Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Anselm Kiefer; the Turner Prize 2014

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Anselm Kiefer; the Turner Prize 2014

Article excerpt

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy, until 14 December

The Turner Prize 2014

Tate Britain, until 4 January

In the Royal Academy's courtyard are two large glass cases or vitrines containing model submarines. In one the sea has receded, dried up, and the tin fish are stranded on the cracked mud of the ocean floor. In the other, the elegantly rusted subs are mostly suspended like sharks in an aquarium: a fleet in fact, all pointed in the same direction.

These works are the visitor's first sight of the vast and glorious exhibition by Anselm Kiefer (born Germany, 1945) currently occupying the main galleries of Burlington House, and they are apparently related to his interest in the Russian poet and futurist Velimir Khlebnikov. At once we are confronted by several Kiefer themes: war, poetry (he says poems are 'like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next ...without them, I am lost'), and Mesopotamian clay tablets. His very particular mix of history, imaginative transformation and high culture is thus succinctly introduced.

There have been plenty of opportunities to see Kiefer's work in Britain in recent decades (I well remember an impressive show of giant lead books at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in 1989), but I must admit that up to now I have remained equivocal about him. The Academy's show has completely changed my mind. I have never seen Kiefer better presented, and in this exhibition his imagery and use of materials make perfect sense. The increasingly large works have been superbly laid out through the grand galleries, and their cumulative effect is not so much overwhelming as utterly convincing. This remarkable display makes a great argument for the monographic exhibition. Not all artists can survive this sort of exposure, some looking too repetitious or threadbare in extensive solo shows, but Kiefer's work thrives on it, and the exhibition is a triumph.

The first couple of rooms offer a kind of prologue of early work, introducing Kiefer's abiding passion (since 1968) for artists' books, his drawings and watercolours, and the wood-grain 'Attic' series of the 1970s. The exhibition really catches fire in room 3 with the increased scale and texture of the paintings, the inventive use of materials (clay, ash, earth, straw, dried sunflowers, scorched photos) and a certain salutary grimness of subject. Here the aggrandising tendency of Nazi architecture is squarely faced, the neoclassical stone structures built to last (and make fine ruins), as against the bricks of straw and the writing on the wall of the artist's alternative reality. If some of the paintings look like dried-up river beds, suggesting drought and starvation, this is the other side to handsome prisons of the spirit.

Kiefer uses the shape of a palette in his pictures to stand for himself, and I was reminded of Leonard Cohen's lyric 'like a bird on the wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir' when looking at 'Palette on a Rope' in room 4, though there's more than one bird on this particular wire, and they look decidedly flame-like. Room 5 contains just two enormous paintings: 'Osiris and Isis' on one side, decked out with copper wire and what looks like the fragments of a washbasin; 'For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns' is on the other, an achingly beautiful, desiccated landscape. The theme is death and resurrection, just one of the great linked polarities that Kiefer rarely shrinks from addressing. …

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