‘Drop Down Ye Heavens’
‘The Starry Heavens Above, and the Moral Law Within’
Commentary by Giles Waller
Andromeda shows both wonder at the ‘starry heavens above’ (the title of a 1980 painting of Anselm Kiefer’s), and the moral depths which humanity is capable of plumbing. Two enormous lead sheets cover the upper and lower parts of the work. On the exposed canvas in between, ocean waves roll towards us.
Scientific taxonomy and mythological attempts to grapple with the immensity of the heavens jostle in this painting: NASA’s alphanumerical designators appear alongside a number of the heavenly bodies, while white lines of connection cross the sea to pick out the ancient constellations of Andromeda and Pegasus, their names faintly scrawled in chalk towards the top of the painting.
The mythological resonance of the winged Pegasus develops a recurring theme of wings and flight in Kiefer’s oeuvre, an image of the artist’s search for transcendence and for communion between heaven and earth. But Kiefer’s mythology does not only soar. In this work, the celestial and the earthy cannot be free of one another. The clouds and nebulae of the heavens are rendered in brown drips and chalky deposits. The corrosion of the lead sheets by wind and rain imbues the image with an integral earthiness. The breaking waves that interrupt the heavens insistently recall the darker sacrificial narrative of the mythical Andromeda, chained to a rock as an offering to the sea monster Cetus.
Even more troublingly, given the prominence of references to the Nazi past in Kiefer’s earlier work, the alphanumerical star numbers seem also to suggest the tattoos on the inmates of the Camps. If this is an image of the unfathomable mystery of creation, it is one drawing on Job as well as Isaiah, in which we find both light and darkness, weal and woe (Isaiah 45:7).
This painting suggests that neither the imaginative—but arbitrary—lines of ancient astrological myths, nor the astronomical mapping of stars long dead by the time their light has reached the earth, are able to fathom the meaning of the cosmos. The Lord who alone stretched out the heavens also makes fools of the diviners, and turns back the wise and makes their knowledge foolish (Isaiah 44:24–5; Job 9).
‘That Salvation May Sprout Forth’
Commentary by Giles Waller
Anselm Kiefer’s enormous landscape—more than seven metres across—blurs the line between painterly expressionism and nature itself. Depicting a field of churned earth, buckets of brown, black, and russet paint were dolloped onto the canvas, which was then placed flat on the floor and covered with actual earth and exposed to the sun. The textured surface has coagulated, dried, and cracked.
This is both a painting of—and a sculpture formed from—encrusted, parched clay. In both its surface texture and its formal composition, the painting is almost all earth. The perspective, with its high horizon, is oppressively bleak, and yet draws the gaze inexorably along the deep-furrowed diagonal lines towards its central vanishing point, as if towards a hoped-for future. In this empty space, something seems about to appear.
The image recalls Kiefer’s barren landscapes of the 1970s, with titles that explicitly evoke battles of the Second World War (Operation Barbarossa, Operation Hagenbewegung, 1975). Here, however, the desolate earth is beginning to open. Horizontal lines of poppies seem to sprout from the caked earth in the foreground. They appear in a dazzling array of colours rarely seen in Kiefer’s work, a rainbow token of God’s renewed covenant with the earth.
Across the narrow strip of black sky above this vast landscape are scrawled the words from Isaiah 45:8 ‘aperiatur terra et germinet salvatorem rorate caeli desuper et pluant iustum .....’. The quotation is not quite right, as if half-remembered from a Latin liturgy heard many years before. The liturgical text is especially associated with the penitence and expectation of the season of Advent, in anticipation of the coming of Christ:
Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth,
and let it cause righteousness to spring up also.
This is a painting of desolation and anticipation. The violence which has harrowed the land does not end in despair; the swords might yet be ploughshares. The earth has been broken open, in expectation of a saviour.
‘Rain Down Righteousness’
Commentary by Giles Waller
A track winds away from the viewer, its end lost in a field choked with high stalks.
Anselm Kiefer has here deliberately recalled Vincent van Gogh’s final painting before his suicide: Wheatfield with Crows (1890). In Kiefer’s painting, these thick black stalks are topped with shockingly vibrant blooms, rendered in lavish impasto. From above, the landscape is suffocated by crimson clouds, pouring what seems to be a toxic, bloody rain onto the earth below.
The ‘raining clouds’ of Kiefer’s title come from the Latin version of Isaiah 45:8, used in the Advent liturgy to anticipate the coming of Christ at his nativity and at the Last Judgement. Isaiah pleads that the clouds might ‘rain down righteousness’; here this righteousness seems more like apocalyptic punishment or ecological disaster. In the paintings which accompanied Nubes Pluant in the 2016 exhibition ‘Walhalla’ at the White Cube gallery, London, polluting clouds were rendered by smearing the canvas in molten lead, which solidified into impenetrable masses. In this painting the clouds are not yet solid, but dripping and spattering down the canvas.
And yet the dominant motif here recalls a verse from the opening of our passage: ‘I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you’ (Isaiah 44:22). A bright, cadmium-yellow sunburst radiates from the top and centre of the canvas. The dark clouds of sin, thick with blood and transgression, are being driven away, or else turned to a Turneresque radiant splendour. Solidified lead is becoming liquid gold, raining down to nourish the lurid blossoms below.
Martin Luther understood verse 22 to refer to Christ as the sun, rising each morning gradually to disperse the mists of sin, so that the sinner might daily see more clearly in the light of Christ. In Kiefer’s painting, the clouds do not vanish, but the clarifying, redemptive heat of the sun precedes, illuminates, and steadily transforms them. As the sun-nourished flowers testify in spite of the clouds, God’s redemption is always already at work: ‘return to me, for I have redeemed you’.
Anselm Kiefer :
Andromeda, 2001 , Oil, emulsion, and acrylic on lead and canvas
Anselm Kiefer :
Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem, 2005–06 , Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas
Anselm Kiefer :
nubes pluant, 2016 , Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas
Ruins and Renewal
Commentary by Giles Waller
This passage from Isaiah contains the whole sweep of salvation history, from creation through exile to the expectation of redemption, when Jerusalem and its temple will be rebuilt.
Although the mood of the passage is conditioned by the experience of the Babylonian captivity, and describes a present that lies in ruins, these chapters also contain moments of profound jubilation. A sure and certain hope in God’s promise is underlined in the celebration of God’s cosmic creative and historical providential action. Hearers of this passage are summoned to abide both in remembrance, and in promise and expectation.
Nevertheless, in both Jewish and Christian uses of this passage (particularly, for Christians, in Advent), attention to the past and the future provokes a heightened awareness of current injustice and destitution in the present.
Anselm Kiefer’s art begins—like the text—in ruins and estrangement. Born amidst the rubble of the German defeat of 1945, Kiefer has long sought to reckon with the ruin of a German culture that has been irremediably tainted by Nazism. After such catastrophe, how can art negotiate a creative impetus towards renewal, with a responsible witness to painful history, a history in which culture and mythology are themselves implicated?
In this negotiation, Kiefer’s work often makes use of rubble. When Andromeda (2001) was shown in the 2007 ‘Monumenta’ exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, it hung above the concrete fragments of ruined towers that Kiefer himself had constructed and torn down. For Kiefer, rubble stands against a notion of renewal as a process that simply erases or obscures the traumatic past and its effects in the present. On the other hand, the symbolic ambivalence of rubble lies in what it might yet signify for the future:
Rubble represents not only an end, but also a beginning. In reality, the so-called Stunde Null [zero hour] never existed. Rubble is like a plant’s blossoms; it is the radiant highpoint of an incessant metabolism, the beginning of a rebirth. (Kiefer 2008)
Each of these paintings is marked by this tension between remembrance and transcendence, mourning and renewal. In the very process of creating art in and from ruins, Kiefer’s paintings situate these ruins in a pattern of eschatological expectation. Devastated landscapes and broken masonry become simultaneous tokens of destruction and long hoped-for renewal.
We might think here of the corroding lead sheets on which Andromeda is painted. In Kiefer’s work lead is a material symbol of the possibility of alchemical transmutation. ‘The only metal heavy enough to bear the weight of history’ (Soriano 2014: 29), lead, in Kiefer’s hands, transcends this heaviness and seems to take on another nature, becoming a canvas, a feather, or the delicate leaves of a weighty book. Lead is both the basest metal, and the substance that might be transformed alchemically into gold. Kiefer sees his artistic process as one of alchemy:
Alchemy is not to make gold, the real alchemist is not interested in material things, but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual thing more than a material thing. An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context. (Kiefer in Wullschlager 2014)
In their titles, both Nubes Pluant and Aperiatur Terra... draw directly on Isaiah. As the text of Isaiah 45:8 conjures the poetic image of the parched land as a metonym for the condition of a people in exile, longing for salvation—or even for fallen humanity as a whole—so Kiefer’s paintings seem to visualize this image in landscapes.
Yet there is a labile relation between the biblical titles, present in the texts scrawled on the canvases, and the images themselves. The texts seem to promise a stable allegorical reading of the image according to its biblical and liturgical resonances, but the images themselves are sufficiently complex to resist any such straightforward identification. The uncertain relation between text and image displays a kind of openness; what seems at first to specify and close down in fact serves only to open up yet more possible meanings. In Kiefer’s paintings, the viewer’s own readings of the scriptural text are ploughed and opened up like the land, ready for germination.
Once spoken oracles, then written text, Isaiah’s prophecy has found countless new meanings over the centuries. Differently repeated, they include those awakened by its use in Christian liturgy. The text’s meanings make themselves present in abundant but always-particular ways to those who—like the boyhood Anselm Kiefer at Mass in the ruins of Germany—read and pray with them in their own times and places.
Kiefer, Anselm. 2008. ‘Acceptance Speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade’, available at http://www.friedenspreis-des-deutschen-buchhandels.de/445950/?aid=537673
Soriano, Kathleen. 2014. ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in Anselm Kiefer, ed. by Richard Davey (London: Royal Academy of Arts)
Wullschlager, Jackie. 2014. ‘Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy show, 19 September 2014’, www.theft.com [accessed 4 November 2018]