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Anselm Kiefer, monuments man

London gets its first retrospective of an artist who has tackled German history head on

Simon Willis | September/October 2014

As a boy in the bombed-out Black Forest town of Donaueschingen, Anselm Kiefer played in the rubble, piling the pieces into little structures. In many ways, he’s never really stopped. Born two months before Germany surrendered the second world war, he has spent his career making art out of wreckage. He is known for vast and ravishing landscapes of scorched earth with caked surfaces of paint, sand, straw and metal, some showing train tracks heading to the horizon; for huge books made of lead, which look as if they’ve been through the fire; for rich and gloomy images of Albert Speer’s Nazi architecture; and for ashen paintings with ships and planes and children’s clothes hanging from them. He announced himself in the late Sixties and early Seventies with a series of controversial photographs and paintings, some made for his degree show in Karlsruhe depicting himself wearing his father’s army uniform and doing a Nazi salute in towns and cities across Europe. It is hard to think of another artist who has stared the past so squarely in the face, or asked so insistently what the war’s legacy meant for Germany. Kiefer, said the critic Robert Hughes, “has had the courage, perhaps even the looniness, to tackle it head on”.

Which makes it surprising that the Royal Academy’s autumn exhibition is the first Kiefer retrospective in Britain. It will take us from those early painted self-portraits to new work made especially for the RA, including additions to his series about the Morgenthau plan (a proposal to strip post-war Germany of its industry and turn it into an agricultural economy) showing flowers blooming from blasted landscapes, a rejuvenation heavy with irony. But as well as the monumental Kiefer—museums have been known to have their walls reinforced to carry his work—the exhibition will give us his darkly delicate side. “Winter Landscape” (1970) will be one of several watercolours on show. Based on a photograph Kiefer took of a German field and showing a severed head above the snow, it drips with the symbolism of Blut und Boden—blood and soil—at the heart of Nazism. There will also be a new series of watercolours about female saints painted on plaster.

The biggest problem is what to leave out. Some of his paintings, among them his pictures of Tempelhof airport, are too big for the RA’s galleries, others too fragile to be lent. Then there’s the breadth and density of his themes, which include the Bible, Jewish mysticism, alchemy and German myth and literature. “We have 22,000 square feet here,” the curator Kathleen Soriano says, “and I can barely tell the story.” ~ SIMON WILLIS

Anselm Kiefer Royal Academy of Arts, London, Sept 27th to Dec 14th

EXHIBITIONS AT A GLANCE

Sonia Delaunay (MAM, Paris, Oct 17th to Feb 22nd). Delaunay painted with rhythm. Her incongruous shapes and off-key hues sing like a lyric. Prints, textiles, wall hangings and more form a whopping retrospective that reaches the Tate next year.

Mark Rothko (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, to March 1st). Rothko’s warm reds, misty yellows and melancholy blues are charged with an emotional intensity that smacks you between the eyes—in a good way. 

Medieval Morocco: An Empire from Africa to Spain 1053-1465 (Louvre, Paris, Oct 17th to Jan 19th). From a cultural melting pot, brimming with life and love, here are hundreds of stunning artefacts. Take your sketchbook.

Face to Face: British Portraits from the Clifford Chance Art Collection (Sir John Soane Museum, London, Oct 10th to Jan 24th). Rare chance to see prints, etchings and lithographs by Hogarth, Hockney and Patrick Caulfield.

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Sept 27th to Jan 11th). In 1890, a group of neo-impressionists changed direction. Their work become more stylised; they experimented with light and colour, creating dream-like landscapes from tiny blobs of paint. This show traces the shift. 

Goya: Order and Disorder (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Oct 12th to Jan 19th). Goya painted “Witches’ Sabbath” in 1797. A gang of disfigured witches surround a zombie-like goat. The sky is menacing, the light mixed, the colours murky, but the painting exudes compassion. From such a keen observer of the human condition, this should be a meaty exhibition with a psychological flavour.

Martu Art from the Far Western Desert (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, to Nov 30th). A bohemian collection of collaborative paintings by a group of artists coming together to paint, sing and hand down the Martu mantra.

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude (Courtauld, London, Oct 23rd to Jan 18th). Daring, in your face, gritty: a room full of nudes that will make your eyes pop.

Ludwig Goes Pop (Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Oct 2nd to Jan 11th). Improbably, the Ludwig has an astounding collection of Pop Art—one of the biggest outside America. A sweeping show with familiar faces, plus the odd surprise.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (MoMA, New York, Oct 12th to Feb 8th). Second and final chance to see a slick show full of colour, clarity and candour. “Blue Nude I”, 1952 is even better close up. 

Olafur Eliasson: Turner Colour Experiments (Tate Britain, London, to Jan 25th). OE meets JMWT: a match made in heaven.

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (British Museum, London, to Jan 5th). Autumn blockbuster exploring the golden age of the Ming dynasty, 1400-50, a powerfully creative period when the Forbidden City was built. ~ OLIVIA WEINBERG

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