The weight of the world

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Photo: Jon Price

There’s an enigmatic postcard on sale at the Royal Academy featuring an image of Norman Foster and the enquiry, “Mr Foster, do you know how much your building weighs?” I can imagine that a fair number of international curators may have posed a similar question to Anselm Kiefer over the years regarding the shipping of his artworks. The first work encountered by the visitor to the current Kiefer retrospective at the RA is a pair of huge glass tanks in the courtyard populated by metal submarines of varying sizes, suspended at different heights, some of them rustily sunk. Referring to Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov’s eccentric theory that great sea battles occur every 317 years, these are the first vitrines Kiefer has created for an external space and are dramatic, imposing and forceful. They do absolutely nothing to prepare the viewer for the monumentality of what lies within.

Kiefer has an abiding obsession with alchemy and alchemical process. He is far from the first artist to explore alchemy as a metaphor for creativity, but his interest goes much deeper: alchemy is the way of the world, embodying every cycle of life, death and rebirth, from the daily rotations of the sunflower to deep historical and planetary processes. It is an elementary myth and he has spent many years grappling directly with its elements, most notably and literally in the case of lead. Lead is of course the base metal that the alchemist seeks to turn into gold, although for Kiefer the material clearly exerts a fascination in its own right, uniquely combining mass and malleability, “the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history”, as the gallery guide puts it. It is artistic gold already, particularly in Kiefer’s hands. And he has plenty of it to hand. The scale on which the artist works starts to appear in the guide’s almost casual reference to his having “acquired” no less a thing than the lead roof of Cologne Cathedral when it was replaced in 1985. This resource has been worked into a great variety of mixed media pieces, including being used to form the pages of numerous large-form artist’s books, each lead leaf densely painted and the whole bound together in yet more layers of gun-dark lead. Elsewhere, huge rectangles of the stuff, several metres across, are used as canvasses, forming the dark spaces of a cosmos whose surface is star-spangled with scores of real diamonds.

The Cologne lead has further connotations. Not only does the metal’s alchemical association with Saturn exploit symbolic links with melancholy and creativity, but its derivation from a spiritual building on the one hand, and a war damaged one on the other (the reason for the restoration), highlights additional key themes. The substance also happens to be poisonous. A large part of Kiefer’s career has been spent confronting what it means to be a post-war German artist, or perhaps constructing the possibility of such an identity, through direct engagement with World War 2’s symbols and legacy – subjects which he had found largely absent in his 1950s education. Colossal architectural ruins, evoked in cracked slabs of paint, earth and shellac, conjure the ghost of Albert Speer. Meanwhile, another series of paintings references American politician Henry Morgenthau’s 1944 plan to strip post-war Germany of industry and return it to an agricultural economy. Richly coloured fields of wheat sway and rise to gold-leafed ears. Alchemy is at work again: nature has sprung from the war torn ground, the nation has been reinvented, the gilded corn redeems the muddy land. This is bitterly ironic, though: the work refers to the extension of the war for which the leaking of the plan has been held responsible. The corn may be the German people, rising one last time from the dragon’s teeth of Goebbels’s propaganda only to be scythed down in futile last stands. The allusions are thickly layered, contradictory and cyclical. Poetic symbols proliferate: fire, in its creative aspect as much as its destructive; dense forests; towering black sunflowers; snow; blood.

This palette of black, white and red is core to alchemical representation, symbolising the three stages of the process (destruction, purification and rebirth). Other numbers are also significant: twelve months and the signs of the zodiac; seven ancient planets and their corresponding elements; the four seasons and the phases of the moon; the trinity; the two principles, masculine and feminine, united in the creative process; the one goal of the philosopher’s stone. In gigantic woodcuts populating the exhibition’s twelfth and final gallery, the holy trinity is represented by three chairs while a fourth, inverted, hangs beneath as Satan. The title, Quaternity, is inscribed in the centre of the panel. One possible reading of this is the indispensability of the devil to the meaning of God. Without winter, the cycle of the seasons would be unable to recommence (a theme also explored by Katie Ponder in the Association of Illustrators 2014 show at Somerset House, with alchemical interpretations of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, where a bone-winged death/winter dances unwillingly on the black ground while plant growth cracks out of eggs soaked in its blood tears). The danger of such symbolism, when related to Nazism and particularly the holocaust, is that the horrors are rendered inevitable, accommodated within the seasonal patterns of history: dark episodes indeed, but somehow necessary, and even generative of the light. I think this would be simplistic, and simplistic readings are a hazard with Kiefer. The key relationship is, perhaps, not necessity but continuity. World War 2 and Nazism happened: they are part of historical fact, but it is up to us whether they are part of collective memory. The present has roots within them, whether or not it is talked of or taught in schools. Whatever we grow in our springtime, we should know its history of winter. Only through that can we understand the precedent autumns and summers.

For Germany, those autumns and summers include an intellectual heritage of romanticism in poetry, philosophy and art which is ever present in this exhibition. Kiefer reaches through the black holes of the twentieth century to pull into view these obscured viscera of German thought, and the grand physical and historical scales on which the works operate – ever grander, it seems, in those newly made for this show and the site – point to a re-imagining of the sublime for the 21st century. From the awesome weight of history is pressed the mineral of human potential. In this way, humanity corresponds to alchemic lead: it is capable of reaching a higher form than its common base state, but this is not something that happens automatically; it can be achieved only through effort, creative force – and perhaps a little magic.

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