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Andromeda by Anselm Kiefer
Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem by Anselm Kiefer
nubes pluant by Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

Andromeda, 2001, Oil, emulsion, and acrylic on lead and canvas, 396.24 x 500.38 cm, Private Collection, © Anselm Kiefer; Photo : Atelier Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem, 2005–06, Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas, 279 x 760 cm, Hall Art Foundation, © Anselm Kiefer; Photo : Todd-White Art Photography

Anselm Kiefer

nubes pluant, 2016, Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas, 330 x 570 cm, Private Collection, © Anselm Kiefer; Photo : Atelier Anselm Kiefer

Ruins and Renewal

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

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.

 

References

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]