Thursday, 7 April 2022

Kiefer and Baselitz in Paris

Top of the list when we stopped over in Paris before the last leg of the train journey to Siena and back over Christmas and New Year was Anselm Kiefer's 'Pour Paul Celan' at the Grand Palais Éphémère.

It didn't disappoint, but Paris excelled expectations this time - and we had two days longer there than planned, which was the very opposite of hardship. Ads for exhibitions on the Metro are sparse, so it was only when we found ourselve in front of the Centre Pompidou on the last full day that I realised there was a big Georg Baselitz exhibition.

These were spectacular bookends to a time in the city as happy as I've ever experienced, and unexpectedly up there with the discovery of Turin and reacquaintances with Florence, Siena and Venice. We were especially lucky to catch the Kiefer, which ended on 11 January before any other Brits could get across to Paris to see it (we had been lucky to travel through France before Christmas on the day before the borders were closed to us). I'd read the review by my colleague Mark Kidel on theartsdesk but needed no encouragement after the Royal Academy retrospective and the two big shows in White Cube Bermondsey. 

The new Parisian space is at one end of the Champ de Mars opposite the Eiffel Tower - the clods of earth here and the perspective could be straight out of a Kiefer painting -

and the hangar-like interior with its wooden struts is absolutely necessary for the space of Kiefer's monumental works, around which there was, as before, so much space to walk around and view them from every angle.

Tellingly Mark wrote that 'there is something beguilingly time-less about a show that reminds us that human violence and frailty are not time-bound. Genocide is not limited to the Holocaust. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity is rooted (or perhaps stuck) in cycles of repetition. Images of perfectibility and progress are an illusion.' So looking back on this and across to the hideous images of war-scarred Ukraine has special resonance right now. The poet, born Paul Antschel, a name he changed to Ancel then anagramatically to Celan, grew up in Czernowitz (now Ukrainian Chernovtsy) in Bukovina. His parents died - his father of typhus, his mother from a bullet in the neck - in a Transnistrian internment camp, and he escaped forced labour under the Nazis until 1944 .

'Todesfuge' ('Death Fugue'), Celan's most famous poem, from which he later tried to distance himself, is one response to that horrific time, It appeared in his first collection of poems, Mohn and Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory). Immediately there's a connection with Kiefer's regular use of poppy seedheads on stalks among the materials he attaches to his paintings

and in the attempt to recreate his storerooms in the space between the exhibition and the cafe/library zone, we see these as part of his stocks in trade.

Unlike the red poppy which for us is a symbol of remembrance - we encounter these living flowers often in Kiefer's fields - the seedhead suggests opium, and forgetfulness. Yet the application of these stalks and heads rising from a round concrete bunker, or sprouting from huge lead books on the wing of a full-sized decaying aeroplane of the same material, turn it all back into memory and a hint of hope, or at least of humanity.

The two leading figures whose names are repeated in 'Death Fugue', Margarethe and Sulamith, are the subjects of two of Kiefer's large canvases from the early 1980s with straw applied to oil, acrylic, emulsion and woodcut. and featured in the Royal Academy exhibition (scroll down this blog entry for reflections on that). It was there, too, that I first saw Celan poems inscribed on Stalks of the Night and one of his Rhine series of woodcuts. Needless to say they're prevalent, too, in this latest exhibition, including one canvas which takes its title from Celan's 'Zuversicht' ('Confidence'), though the use of natural material here is more suggestive of 'Das Geheimnis der Farne' ('The Secret of the Ferns'). It's a long-established theme of Kiefer that a tank should be lurking in the half-natural surroundings.

There is word-music in Celan's poetry but the sense is very elusive. Kiefer, who declares that not a day has passed when he hasn't thought of Celan - who committed suicide in Paris by drowning in the Seine in 1970, aged only 49 - points out (hope my French is good enough to render translation from the handout) that 'the language of Paul Celan comes from so far away, from another world with which we haven't yet been confronted, it appears extraterrestrial. We understand it poorly. We seize upon a fragment here and there.  We cling to it without ever being able to discern the whole. I have humbly tried, throught sixty years.' And a vision of the whole is so often what we get in these vast canvases, even if it is so often contradictory or ambivalent one. The correspondence between text and painted vision isn't always clear - Denk dir - die Moorsoldaten must be related to the poem 'Think of it - the bog soldier of Massada/teaches himself home', but I can't see how, beyond a visionary optimism common to both. But it's an overwhelmingly impressive work. The apocalyptic Auf der Klippe (On the Cliff): für Paul Celan stands in front of it in the second image.

The most striking canvas of all, to me, at any rate, because I hadn't encountered some of its elements in a Kiefer painting before, is enigmatically called Madame de Staël: de l'Allemagne

What do the mushrooms sprouting from the floor of Tempelhof Airport, many with labels of famous German artists, composers and writers, have to do with this? The work stands by itself, but we're told that Mme de Staël wrote admiringly of Germany to her compatriots in 1813; German history since has turned so much upside down. Kiefer, of course, embraces the whole.

Between the Kiefer and the Baselitz we walked for miles in ever-brightening weather, and stayed for the first time (it's always been a bit of a dream of mine) on the Île Saint-Louis; absolutely worth it. I've covered some of the interim in an earlier blog post here

And so to Hans Georg Kern, born on 23 January 1938 in Deutschbaselitz near Dresden, Seven years the senior of Kiefer, who grew up playing in the ruins of Donaueschingen. He writes: 'I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn't want to re-establish an order; I'd seen enough of so-called order. I was forced to question everything, to be "naive", to start again'. Kern took the name of Baselitz in 1961, then shocked the world with a giant erect penis in The Big Night Down the Drain, apparently masking his hatred of Hitler; when he revisited the work in 2005, the resemblance to the dictator was even stronger. 

 His next gambit, in 1964, was to present himself as Oberon, king of the fairies, in four duplicate heads - 'not heads', he writes, 'in the sense of portraits, but something like an image which has in the centre. in the thick of a soup of colours, a head which became more and more distinct from one painting to the next'.

A sense of dislocation in a divided Germany reared its head in the series of 'fracture paintings' (1966).

Then, in 1969. Baselitz declared he had found 'the philosopher's stone./Painting lives on through the inversion of motifs./It is possible to create an abstract painting using this method'.

The tumbling eagle and the naked man (Triangle Between Arm and Trunk) are among his finger-paintings.

The Model for a Sculpture, carved with axe and chisel and then sprayed with red and black paint, and so well placed in a room with two of the most vibrant upside-down paintings (see up top), derives from Baselitz's collecting of African art. He denied that the raised arm was intended to represent a Nazi salute, but of course it caused a scandal.

In 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Baselitz recalled the rebuilding of Dresden, and homaged the 'Trümmerfrauen', the women who clear the rubble, in the yellow heads of Dresdner Frauen

Late bronzes and a striking image of his wife Elke in a hospital bed take us one step further in the last big room.

How fresh and lively the Pompidou Centre felt again; I remembered those days discovering Paris on the way back from an Easter party in Rome in 1983 when I watched Syberberg's freaky film of Wagner's Parsifal in the cinema there for free (over three visits) and was so struck by Delaunay's statement that 'colour itself is form and subject'. Wandered the galleries of great 20th century art, and of course the escalator ascents were as magical as ever given the light.

Paris, I fell in love with you all over again on that trip. So close to London, and yet so utterly different.


Liam mansfield said...

Very interesting but keifer tooo too heavy for me personally but your description of tge exhibition is first rate!!

Susan said...

How I envy you that trip, yet at the same time, I gain so much from you having been the one to take the trip and then recount to us all you saw. Thank you.

David said...

Looking forward to your photos of the new season at Innisfree Gardens, Sue. And any other revelations of your beautiful locale.