Anselm Kiefer at the Pompidou

17 Mar

Kiefer Margarethe 2

A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:

‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’

His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.

I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.

I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’

According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references  . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).

Funeral Hall

Wilhelm Kreis, Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier  (Berlin, 1939)

‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène  . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’

Kiefer Sulemith 2

Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.

 

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall

drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the

sky it is

ample to lie there

 

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at

nightfall

drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

 

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany

we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany

 

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.

 

Translated by Christopher Middleton

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