Monday, July 03, 2006

Visual Art After Oswiecim (Auschwitz): From A Scorched European Summer Solstice Springs An Ash Flower

"Of all the ambitious painters of the 1980s, Anselm Kiefer seemed destined to make the most lasting impression. Unlike Julian Schnabel, whose gargantuan paintings filled with broken plates reflect mostly on his own sense of originality, or Francesco Clemente, who obsessively painted his own head, Kiefer could claim a big subject: history. Not just any history but the troubled one of his native Germany, going as far back as Teutonic legends immortalized by Richard Wagner's opera cycle "The Ring" and as far forward as the Nazis, World War II and the Holocaust.

Not only does Kiefer, 61, pick big subjects, he has the chops to pull them off. Plainly better than Schnabel in his ability to harness crusty chunks of paint, he also gets sublime effects by contrasting his thick, rough surfaces with bands of relatively thin variegated pigment. In terms of surface refinement, Kiefer could be on the same team with Gerhard Richter, his German contemporary and arguably his No. 1 competitor for the title of world's best living painter.

"Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth," a show organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (through Sept. 10), puts the artist back in the spotlight and reminds us, if we need any reminding, that overweening ambition and spectacular visual effects in contemporary art are not solely the province of media and performance artists like Matthew Barney, Doug Gordon and Bill Viola....

But the show's real action is in the paintings and sculpture, where Kiefer's penchant for thinking big thoughts is matched by the size and materiality of the work. A painting like "The Milky Way," finished in 1987, furnishes a mind-boggling array of materials (emulsion, oil and acrylic paint, plus shellac, wires and lead) and of compositional conundrums. The landscape is another wintry farm field with burned stubble sticking through, but in the middle, just below a funnel-shaped sheet of lead, is a long white gash of paint on which Kiefer has written the painting's title. The work, which is more than 12 feet high and 18 feet wide, could just as well be titled "Heaven in Earth."

Newer paintings, among which "The Ash Flower" of 2004 is exceptional, show more heaven and less ground, suggesting among other things that the artist has come to see the human condition more evenhandedly. He also seems to have left behind Teutonic myth in favor of Judeo-Christian mysticism, sprinkling his imagery and titles with references to the Kabbalah, a book of supposedly secret ancient knowledge, and to medieval alchemy. ...

Then there are Kiefer's books, which on their own would still make an impressive account of the artist. The three that greet visitors at the show's entrance, all titled "The Heavens" and dated 1969, contain collages of pieces of sky or skylike representations culled from magazines....

In his attempt to make art an expressly spiritual endeavor, Kiefer in essence returns us to the era of abstract expressionism, when abstraction represented its own form of heaven on earth. But instead of relying solely on form to deliver the expressive goods, he gives us images of considerable symbolic resonance....

Missing from "Heaven and Earth" are the paintings and book works of the 1970s and 1980s that show Kiefer's preoccupation with the German past, and with the intertwined legacies of nationalism and Nazism that scar the German memory. Their absence undoubtedly makes for a more focused exhibition, and one that makes a strong argument for Kiefer's greatness. On the other hand, erasing human history from Kiefer's work is a bit like erasing the uncomfortable years from German history; it changes things in ways that make a smoother story but that lack the essential and ultimately tragic tension between our aspirations and our real-life actions. There is a reason that the earth is scorched in Kiefer's paintings and that the pages of books are burned, and I doubt that he wants us to ignore it."...

Andy Grundberg "'Heaven' Knows What German Artist Anselm Kiefer Is All About" Washington Post July 2, 2006

Anselm Kiefer "The Ash Flower" 2004

Photo credit: (c) Anselm Kiefer via Hirshhorn Museum Of Art, Washington, D.C.


Link to Images of Anselm Kiefer from the Hirshhorn Museum Exhibition.

Official Site
of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim, Poland.

Official Site of the 800 year old small Central European city of Oświęcim, historically Germanic, now in Poland.

The General Secretary of United Nations Organisation, in 1998, awarded the Polish city of Oświęcim the title of 'Attorney City of Peace' for its numerous peaceful initiatives and meetings of people of different nationalities regardless of religion and political commitment, where new generations plan to build a future without wars and violence.

Besides the internationally-recognized Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Oświęcim, Poland is also home to the Karol Szymanowski State Music School, the Oswiecim Cultural Centre, the Municipal Public Library together with its six branch points, the Youth House of Culture, the Regional Society of Culture Creators "Grupa na Zamku" (Group on the Castle), and the "Pro Arte" gallery.

Image of the State of Israel's brutal attempt to inflict humanitarian harm on Gaza, part of the future State of Palestine.

Photo credit: The Shanghai Daily. With thanks.


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