Through artists’ eyes

Published 22 September 2014

Three Royal Academicians – an architect, a sculptor and a painter – respond to memory, mystery and material in the work of Anselm Kiefer.

  • Sculptor Ann Christopher RA on Kiefer’s manipulation of materials

    One cold winter day, on a journey from Berlin to Dessau, I travelled through a Kiefer painting. The short, spiked corn stubble emerging through the mist was scattered with snow, the light level was sombre, the colour subdued. The only things missing were Kiefer’s words, but the experience was profound and the memory is as vivid as ever.

    Kiefer’s paintings – with their thick textural surfaces – often incorporate objects; his sculptures, with their ancient surface patina, are as if unearthed from an archaeological dig. It is this many-layered use and choice of materials that gives Kiefer’s work its rich and powerful feeling, full of ancient mystery and foreboding.

    I look in two ways at his work. Initially, as a viewer, I am compelled by his portrayal of dereliction, his use of a limited palette and the textural qualities of his paintings and sculptures. Secondly, as a sculptor, I am fascinated by the manipulation of so many unexpected materials, often raw and natural – plants, earth and ash – but also brutal materials such as concrete and metal. Kiefer’s works, even his paintings, such as Black Flakes (2006) which incorporates a lead book, branches and plaster, exude a strong feeling of being ‘made’. He is a powerful image maker.

    Having experienced this power many times over the years, it was with joy and trepidation that I watched the erection of Jericho, his sculpture in the RA courtyard, in 2007. Lead sheets were compressed between concrete slabs to create two towers that echoed and challenged the surrounding buildings. The placing was inspired.

    I also recall one of his large book works containing photographs, worked on and covered with a gritty texture, showing bricks in a desert emerging from a misty mirage. It was another testament to Kiefer’s ability to manipulate the widest variety of materials, in both an irreverent and challenging way.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes

    Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes, 2006.

    Privatbesitz Familie Grothe. Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Architect David Chipperfield RA considers the ruin as a key theme in Kiefer’s paintings

    The painting Interior (1981) depicts the so-called Mosaic Hall of the New Reich Chancellery, the largest completed project in Berlin by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, and one of the few realisations of Hitler’s plan to rebuild Berlin as the world capital, Germania. Although demolished after the war, having been badly damaged in the Battle of Berlin in 1945, Kiefer paints the room as a ruin as if it had survived, reminding us of the temporary power of the Reich, its pompous aspirations for domination and permanence, and the ambiguous role of architecture as propaganda and testament.

    Kiefer’s monumental architectural paintings explore this theme of the ruin. Along with railway tracks, the forest and the huge textured landscapes, the architectural ruin has been a recurring image and reference in Kiefer’s work. The ruin reminds us of both the temporary nature of our lives and visions and the lasting persistence of the physical, the built – for despite all circumstances and actions, something remains. In time these remains take on their own beauty, no longer only indebted to the forces that made them but also to the time and climate that has worn them into a state close to nature itself. This is a quality that Kiefer’s work seems to share and aspire to, a deep emotional record, a search not for truth but for memory.

    The ruin is apparently innocent, but what if the ruin is not of Egypt or Rome but of the German Reich? What if the time that has passed is not sufficient for us to forget the aspirations and actions of those builders but rather reminds us of the inevitable appropriation of architecture as a tool of propaganda, the sensational backdrop of power acted out on the biggest stage. Kiefer has compared the dismal results of Nazi art, cleansed of its ‘degenerate’ tendencies and therefore its intellectual ambitions, and the effect of its architecture, which inevitably managed to channel monstrous ambitions into sentimental but impressive scenography with calculated and sophisticated effect.

    Postwar Germany relied on its artists, writers and film-makers to make sense of the terrible events of the Nazi regime. Even in this context it is difficult for us to understand how Kiefer has managed to make works of aesthetic power and depth from subjects and materials that would suggest otherwise. With apparently imprecise technique, with crude and unwieldy materials, and with the darkest of subjects, the artist confronts us with meaning and emotion and in this alchemy produces work of irresistible beauty.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Interior

    Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981.

    Oil, acrylic and paper on canvas. 287.5 x 311 cm. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Painter Barbara Rae RA explores the way in which Kiefer layers both colour and meaning

    Anselm Kiefer is an extraordinary painter. I find most interesting the work after 1992, when he was working in Barjac in the French countryside. He had already been painting the stars in the late 1980s, with series such as ‘The Secret Life of Plants’, and he must have loved the big skies around him at Barjac.

    Sunflowers also appear in the Barjac works, such as The Orders of the Night (1996). When I worked in that area of France, the sunflowers that caught my attention were dead and withered, their sun-dried shapes twisted into myriad architectural creations.

    For Kiefer, the colour of sunflowers seems unimportant. His paintings often have bright colours that have been almost totally obscured by layers of grey, brown and black. I don’t find that odd at all. I used to begin with bright hues in acrylic, before overlaying greys and blacks in oil to leave little glimmers of colour.

    Like his contemporary, the German artist Joseph Beuys, Kiefer understood that art is about destruction as well as creation. Destruction is a key part of the way Kiefer works as a visual artist: he transforms the image into something new, giving a sense of its vulnerability, its fragility, its transformative characteristics. He obscures what went before, but that still exists deep within the layers of his work.

    Brightness, that sharpness, often disappears in painting. When the beholder looks at Kiefer’s imagery they are caught by some of the bright elements held in the dark sections. Their curiosity is sparked. The eye is telling the brain something that is provoking greater interest. With closer study the observer notices minute detail and, bit by bit, the discord becomes a coherent whole, the intellect is delighted, the emotions pleasured. The observer is drawn into the image and finds cohesion, strength and meaning.

  • Anselm Kiefer, The Secret Life of Plants for Robert Fludd

    Anselm Kiefer, The Secret Life of Plants for Robert Fludd, 1987-2014.

    Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Anselm Kiefer is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.



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