Tuesday 21 February 2017

Anselm Kiefer noch einmal

And this time the amazement was total. I found myself knocked for six by the big show at the Royal Academy in 2014, not least for the revelation of Kiefer's connection to the world of German mythology via Wagner. But in a way this show at the White Cube Bermondsey is more of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in that it's like one a series of giant stage sets for the Ring I hope Kiefer will eventually design. Except that you're not so much a spectator as a participant; this is site-specific theatre.

As I wrote in the earlier blog entry, it would be difficult to imagine his vision subdued to the musical whole, and as spectators you'd lose the walk-round dimension (unless the whole thing were to be done along the lines of Graham Vick's stupendous Birmingham approach, opera reimagined). But in a chat with great director Richard Jones last week - we're exchanging ideas about Parsifal prior to a production he's preparing for Paris next year - I was convinced by what he said about a possible parity between artist and director being of the essence; then it could work. He'd wanted that with Zaha Hadid, but threw in the towel when she told him she was sending two architectural associates along to work on the project: quite rightly, he replied that it had to be her or nothing. So it was nothing.

But to the show. Once we'd waited in the long queues on the last weekend - White Cube is a private venture, so this had to be the best free-admission show in town - it was like walking into a Tardis. In other words, I had no idea that the gallery space was so enormous. 'Walhalla' is written above the entrance, promising links both to the mythology and that extraordinary neoclassical construction (also titled with the 'W') which I'd love to see outside Regensburg, begun under the supervision of Leo von Klenze in 1830. But what you get, to begin with, is a dimly lit tunnel full of crumpled lead beds. The photos here are going to be a mix of White Cube images (WC, with the photographer credited), several others supplied by the gallery and mine own, sans flash, to give some alternative angles (DN). The top pic is by Georges Poncet, the below WC/Ben Westoby.

Off this hallway are light rooms to the left and dark to the right. Three giant Walhalla canvases dominate the first. The tottering towers of the gods are based on the rubble towers in his studio at Croissy (I'd love to go). The materials as usual are thickly encrusted, a mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, clay and lead (WC/BW).

There's a parallel, albeit on a gigantic scale, to the ruined buildings depicted by John Piper, though he lived through two world wars. Born in a rubbled Donaueschingen on 8 March 1945, Kiefer sees the rebirth inherent in ruins (just as Wagner does, indeed, at the very end of the Ring, where Sieglinde's big theme is a rather more definitive anticipation of Kiefer's more lyrical strokes and colours). 'In the beginning is the end and in the end is the beginning,' perhaps his most famous quotation, matches the definition of painting as 'a ceaseless shuttling back and then forth between nothing and something, a constant going from one state to the other'. The dynamism is especially pertinent if you view the paintings from the sides, like sculpture, where paint or metal is seen to hang off; hence many of my own prying photo investigations.

Second room on the left, the '9 x 9 x 9 x 9' gallery is dominated by a rusting metal spiral staircase, strips of film reel hanging from the lower rails and dirty coats on wire coat hangers; despite the religious title, referring to the Sursum corda or 'lift up your hearts; of the Eucharist, this is Kiefer's decadent vision of the Valkyries ascending to Valhalla, discarding their robes as they go (DN).

Darker chambers lead off to the right. Philemon in stasis (WC/George Darrell) is unexplained: is this the old man of mythology?

Likewise San Loreto (WC/GD), I presume a reference to the casa santa which took off from Bethlehem and landed just off the Adriatic coast of Italy.

In between Kiefer's Arsenal (WC/GD) is a dark cabinet of curiosities with more of the spooling films at the end.

You get to rootle around in here, visually. Needless to say Siegmund/Siegfried's discarded sword caught the eye; it's cropped up in Kiefer's canvases since the 1970s. This might have been the way Sieglinde bundled up the bits of the shattered sword to entrust to safe keeping (DN)

Maybe this is Kiefer's room of picture-props. Never seen the Lorelei depicted in any of his paintings, but the reference is typical of his occasional jokes (DN).

Theatre on the biggest scale comes last, in a vast space divided into two. The characters in the giant dramas are suggested by objects or composites in vitrines, all crucially changed by what angle you view them from, and what you see behind them. This is the left side of the first division (WC/GD).

The two canvases at either end are among the most powerful. This Walhalla (oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac and clay) is informed by blue and gold, and repays closer/sideways inspection (DN).

Likewise Gehäutete Landschaft (Peeled Landscape) at the opposite end, which I originally misread as Amfortas, and that rooted it in my mind - I cling to the vision - as Parsifal Act 3 (GP).

Is the grey-black cloud sweeping over the flower studded landscape or leaving it? Let's leave the window open for optimism (DN).

And here is our dramatis personae: Brünnhilde (Kiefer spells is with one 'n'), fecund if of dried plants (WC/BD);

Thor (DN);

and Amfortas, or rather the chair of the invalid (DN),

with a lead, glass and metal 'wound' hanging over him (Todd-Waite Art Photography).

The oppressive 'cloud' is repeated above Brünnhilde's rock in the next subdivided space (Brünhildes Fels, WC/GD)

with the previous room's Walhalla as a fine hint of backdrop (DN)

or, if you prefer, the grimmer canvas we're coming to shortly (DN).

Next, Freias Garten, at the withered stage the Gods fear in Das Rheingold - but the few apples are still gold (WC/BW).

The neighbouring Walhalla is the most oppressive of the series: destruction before regeneration (WC/BW)

A big difference here from the side in perhaps the most sculptural of all the canvases (DN).

The Valhallan edifices are smoking brown in Böse Blumen (DN),

the flower-towers labelled with historical names. Make what you will of the Empress Maria Theres(i)a tagged on the central one (DN).

Maybe Hojotoho, Hojotoho, Heiaha, Heiaha shouldn't have made me laugh, but there's black humour in the Valkyrie's ride all crashed up in a pile of bicycles (DN).

Here they are again, echoing Sursum corda,in a more upright representation (WC/BW).

And there's one more epic Walhalla with roads leading to a vanishing point (DN).

I was curious that there were quite a few older-generation German speakers moving with intense concentration around the exhibition (DN).

I could have gone on to catalogue every item, each of which changes its dramatic meaning according to the angle you view it from, but these will suffice. All I know is that if ever, and wherever, Kiefer collaborates with a very special director on Wagner, be it the Ring or Parsifal, I'll move heaven and earth to get there and see it.

And on a less lofty note, we came straight out and headed to a flawless restaurant, Pizarro (go!), just down the road. Bermondsey Street may be hipsterville, but I like it.


Dilys Page said...

Your account of Kiefer's Walhalla had me looking up train times only to see White Cube exhib closed on 12 Feb. Bitterly disappointed & now trying to find out whether it has moved somewhere reachable. No luck so far - how can I find out where it's gone? And when do we get a Wigglesworth/Kiefer Ring ...

David said...

Wigglesworth/Kiefer/Jones Ring, you mean, Dilys? Well, we can dream, can't we?

I'll ask the nice people in the press office if the exhibition has found a new home - I wonder if it can, being so specific to the White Cube layout.

Dilys Page said...

Yes, a W+K+J Ring ... love the dream. Meanwhile I might get to see Walhalla on the Danube (after Walkure [dream come true] at Bayreuth in Aug) before I see the Kiefer. Remember Turner's shimmery rendering of 1842 opening at the Turner exhib?

David said...

I'd never seen the Turner, and it tells me that Walhalla is actually on the river. As for Walkuere at Bayreuth, I hear such good things of the Ring in Nuremberg (I know the Brunnhilde, Rachael Tovey, a Guildhall graduate and now a company member, though the raves weren't from her). It must be a lot cheaper than Bayreuth, which of course is worse seeing, to say the least, even if, I gather, that Ring is not. Easy excursion from there to Bamberg, Germany's most beautiful town/city (that I've seen, at any rate). When I was there in 1990 we took an excursion to Disneyfied Rothenburg ob der Tauber. 'Franconian Switzerland' was lovely, but given the choice I'd say Bamberg first, no choice. Nuremberg was badly bombed, and I only passed through it while InterRailing in the 1980s (burgers at midnight in the company of a cheerful black American soldier); it's more cosmopolitan, I believe.

Susan said...

How I envy you having been able to see this exhibit. You give a wonderful sense, even from this far away, of how spectacular it was. I'm so glad you thought to take photos from various angles to show us the textures.

David said...

Thanks, Sue. Difficult to show the size and scale of it. I know there are those who find Kiefer subject to German bombast, but for me the forms perfectly suit the subject-matter. No-one else I know in the art world thinks on the Wagnerian scale like this.