Anselm Kiefer is older in years than either Rembrandt or Turner when they died, but the centuries that divide these artists mean that no-one is talking of ‘late works’ for this 69-year-old German whose powerful vigour is on display in every recent work at the Royal Academy’s retrospective (until 14 Dec). Kiefer is a master of the monumental, the epic and the grand and his gigantic creations are quite simply awe-inspiring.
The early graphic works show a man of ideas rather than a good draughtsman and undoubtedly it was his exploration of the powder keg of a collective German amnesia about the war that thrust Kiefer into the limelight. To a nation that chose not to look at its recent past, Kiefer’s images of himself in his father’s uniform doing a Sieg Heil salute were provocative in the extreme. That ability to needle his viewers has never left him, resulting in many unsettling images. Kiefer dismisses easy art, and those with the referential insight to understand all the notes he writes on his canvasses may gain a broader understanding of his work. One doesn’t actually need to know anything about the context though to appreciate the sheer scale and monumentality of each piece. Huge desolate snow-covered landscapes, giant abandoned temples or structures, cavernous interiors, bleak forests or stars twinkling in a leaden firmament – all of these draw on the collective human memory where Kiefer finds his subjects, and they all evoke a very real emotive response that lies beyond the cerebral.
I missed the Tempelhof images that were so powerful in Kiefer’s 2012 White Cube London show, which again harked back to his country’s Nazi past, but the alchemy from that time is represented by the winged leaden books that greet the visitor. A colour that is neither dark nor light, and imbued with enormous mystical significance, Kiefer not only uses it to create these great tomes, but in a later room drops diamonds in the metal to create a hazy firmament. Also recent is a series that references the Morgenthau plan, which would have seen Germany an agricultural land. Giant ears of corn bristle off the canvas, and for a change, they glow with colour.
Books are highlighted as significant throughout his practice, but the erotica assembled in the enormous books on display don’t add to an understanding of his art – his drawing skills are frankly not his strong point. There is nothing else on a human scale in this colossal show, but instead of revealing something more about the man himself, the sketches are slight and disappointing. The artist uses himself to give scale to images from early Nazi salutes beside a lake to fields of giant sunflowers or glittering skies, but the individual clearly represents mankind, rather than a man. At times one longs for something you can relate to on a smaller scale, but Kiefer does monumental more magnificently than others.
This is a retrospective that will send you back to books to find out what myths lie behind the images. Kiefer is an artist who leaves an indelible impression, as he did on me in the Eighties, and he will undoubtedly gain a new British following with this show.