LONDON — Anselm Kiefer’s retrospective comes at an odd cultural moment. Pop artist Nicki Minaj recently came out with a music video so steeped in offensive Nazi imagery that the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism, was compelled to make a statement. A Middle Eastern collector beat out multiple interested parties to purchase a painting by Adolf Hitler for an unprecedented $161,000; demand for Hitler’s other works is predicted to increase. And after being briefly banned from the festival for something between a bad joke and an expression of Nazi sympathies, director Lars von Trier is no longer a persona non grata at Cannes Film Festival. Are the images and symbols of Nazism, after decades of embargo, making some sort of cultural comeback? Could they even be … in vogue? The notion is stomach churning.
Amid this problematic milieu comes the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is a case study in epic, from the sheer number, size, and visual depth of the works on display to the breadth and weight of the topics with which this contemporary German painter grapples. We encounter a collection of illustrated books in which delicate cathedrals emerge from between the thighs of women; a horizontal swathe resembling a sandstorm that has been sprinkled with real diamond dust; a rusty bear trap embedded in canvas, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Courbet’s scandalizing “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World). Every carefully selected allusion is multilayered in a jaw-dropping tapestry of alchemy, poetry, history, mythology, theology, and philosophy. But in the thick intellectual web produced by the works on display, it’s Kiefer’s handling of Germany’s cultural memory of the Third Reich that is the most compelling strand.
The appropriation of blatant Nazi imagery is an artistic tactic Kiefer seems to have moved away from as of late. Throughout his career, though, the artist has reenacted the Nazi salute — banned in his native Germany since 1945 — in photographs throughout Europe, recreated the buildings of Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in thick lashes of paint, and suffused his canvases with the cultural language wielded by Nazi propaganda: the forests, the ruins, the Wagnerian heroes. Unlike Minaj, however, Kiefer exercises these taboo images carefully, to wide-ranging effects.
Sometimes, as with his salutatory self-portraits, Kiefer plays the role of the provocative conceptual artist, mocking the representational prohibitions that give force to the tight-lipped fantasy of a national tabula rasa. Other times you can feel him genuinely mourning as he grapples with a cultural inheritance of shame, guilt, grief, and layers upon layers of loss: a sentiment so prevalent in postwar Germany that they developed a word for it, Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The exhibition’s most moving works in memoriam are a pair of paintings, “Margarethe” (1981) and “Sulamith” (1983). They reference a haunting poem reprinted on the gallery wall, “Death Fugue,” by concentration camp survivor Paul Celan. Each painting is scrawled with the name of its corresponding character from the poem: the ashen-haired Jewish girl Sulamith and the golden-haired German girl Margarethe. In “Margarethe,” the flaxen straw that stands in for the girl’s hair is matted on the canvas, a failed pastoralism caked with grey, black, and white paint. Depicting Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 design for a funeral hall honoring German soldiers, “Sulamith” scrapes at Third Reich monumentality to reveal what lies beneath: an ash-blackened vault reminiscent of an oven. With a little pyre, menorah-like, where a tomb would be, the vault is a memorial to Sulamith, to all of the Sulamiths.
Kiefer’s work asks the big, impossible, questions: How can Germany remember and represent the Holocaust? What is a German artist to do with the deluge of images and cultural reference points that were appropriated and exploited for such an unforgivable end? Kiefer’s work isn’t riding the wave of fascism’s fetishization (though it likely has and will reap the financial rewards of such a wave). Its earnest intentions are to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust stay fresh in our collective memory; to try to understand how the Nazis leveraged culture for killing; to parse through the artist’s role in the process of memory and memorialization.
In “Ages of the World,” an installation piece that Kiefer made especially for this retrospective, a mass of stacked canvases pricked with leaden sunflowers creates a pylon-cum-pyre that attempts to capture not only decades of his artistic work but also a geological timeline of the world. The piece is an apt metaphor for the retrospective: the show at times seems to collapse under its own weight as it unapologetically — boldly, bravely, a bit foolishly — aims for the epic. Yes, it’s hubris. But if there’s anyone I trust to do hubris right, with intelligence and care, it’s Anselm Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through 14 December.