“I think in images. Poems help with that. They are buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next; without them, I am lost.” Thus German artist Anselm Kiefer began his speech in 2008, accepting the Peace Prize awarded annually during the Frankfurt Book Fair. Anselm Kiefer is the first fine artist to be awarded this prestigious prize by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.
The association’s official statement points out that Kiefer’s use of words and quotes from poems have been part of the reason why they awarded the prestigious prize to him. “Kiefer also made the book itself – the book as a form – into a decisive vehicle of expression. His monumental leaden works appear as shields against a defeatism that dares to deny a future to books and reading.”
The exhibit “Anselm Kiefer aus der Sammlung Eva und Dr. Carl Großhaus” is on view at the gallery Kreuzstall of Gottorf Castle through April 13. The exhibit of 19 art works offers an intimate view of Kiefer’s vocabulary of the past years and two of the works on view provide the raison d’etre for awarding Kiefer this year’s Peace Prize. At the center of the exhibit is a monumental book made of lead, its 18 pages opened in a star-like circular shape, paying homage to Robert Fludd, the 17th century British scholar. The heavy pages of for Robert Fludd – the secret life of plants (2001) show Kiefer’s interpretation of Fludd’s thesis that each plant on earth has an equivalent in starry heavens, thus showing the unity of microcosm and macrocosm. The sculpture Pour St. Perse: Etroits sont les vaisseau (2007) is a pile of 13 leaden books, the top one kept open by a bookmark in the shape of a boat cast in lead.
View of galleries at Schloss Gottorf - Anselm Kiefer: pour St. John Perse: Etroits sont les vaisseaux, 2007
By comparison the mixed media paintings lining the wall on the right side of this beautiful exhibition space seem light, mediumistic, even vulnerable.
Hortus philosophorum (2007) depicts 13 long-stemmed, leaf-less red roses. Numbered consecutively, the frail dried flowers have been partially glued onto the surface, leaving subtle shadows adding to the sculptural effect of the painting. The complex physiciality of Kiefer’s work is stunning. Besides traditional artist’s materials, Kiefer uses earth, straw, dried flowers, sand, ash, broken glass, lead and even blood if needed. Black and white photographs frequently serve as a painting’s source or background. The torrid surfaces of his art works are often parched with the heat of sunlight blazing over his massive studio area, La Ribaute, a former silk factory in Barjac in the south of France.
Unquestionably Kiefer is, next to Gerhard Richter, the most important German artist. In the beginning his art referred mostly to German history and Nordic mythology, in an attempt to come to terms with German history. By now it has developed into an investigation of myth, alchemy, religion and history per se. When Kiefer moved to France in 1993, his interest broadened and embraced French history as well. On view are two paintings from 2001 Les reines de France and Marie-Antoinette, both from a series of works devoted to French female royalty. The latter is a delicate burnt sienna colored mixed-media painting, 119 x 100 cm, small for Kiefer. In the center there is a petite dress on a hanger, sewn from grayish fabric and splattered with paint and dirt, levitating over a field of poppies. It’s proportionally too long ribbons are dangling down in a hook-like shape.
Seeing a show of Kiefer’s work in 2007 at White Cube in London, Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University wrote in The Guardian: “This is as good, I think, as art ever gets: mystery and matter delivered in a rush of poetic illumination. That Kiefer‘s work happens to engage with almost everything that weighs upon us in our tortured age - the fate of the earth, the closeness of calamity, the desperate possibility of regeneration amid the charred and blasted ruins - and that it does so without the hobnailed tread of pedestrian polemics, is just one of the many marvels for which we have to thank, yet again, this most indefatigable of modern magic.”
Schloss Gottorf is only an hour’s drive from Hamburg and surrounded by a generously laid-out sculpture garden. The beautifully restored mansion also houses the Schleswig-Holstein Art and Cultural History Museum and the Schleswig-Holstein Archeological Museum; the Baroque Garden and the replica of the famous Gottorfer Globus are in walking distance.
For general information and opening times see: www.schloss-gottorf.de
originally published in Currents Dec 2008/Jan 2009