PHILADELPHIA — Anselm Kiefer’s first exposure to the art of Auguste Rodin was the monograph on the artist written by Rainer Maria Rilke, published in 1903, which he read when he was a teenager. This is the opening paragraph:
Rodin was solitary before fame came to him, and afterward he became perhaps still more solitary. For fame is ultimately the summary of all misunderstandings that crystallize around a new name.
Fame is something that Kiefer can’t evade, despite his relative absence from the celebrity-scape of his biennial-trotting peers. He makes few public statements and, before the advent of the Internet, it took some doing to find out even what he looks like. Still, his work, whether it’s in the form of a painting, sculpture, watercolor, or book, is unmistakable, and its influence on the past three decades of art-making, especially in the US, runs deep.
But in Kiefer Rodin, the brash new show at the Barnes Foundation, his worldwide fame becomes a deliberate contextual and even formal device, drawing an equivalence, perhaps scandalously, between himself and the grand old man of French sculpture. But his intent in doing so, at least as it appears to me, is to correct some of the misunderstandings that have crystalized around the name Rodin, clearing out the fustiness that has accrued around his oeuvre’s warhorses and accentuating the contemporaneity of his creative process.
For one, the selection of Rodin’s work, which fills the first of the exhibition’s four modest-sized rooms (modest, that is, if you’re thinking of Kiefer’s typically Gagosian proportions), lacks a single bronze or marble; rather it is composed of plaster casts, drawings, and watercolors, along with bound travel journals, a sketched-over photograph (taken in 1900 by Eugéne Druet) of the sculptor’s “Girl Kissed by a Phantom,” and a 1914 edition of Rodin’s book, Les Cathédrales de France (The Cathedrals of France), which is ostensibly the premise of the show.
In other words, the Rodin found here is the not the French national symbol but the artist in his studio, a point driven home by numerous examples of his miniature plaster body fragments known as abattis — translated in the checklist as “spare parts” — consisting of variously sized arms, legs, hands, feet, and heads (on loan, as are all of the Rodins in the exhibition, from the Musée Rodin, Paris), which he would combine, cast, break apart, and recombine into new figures. Sometimes, the only difference between two casts would be the angle of a single finger on a disembodied hand.
Kiefer Rodin arose out of two concurrent incidences. One was the decision, in 2013, by the Musée Rodin to republish Les Cathédrales de France on its centennial, with the intent of involving a contemporary artist in the project, as the museum’s director, Catherine Chevillot, explains in the exhibition catalogue. Around the same time, Kiefer made a request to visit the storerooms of Rodin’s former studio (now a museum) in Meudon, France, where the plaster casts and abattis are housed. Chevillot contacted Kiefer about the Cathédrales project, and in response he set out to create an entirely new body of work.
According to Chevillot, Kiefer “spent several days in the archive of Rodin’s drawings, read Cathedrals, and took trips in Rodin’s footsteps to see and photograph the buildings Rodin had drawn.”
Curiously, the journey he took in Rodin’s footsteps echoes a similar experience from the very outset of his career, when he was 18 and won the Prix Jean Walter from the Académie française. The prize was, in fact, a literary award — Kiefer at the time was undecided over whether he would pursue writing or art — and he used its cash award to fund a trip tracing Vincent van Gogh’s odyssey from Paris to Lyon to Arles. (The sculpture “Danae,” 2017, included in the exhibition, might be seen as an allusion to this episode: van Gogh’s motif of a sunflower shedding golden seeds on the lead pages of an open book.)
Kiefer’s view of Rodin contradicts the popular image cultivated by Rodin himself: the Michelangelesque carver of monuments, posing in photographs with his mallet and chisel in front of a formidable hunk of marble. “Rodin was an iconoclast,” the artist told me in an interview conducted in a corner of the exhibition’s fourth and final gallery, flanked by a large sculptural vitrine on the left and an even larger painting on the right. His designation of Rodin as an iconoclast was in reference to the abattis, in that “he cut off arms and legs and heads” of the plaster figurines, essentially destroying them in order to create something new. In this regard, he was “all about process.”
I was struck by the term “iconoclast,” given its origins in the movement propelled by the Byzantine Church, beginning in the mid-8th century CE, which condemned, and set out to destroy, all religious imagery as the legacy of pagan idolatry. Its contemporary usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to someone “who assails or attacks cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the ground that they are erroneous or pernicious.”
Rodin’s use of abattis was quietly revolutionary in its subversion of conventional assumptions about artistic vision — and the myth of the isolated genius — by harnessing the means of mechanical reproduction as an assist to the imagination. By framing this process as iconoclastic, Kiefer is underscoring the destruction of an existing image — and by extension, the existing order — in a Wagnerian cycle of annihilation, cleansing, and rebirth that plays directly into his own worldview (and particularly into the subject of one of the sculptures in the show, “Die Walküren” or “The Valkyries,” 2016).
Dozens of abattis-derived figures populate the surface of Rodin’s mammoth “Gates of Hell” (1880-1917), a project that was left unfinished when the artist died 100 years ago to the day Kiefer Rodin opened to the public, November 17th. It then languished as a plaster prototype until 1925, when the first bronze cast was commissioned by the Philadelphia movie theater mogul Jules Mastbaum, who placed it at the entrance of the Rodin Museum, the neoclassical temple on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, about a block away from the Barnes, that he gave to the city as a gift.
Despite the exhibition’s inspiration in The Cathedrals of France, the subtext of iconoclasm and process is most manifest in “The Gates of Hell.” This is not to say that the exhibition’s organizers — credited on the press release as “Sylvie Patry, consulting curator at the Barnes Foundation and deputy director for curatorial affairs and collections at the Musée d’Orsay, and a team of curators at the Musée Rodin: Catherine Chevillot, director, and Véronique Mattiussi, in charge of the Rodin archives, with the collaboration of Sophie Biass-Fabiani and Hélène Marraud” — didn’t seek out every opportunity to explore the theme.
Along with a copy of the book, there are architectural studies of cathedrals in Rodin’s travel journals and on drawing sheets, a plaster section of the tympanum from “The Gates of Hell,” and a sculpture of a scaled-up pair of inwardly turning right hands titled “La Cathèdral” (1908). The sketches Rodin made on the photograph by Eugéne Druet of “Girl Kissed by a Phantom” could be of columns, pilasters, or pedestals.
In her contribution to the exhibition catalogue, Sylvie Patry cites an eyewitness account of Rodin’s response to one of the cathedrals he encountered on his journeys, as documented in the book Rodin (2014) by Raphael Massön and Véonique Mattiussi: “[Rodin] for an hour threw himself into strange tirades, comparing the Gothic cathedral with a woman’s body and invoking the most sensual images possible.” These impressions are made physical by the raw sexuality — comparable to contemporaneous works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt — teeming through the selection of Rodin’s drawings and watercolors, as well as his splay-legged sculpture, “Iris, Messenger of the Gods” (1891-93).
The look, feel, and eroticism of Rodin’s drawings are reprised in a series of images done in watercolor and pencil on plaster-coated cardboard that Kiefer bound into books, a dozen of which are presented in vitrines lining a corridor-like gallery, with the words “les cathédrales de France” written across the wall in Kiefer’s elegant script. (The face of one of the nudes in the series bears a distinct resemblance to Rodin’s well-known portraits of the Kabuki actress Ohta Hisa, who went by the name Hanako.)
To reach this gallery, you must exit the first room, exclusively devoted to Rodin, and pass through another that holds a single work, “A.R. A.K.” (2017).
This enormous painting, 158 5/8 inches tall by 43 3/8 inches wide and 14 1/2 inches deep, done in oil, acrylic, emulsion, clay, metal, plaster, lead, and zinc on canvas, is a real showstopper that will no doubt be as infuriating to some as it is riveting to others (or, perhaps more likely, a combination of both for all).
It is among the most materially engaging and formally transcendent works I’ve seen by Kiefer in a long while, filled with buoyant, almost Impressionist color that’s a far cry from the ash, carbon, and rust comprising the other paintings in the show, and anchored by two vertical metal double helixes, climbing like beanstalks from a few inches below the canvas to the very top.
The painting is composed of three parts. The largest is a landscape of a pond or lake, its foreground flush with reeds along the bottom of the canvas, while on the far shore, a misty forest rises above the calm, mirror-like water. The upper two-thirds of the painting consists of a sepulcher-white sky, from which slabs, slashes, and scrapings of paint rain down across the heavily impastoed, deeply scarified surface.
The double helixes intrude upon the landscape like stairways from another dimension — bracing, alienating, and uncannily apropos — with blacksmith pincers, the tools of the trade, clamped at intervals along the metal spirals. Directly above the helixes, the artist has capped the top of the canvas with two metal slabs, with the one on the left bearing the initials “A.K.,” and “A.R.” on the one to the right.
The double helixes are obviously meant to represent strands of DNA, which, combined with the metal slabs or plaques, unequivocally link Kiefer’s practice to Rodin’s — an unabashed display of ego that will undoubtedly rub a lot of people the wrong way. However, the double helix also appears in the sculpture “Sursum corda” (2017), where it is planted beside a dead tree in three feet of earth and reaches all the way to the top of its vitrine.
Beneath the mound of dirt, a stratum of abattis — new casts of Rodin’s plaster fragments that Kiefer had requested specifically for this show — lie like bones in a shallow grave or the remains of ancient Pompeiians sleeping under volcanic ash. While the helix is clearly intended to be channeling Rodin’s DNA, there is no recipient, as if the sculptor’s process-based methods, coupled with his understanding of art as an ongoing dialogue between life and its metaphors, had been released into the world for the benefit of anyone who wishes to adopt them.
The sculpture’s Latin title, “Sursum corda,” commonly translated as “Lift up your hearts,” is the priest’s invocation in the Preface to the Eucharist in the Catholic Mass. The same phrase, in Greek, is used in the Byzantine rite. Even before I had the opportunity to research the title of this work, I sensed something biblical about the helixes, which I initially interpreted as references to Jacob’s Ladder — the biblical dream image connecting earth to heaven — moments before I realized that they were strands of DNA (and before I read Sophie Biass-Fabiani’s catalogue essay, “Destroy, He Said. And He Built,” in which she cites Jacob’s Ladder as an allusion in Kiefer’s densely packed photomontage “Sefer Hechaloth. Die Sieben Himmelspaläste,” or “Sefer Hechaloth. The Seven Heavenly Palaces,” 2008).
Given the literary and mythic mode of Kiefer’s images, which enables them to encompass multiple meanings, I asked him if the double helix could also be seen as Jacob’s Ladder, and he responded, “Absolutely.” Folding together biblical and dream imagery, personal history (Kiefer’s Roman Catholic upbringing and his formative experience with the art of Rodin), the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the heretical/orthodox (depending on which side you’re on) concept of iconoclasm, it is not unreasonable, I believe, to look at Kiefer’s discourse with Rodin as a form of communion in which he is one priest among many.
It is interesting to note that in “A.R. A.K.,” the canvas mentioned above, the initials “A.R.” appear not only on the metal plaque atop the DNA strand, but also incised into the surface of the paint; there is no second occurrence, however, of “A.K.”
According to a joint catalogue entry by Chevillot and Patry, “Kiefer always insisted on his desire to make the exhibition ‘a way of taking the measure of himself.’” Perhaps this painting is a demonstration of that, a feeling-out of his own limitations and boundaries, as well as a riff on the vicissitudes of fame.
Kiefer takes this measure in ways that veer closely to Rodin — the revisiting of Les Cathédrales in plaster-covered books; the fresh versions of the abattis in “Sursum corda” and “Berthe au grand pied” (“Berthe Broadfoot,” 2016), the latter featuring a newly cast hand hanging from a wire; and the three large paintings in oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and lead, all titled “Auguste Rodin: les Cathédrales de France” (2016), that depict the towers the artist built on his 200-acre studio complex near the southern French town of Barjac.
And he takes it in works that hew to prior motifs, such as “Danae” and “Die Walküren,” which consists of plaster-encrusted articles of clothing draped on hangers, and is perhaps, with its overtones of the Holocaust, the most emotionally affecting sculpture in the show.
There are also two assemblages, “Dimanche des Rameaux” (“Palm Sunday”) and “Palmöl” (“Palm Oil,” both 2016), incorporating ghost-white palm fronds alluding to the Passion of Christ — the central Christian narrative of the destruction of the body and the release of the divine — and two that seem surprisingly topical, except that they were done last year, “Niederschlag” (“Fallout”) and “Emanation,” both of which feature an ominous cloud of molten lead. Many of these sculptures include antique plaster casts or shards of shattered plaster, bumping up yet again the theme of process.
At one point in our conversation, Kiefer gestured to the vitrine beside him, suggesting that after the show he might empty it of the sculpture it held and put something else in its place (he was evidently speaking in the abstract, since all of the works on display are labeled “Private Collection”). With that simple statement, he rendered moot the question of when a work of art is finished. Every piece that’s put on display or offered for sale is exactly that, a piece of a whole, which is carried forward in currents and eddies until the artist is no longer on hand to navigate it.
Kiefer Rodin continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through March 12, 2018.