nubes pluant by Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

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

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‘Rain Down Righteousness’

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

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’.

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