Germany – Memories of a Nation: a 600-year history in objects (British Museum)

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

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?

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

 

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.

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

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.

Anselm Kiefer – A View from a critical distance?

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 11   /  Cat.  Anselm Kiefer Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970 Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 11 / Cat. Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970
Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5)
Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

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.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 28  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970 Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 28 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970
Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm
Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

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.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 40  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Interior (Innenraum), 1981 Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 40 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981
Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm
Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

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.

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance (National Gallery)

StrangeBeautyIn the nineteenth century, the National Gallery’s Keeper, Charles Eastlake, refused a Cranach for the nation, stating that ‘it does not please me’. Indeed, for much of this period, as Strange Beauty shows, insofar as German art was studied in England it was used as a kind of art historical phrenology for the German national character. Only three major collectors had anything approaching serious German collections: Carl Krüger, George Salting and Prince Albert. These would, as we learn, go on to form the nucleus of the National Gallery’s German holdings.

Strange Beauty therefore partially explores the strange story of the National Gallery’s acquisitions policy. It’s one of their annual collections-based exhibitions and, in this context, the critical re-evaluation of its own history is a much-needed reminder that each item in the collection has a provenance, and a story, all of its own.

Rooms 2 and 3 are densely and beautifully hung, conveying something of the treasure trove quality of the original private collections of German art. Displayed alongside the oil paintings familiar to the National Gallery are miniatures, medallions and works on paper, a visual treat that evokes an exciting sense of discovery in the visitor and importantly, introduces media otherwise not seen in the permanent collections.

But, when you get to Rooms 4 and 5, and the display of Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Christina of Denmark and Cranach’s Venus and Cupid, this all falls away. Rather than pursuing apparently fruitful comparisons with nineteenth-century artists such as Ford Madox Brown, who (its label tells us) considered Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Man (bought 1854) to be so detailed it was ‘mapped, rather than painted’, it asks largely pointless questions such as ‘Should art be beautiful?’ Two German visitors next to me seemed quite confused by this. ‘It’s only the English who don’t like Cranach,’ one said to the other.

Though, as works of art, these paintings can stand on their own, the failure of the framing narrative at Room 4, coupled with the shortage of major loans makes it look a lot like the (free) permanent collection’s own Room 4, currently being decanted for the upcoming Veronese show.

A short introduction explaining the concept behind collections-based exhibitions, detailed study and re-evaluation of the permanent collection, might have been all that was needed. The whole final room is given over to inviting audience participation, a gimmick which is not quite successful enough to hide our suspicions that they simply ran out of paintings. When I saw the show there was a merry little visitor game beginning, with the hashtag #connedoutof7quid. Cynical, perhaps, and, I thought, broadly unjustified, but the exhibition certainly did seem to peter out. That’s something a show that ends with The Ambassadors should never do.

Kirsten Tambling is an MA student at the Courtauld

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance is at the National Gallery until 11th May 2014.