to the Sea brilliantly turns the disadvantages of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s small exhibition space into an opportunity: the gallery’s long vista — a corridor rather than an enfilade of rooms — and its changing wall colours firmly encourage visitors’ progress from green to blue, from dark to light, from the forest to the sea. To Canadian artist Emily Carr, movement was life. As she wrote in her diary: ‘I think trees love to toss and sway; they make such happy noises.’ Such organic, undulating movement animates both her paintings and this exhibition, which eschews chronology to weave a looping narrative.
The exhibition opens with paintings of trees dated to the 1930s, near the end of Carr’s life. Dynamic but earnest, the forest is used to present the landscape of British Columbia, rather than to introduce the artist herself. Yet if the paintings are clearly spontaneous, they are not artless: echoes of Kandinsky, Orphism and Cubism reveal Carr’s European training. Next to the forest paintings, a display case with North-western aboriginal artefacts sets the scene further; documenting the artistic legacy of Canada’s natives became Carr’s avowed mission in 1907 when she discovered their totem-poles and sculpture during an holiday in Alaska.
The illustrated diary she kept on this trip has recently uncovered in a collector’s basement and is exhibited for the first time. It is open to the pages of the artist’s first encounter with a totem pole: behatted but overwhelmed, Emily and her sister gape at the reliefs helpfully described by their chaperone. The focus in on aboriginal art, yet the scene is one of refined European gentility. Here, as in most of Carr’s works, aboriginal people are absent. Artworks alone are memorialised and pre-emptively ‘musealised’, if with deep-felt longing for what she described as a ‘broader,’ ‘piercing’ art.
The disappearance of people is a problem for the exhibition itself: comparing the painting Blunden Harbour with the ethnographic photograph on which it is based, a wall-panel concludes: ‘…she transformed it [the photograph] in curious ways…’. If cautious in revealing Carr’s blind spots, the exhibition’s texts are nuanced in their presentation of aboriginal objects: as the exhibition’s curators were advised by the Haida chief and master carver James Hart, the inferences of Western anthropology are sometimes contradicted by native interpretations.
Carr is best known for her depictions of aboriginal art, but this was not the only focus of her long career. Indeed, the exhibition opens and closes with images of nature, often sketched close to the painter’s home. As the room ‘Knowledge and Experimentation’ reveals, Carr continuously re-interpreted this familiar nature in the light of her changing personal and stylistic interests. Nothing expresses this more clearly than the exhibition’s final juxtaposition of Beacon Hill Park (1909) with Broom Beacon Hill (1937). The artist said it herself: ‘Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places…. Colours that you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly.’
Costanza Beltrami is an MA student at the Courtauld.
From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 March 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Aboriginal art, Canada, Monograph, painting | Comments Off
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)
It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.
However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.
The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.
Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.
Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.
Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: art and politics, British Museum, Buddhist art, contemporary | Comments Off
BY LEVI PROMBAUM
In the second installment of the autumn 2014 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Professor Sarah Wilson considered Centre Pompidou’s re-staging of its seminal exhibition Magiciens De La Terre on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Wilson began the lecture by proposing that both artworks and exhibitions could change one’s understanding of time. Outside the entrance to the original Magiciens show, Neil Dawson’s steel sculptural installation Globe (1989) depicted an earth with its own pulse and tremendous fragility. It underlined some of the concerns about time and space that energised dialogues between post-structuralist theory and global visual practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson’s lecture situated Magiciens, a show that brazenly sought to challenge Eurocentric values with a survey of contemporary art practice and intercultural exchange on a global scale, within a wider moment that reconceived ideas of virtuality, globalism and memory.
Wilson first placed Magiciens in a series of efforts leading up to 1989 that explored the variety of artistic exchanges in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century, including the Pompidou’s 1981 ‘Paris-Paris’ and Centre de la Vieille Charite’s 1986 exhibition La Planète affolée. These exhibitions, reflected other efforts to reimagine roles for history and the objects that express it. In this regard, one seminal exhibition was Jean Lyotard’s 1985 Les Immatériaux, a companion to his theoretical articulations of postmodernity that favored interactions between sound and technology, the charged exhibition space and its curatorial documents, rather than experiences of discrete objects. Wilson reread some of the objects in Magiciens relationally rather than discretely, celebrating lesser known works by artists including Clido Mereles, Huang Yong Ping and Ilya Kabakov. With this remembering in mind she discussed the organization of Jacques Derrida’s lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ (later renamed Archive Fever) at the Freud Museum in 1994.
Using Derrida’s idea that archives are both violent and tender, Wilson turned to the problems and successes of reconstruction of Archive Fever, Les Immateriaux and Magiciens. While the symposium ’20 Years of Archive Fever’ brought back many original participants with new webs of recollections as well as homages to Derrida and his legacies, the Les Immatériaux reconstruction at Kunstverein Düsseldorf offered clarity at the expense of the original show’s energy. To describe Magicien’s restaging, Wilson used painting metaphors. Towards anamorphosis, the show featured disorientations in scale as well as different emphases and juxtapositions. Towards vanitas, Magiciens offered poignant reminiscences of the art world of 1989 as well as an opportunity to affirm its values to a new set of viewers.
While leaving the lecture, audience members were given a poem by Miklós Erdély called ‘Time Mobius’, that spoke about processes of construction and reconstruction at the heart of learning. The last lines declare, ‘Beware of yourself/ That Readying is Ready Already’. By returning to the original circumstances of these exhibitions, and treating exhibitions and artworks as memory devices that activate multiple histories, Wilson’s lecture showed how these self-critical endeavors have been ‘ready already’ for future generations of viewers and readers.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: contemporary art, France, Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series | Comments Off
Entering the dimly lit exhibition space for “Germany – Memories of a Nation” feels exciting, as does being greeted by a video installation of the fall of the Berlin Wall, people on the street celebrating, driving in old trabants and waving blissfully at the camera. Germany is united again! Yet, celebrations are accompanied by a somewhat gloomy quote from Georg Baselitz, whose Eagle unpretentiously finds its space in the corner: “What I could never escape was Germany, and being German.” What is one to expect?
The somewhat confusing messages at the entrance are soon replaced by a celebratory mood with the following displays. Muted green and blue walls accentuating the old nation’s wealth with paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and softly lit vitrines inhabited by ancient maps, precious coins, beakers and tankards all allude to the great history of the Holy Roman Empire and the many cities it contained. They used to be German – but are no longer. It is only through the objects themselves that the complexity of “German” identity is implied, one that does not necessarily correspond with either historical or contemporary national boundaries.
The objects on display are often rather splendid choices, and really do show the best of German culture: a Gutenberg Bible, Dürer’s magnificent prints, Bauhaus designs and post-war works by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. It is obvious from the display and its presentation that this is a celebration of a culture looking to reinvent itself, perfectly executed after Erich Hobsbawm’s “Invention of Tradition.” Encapsulated in this aim seems to be a need to emphasise that Germany is more than what happened between 1938 and 1945, or even between 1914 and 1989. The miniscule part of the exhibition that deals with the First and Second World War and the country’s East-West division seems unnecessarily cut short, although the replica of the entrance gate to Buchenau is well placed in a harshly lit corner, evoking the bleak horrors of the concentration camps.
In light of the fact that more recent history tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds, the exhibition tackles the last 70 years of Germany’s history like it was just a little glimpse in its greatness. And while this may have been done purposefully so to show “what else there is,” it seems ignorant at the worst, or as a diminishment of what happened at the best. In reference to the exhibition title, we are shown quite clearly what “Germany” wants to remember and, more strikingly, what it doesn’t. In a sense, this marks the exhibition as authentic- why remember all the horror if there is also a more glorious history to commemorate? But it also raises questions of historical responsibility, which remain unanswered here.
An exhibition spanning over 600 years inevitably requires abbreviation. But where to abbreviate in this context is crucial, and I am unsure whether the resulting overview of objects does “the German powerhouse” justice.
Julia Secklehner is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute working on national identities in caricature in interwar Central Europe.
“Germany – Memories of a Nation” is at the British Museum until 25 January 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Anselm Kiefer, British Museum, Durer, Germany, National style, Nazism, Objects | Comments Off
BY WILL ATKIN
A quiz in the April 1952 issue of Ebony Magazine faced its readers with a grid of black and white photographic portraits of sixteen American faces. The title of the page almost excitedly posed the affronting question ‘Which is Negro? Which is White?’, as the editors relished in the problem of reading race into these unnamed people. Through the portraits’ contrasting backgrounds – jumping between light and shadow – the image has echoes of the regimented black/white segmentation of a chessboard, yet the neutral faces of the portrait sitters flatten any such distinct black/white pattern within the grid. The portraits sit as so many grey areas within the whole. In this levelling effect, the image stages the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as it existed in the 1950s; whereby African Americans with paler skin tones sought to ‘pass’ for white, and subsequently ‘pass’ through the checks of a racially prejudiced White American society, and live comfortably like an ordinary (white) American.
Levi Prombaum’s paper fleshed out this scenario of passing through a dramatic narration of scenes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film, Imitation of Life, which he delivered over several stills to suitably cinematic effect. The film follows the story of Annie Johnson, an African American, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah-Jane. Over the course of the film, Sarah-Jane becomes fixated on the opportunities of social mobility offered in the white middle class world that her and her mother have come into contact with, which eventually leads her to renouncing her black heritage (and yet more tragically, her mother) and adopting all the necessary signifiers of whiteness to ‘pass’ into the society that she craved. At the point at which this kind of ‘passing story’ faded from American popular culture during the 1960s, Levi Prombaum’s research has uncovered a prominent legacy, or scar, of the social phenomenon in the work of certain American artists working at this time.
The main focus of the seminar was the work of Alex Katz, whose brooding self-portrait, Passing, presents a tantalising invitation to consider his investment in the passing narrative. Over a captivating visual sequence, the paper traced how Katz’s grounded, solid profile from his original self-portrait was subtly decentred through its careful replication in different colour ranges and media. The resulting range of slightly varying images was demonstrated to create a kind of field for passing, in which the images fluidly ‘pass’ for one another, for the original, and for Katz himself, whose identity (as the American-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants) ever eludes us behind the different washes of colour (paintwork which is itself symbolically thin and faintly see-through: bursting the bubble of skin-deep social determinism along racial lines). In these compelling terms, Katz’s paintings were considered as meditations upon superficiality and integrity, opacity and transparency: reverberating within the very frame of racial anxiety that dictated the passing narrative.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: 1950s, 1960s, Alex Katz, American art, popular culture, race | Comments Off
The idea that an exhibition of assorted paintings, photographs and objects can constitute a ‘portrait’ of someone is an interesting one. Bloomsbury biographer Frances Spalding’s exhibition on Virginia Woolf has added another chapter to the interdisciplinary history of Bloomsbury by confronting the usually only vaguely acknowledged influence of the visual arts on this heroine of literary Modernism. However, it can be complacent about historical stereotype and at times its principle of selection borders on sheer miscellany.
In the first room, a photograph of a ravaged Alfred Lord Tennyson by Woolf’s aunt Julia Margaret Cameron joins other portraits of nineteenth-century luminaries. These are delightful to see, but they are of dubious relation to the subject of the exhibition. Together with a rather sadly-skied allegory by G. F. Watts, contextualised as a friend of Woolf’s parents, they represent a black-and-white, whiskery ‘Victorian period’ out of which Bloomsbury (and ‘Modernism’) miraculously appeared.
Bloomsbury members certainly reacted against their Victorian parents’ ways of writing and painting, not least Roger Fry, who went from Berensonian aesthete to Cézanne fanatic. However, I would caution against falling for Bloomsbury’s own ploy to cover up its late-nineteenth-century origins to appear cutting edge. In the excellent accompanying book, Sandy Nairne singles out an interesting statement of Fry’s that compares Woolf’s Modernist language to the verbosity of Henry James, and historical comparisons like this might have been fun to see played out through the objects on show. We are also promised an insight into Woolf’s overlooked political life, though the inclusion of a distracting Picasso drawing commissioned for an event at which Woolf happened to sit on stage compromises the show’s credibility.
One highlight is an actual portrait of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, slumped in an orange armchair and Vuillard-like hard at work with needle and wool (c. 1912). It is a provocatively gendered piece: this is an aspiring author – the artist’s sister – not writing, but knitting. In the other paintings on show, Duncan Grant appears as inconsistent. His early portrait of James Strachey against a red screen (1910) is the first in a very successful trademark genre of portraits of people reading, though his memento mori Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf (c. 1960) is a decidedly dodgy exercise in paragone and defuses the emotional force of Woolf’s nearby suicide note. Particularly interesting photographs of Woolf from Vogue are nice reminders of Bloomsbury’s talent for self-publicity and its privilege.
This small show makes an interesting case for the significance of assorted visual material in understanding an author. But that anecdotal tendency is worrying because it risks presenting, as many have done before, Bloomsbury itself as something anecdotal. The exhibition clearly makes the point that Bloomsbury occupied a very well-connected place in artistic (not to say political) milieux in the first half of the twentieth century in Britain. But did we already know that? And was Bloomsbury something more?
Thomas Hughes is a PhD student at the Courtauld working on the language of art writing in the later nineteenth century.
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision was at the National Portrait Gallery from July 16 to October 26 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: British art, Duncan Grant, Literature, Modernism, painting, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf | Comments Off
Terror and Wonder, the latest exhibition to be presented by the British Library, is an overview of the Gothic genre from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, via Byron and the Blair Witch Project, Hammer and Hitchcock, and all the unimaginable tales and creatures in between.
Although the focus is largely literary, which is unsurprising in the context of the British Library, the exhibition is highly decorative in its presentation and a well-considered tribute to the genre. Dimly-lit and theatrically decorated rooms host an extensive range of objects, all framed with sound and projection elements, from the dictated diary entries of Lord Byron and Sir Brooke Boothby, to looming shadows and flashes of the awakening Frankenstein. The overall effect is fittingly phantasmagorical.
As an overview of the Gothic genre, in all its forms and fantastical expressions, there are occasional leaps in the curation of the exhibit that seem either under-explained or over-ambitious, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. Having perceived the intricacy with which Mary Shelley and Matthew Gregory Lewis weaved their Gothic narratives, the almost fanatical excitement of Walpole’s interiors at Strawberry Hill, or indeed the obsessive darkness of a look from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Dante’ collection, the flashy realism of Martin Parr’s photographs from the Whitby Goth Weekend served as a rather gauche conclusion to the exhibition. Perhaps this was the point. Though brilliantly composed, Parr’s photograph of a costumed Goth in mourning attire, sat with a seagull and a fish & chips next to a girl in a neon pink beanie hat, is a sad indictment of a genre that has given us some of our greatest works of literature and film.
The exhibition is strongest when it traces the over-arching themes and aesthetic elements of the genre across time periods, countries and authors. One of the pioneering aspects of Walpole’s Castle for Gothic literature is its mysterious origin story, for the author originally presented it as a ‘found’ manuscript, purportedly penned by an Italian in 1529 and rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. This is compared to the nameless narrator of Daphne de Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, and in the Lemony Snicket pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who includes faceless author photos and oblique dedications throughout his children’s book series.
It is these connections and comparisons that inspire the most wonder; mapping the development of a narrative style across hundreds of years, and observing the aesthetic elements as they morph and transform. Fear is a deeply perceptive barometer of a culture at any one time, and it is an emotion that seems to fuel much of our media discourse today. We frame our society in terms of what we fear most, and it is in this way that the Gothic genre plunges far beyond special effects, shock and gore, and intricate aesthetic details.
Enter if you dare.
William Ballantyne-Reid is a third-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in Gender and Queer theory, with a focus on Post-War and Contemporary American art.
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library until 20 January 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Books, British Library, Chapman Brothers, Gothic, Horror, Literature, Romanticism | Comments Off
Many an exhibition will market itself as “once in a lifetime”. The National Gallery’s Rembrandt blockbuster is no different, clearly marking out the rare accumulation of a vast amount of canonical works in one place. Exhibitions of this size take years to plan, fund and curate. Speaking to employees of the Gallery, it becomes clear that this was by no means an easy feat. The question on everyone’s lips: will it pay off?
It seems so. Aside from the excellent reviews the exhibition has received in the press, personal experiences have been equally positive. My fellow students are eager to part with their fiercely guarded student loans just to catch a glimpse of seminal works such as “The Syndics” or “The Jewish Bride”.
Focusing on his later years as an artist, the exhibition reflects a period of personal unrest. Rembrandt was beset with money worries, and as a citizen he had been hounded by the church for his common law marriage. Facing bankruptcy in 1656, he was forced to sell his spacious house and studio for more modest accommodation. One can only imagine the loss of pride for a man so concerned with self-representation in his paintings.
Yet despite this, Rembrandt was not ready to give up hope. The vast collection of work grouped together in the Sainsbury Wing assures us that Rembrandt’s creative energies could not be dulled by external factors. Organised thematically, the exhibition allows us to explore Rembrandt’s concerns during the last years of his career, spanning ideas like the representation of everyday life to more internal concerns such as intimacy and conflict.
In fact, it soon becomes clear that Rembrandt’s tender nature has not been blunted by hardship. His pen and ink drawing of A Young Woman Sleeping (c.1654), has been attributed as an affectionate rendering of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels, branded a whore by the Church due to her communion with Rembrandt, is here depicted softly in a position of complete innocence. This private insight into Rembrandt’s personal life suggests his ability to appreciate simple pleasures despite economic complications.
Rembrandt’s union with Stoffels has marked him in historical discourse as a man who didn’t always conform. He offers us further hint of this inner rebellion through his many self-portraits of the later period. In “Self Portrait with Two Circles” (c.1665-9), he asserts himself as a wizened elderly man, with a frontal gaze and a hand on his hip. Painted ten years after he declared bankruptcy, Rembrandt is declaring his continued status as an artist. Our eye is drawn to his painting materials, which, undemarcated from his body, are offered as part of his very being. Two circles frame his proud expression, once again reminding the contemporary viewer that money would not stop him from devoting his life to art.
And it is this devotion, arguably, that comes through strongest in the exhibition – not only the dedication of Rembrandt to his art, but also of the gallery to its public.
Evy Cauldwell-French is a second-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in 20th century interior design.
Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until January 18 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Architecture, Artist, Late works, Monograph, painting, portraits, Self-Portraiture, The Netherlands | Comments Off
John Constable is one of those artists who will stay forever loved among the English, but is unfortunately often relegated to obscurity abroad. When I visited the V&A for this major new exhibition of his painting, I was struck by not only how busy it was on a Tuesday morning, but it also appeared that the median age of attendees was about fifty. Comments about the painter’s appeal to the elderly aside, this exhibition demonstrates Constable’s genius through an unapologetic statement regarding his influences, both contemporaneous and historical, reaching beyond his oft-celebrated colleague Turner. Constable collected over 5,000 prints and numerous paintings during his life. His friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie recounted that, ‘Constable died as he lived, surrounded by art, for the walls of the little [bedroom] were covered with engravings’. If there is a singular importance to this exhibition, it is the ability to view Constable’s works alongside the art he immersed himself in.
The gallery space itself is much larger than I would have expected and unlike many modern exhibitions, flows nicely from room to room. Although I have done a fair amount of personal study on Constable before, I still felt the displays had taught me a wealth of knowledge. Additionally, Constable’s painterly process is outlined beautifully by the curators. There is a clear line of thought that is enumerated through the progression of sketches made en plein air, to larger studio sketches and finally to finished works, many of which he displayed at the Royal Academy then at Somerset House, the Courtauld’s current home. It brings together these earlier stages for many of Constable’s most loved works, such as The Hay Wain, and the grandiose scale of this exhibition allows the viewer to get up close and see each one individually.
I do, however, take some issue with the curators’ use of the term ‘impressionistic’, which is used once to describe Constable’s style. Although it demonstrates that the attitude the French Impressionists are often credited with inventing was actually begun almost a hundred years earlier, it does seem an often inappropriate comparison that belittles Constable’s own originality. However nit-picky that may seem, the overall composition, lay out and framing of this exhibition brings to light this great English painter’s thought process, and his insatiable work ethic.
Chelsey Randall-Wright is a MA History of Art student at the Courtauld working on Early Netherlandish Art.
Constable: The Making of a Master is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 20 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: British art, Constable, Influence, nineteenth-century art, painting | Comments Off
I need to begin with a declaration of interest. First, I am German. Second, I am currently writing a dissertation on another post-war artist. This could explain why I might be a bit more sensitive towards these topics than the average visitor of Anselm Kiefer’s large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, I think that I have reasons to my claim that this show is extremely problematic. Good things first: It comprises an enormous amount of work, provides a good insight into the development of Anselm Kiefer’s works from his early beginnings in the 1970s to his most recent works from 2014, and it makes perfect use of the difficult architectural gallery space. Despite all achievements, the exhibition dramatically fails in approaching Kiefer’s oeuvre from a critical distance.
Some obvious facts first: The earthen colours Kiefer favours, the monumentality of his works, the way in which they overwhelm the viewer, mythological references, the legitimation through German culture and a somehow distorted view on German Romanticism. All of these characteristics are features his works shares with Nazi aesthetics. Kiefer, of course, explains his aesthetic language with the attempt to work through his country’s history to understand the horrors of the Second World War into which he was born in 1945. But his visual language expresses a secret fascination for Germany, which strongly contradicts his verbal assurances. His Deutschtümelei – about which I can find no warning anywhere in the exhibition – is what makes me very suspicious.
For example: Plenty of heroic symbols, mentioning of German philosophers and poets, the Nibelungen, Wagner, of course, Parsifal and overall the Rhine, the Rhine, the Rhine. But what is critical engagement, what blind fascination for a fascinating culture? It is exactly this blindness towards the agency of his imagery, which disturbs me.
I could have forgiven Kiefer a lot, but not that his imagery follows his ‘cosmology’ which is described in the wall text as ‘an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction’. This is simply unbearable. It sounds as if the holocaust is nothing more than a tiny aspect within the big universe – a normal process within the continuous re-negotiation between the metaphysical and the physical. The uncritical reading of Kiefer’s understanding of ‘oven’ makes me want to take a pen and annotate this wall text with footnotes.
In his seminal lecture in 1959, Theodor Adorno emphasised the meaning of working through history. He points out that fascism in Germany is still alive if the idea of a ‘nation’ matters within a context that has lacked the critical distance of working through the past. My worry is that Kiefer’s aesthetics underlines the fascination for a German-ness rather than providing the environment being required for a critical engagement with the fact that this same fascination once contributed to the incomprehensible murder of more than eleven million people – an event so shockingly unique that it cannot be legitimised as a mere incident within Kiefer’s cosmology.
Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld, working towards the first English-language monograph on the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010). She explores Schlingensief’s late project of an Opera Village Africa as a participatory experiment, which manifests a diversity of themes resulting from Germany’s post-war struggles to come to terms with its highly problematic past.
Anselm Kiefer is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House from 27 September — 14 December 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Anselm Kiefer, contemporary, Germany, National style, painting | Comments Off