4.6.18 — A Scandal in Bohemia

Out in Brooklyn recently, Robert Longo crossed decades or even centuries, comparing himself to Francisco de Goya and Sergei Eisenstein. Yet a German contemporary artist thinks even bigger, with a career that began just a few years before his but a continent away—and I combine this with my earlier report on Longo’s recent political art as a longer review and my latest upload.

Anselm Kiefer wants to encompass Europe’s deep past and his nation’s twentieth-century trauma. They fill vast canvases and layer upon layer of neo-expressionist paint, charcoal, shellac, and emulsion. He has moved his studio from Germany to still larger quarters outside Paris to make room for it all. He flexes his muscles even in a small show at the Met Breuer, through April 8, of work from its collection. Anselm Kiefer's Untitled (Heroic Symbols) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1969)Provocations” has none of his breakthrough paintings from the 1970s or his images of books like the Bible as an opening onto landscape, but it pays off by making his epic theater more vulnerable and personal.

The Met has just one painting, from 1996, along with two outsize woodcuts and twenty-eight more works on paper, but that one is more than enough. (The show takes up the relatively modest fifth floor, where the Whitney hung some of its own permanent collection before taking up larger quarters downtown to make room for more.) That painting, on coarse burlap, asserts itself by size alone. At more than eighteen feet across, it asks one to take its measure by walking its length and turning one’s head. It runs to infinity pictorially as well, with a road straddling the two panels as it barrels up to the horizon. Its brushwork appears to form palpable leaves scattered across it, although Kiefer intends blood-red poppies.

As ever, he also intends to recover a cultural and political history. A road into depth and a field of poppies are bound to recall Vincent van Gogh. The title, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, quotes an Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann—but Kiefer cannot forget that Hitler began his conquests by annexing modern-day Bohemia, the Sudetenland, and Bachmann saw the German troops enter. He sees history as a saga of collective dreams, but also as present-day limits. Bohemia lies far from the sea, the top edge of the painting presses down on its high horizon, and the twisting road can never reach infinity. History’s big gestures are not his alone, but he still feels the limits.

Kiefer has a habit of conflating the political and the cultural, much as Hitler demanded both mass extermination and mammoth architecture. He has traveled to northern Europe to connect his bleak but ultimately spiritual vision to that of Edvard Munch, but also to war sites in Poland by the Vistula. He also quotes Richard Wagner and the poetry of Paul Celan, knowing that Hitler, too, loved Wagnerian opera and that Celan, a Romanian Jew, survived a work camp and lost his parents to the camps in World War II. He calls a work on paper The Unknown Masterpiece, after a short story by Honoré de Balzac, but he layers over a photo of Hitler’s plans for a Soldier’s Hall in Berlin. And there, too, he encounters limits. Hitler’s plans never came to fruition, for architecture or for conquest, just as Balzac’s hero can never finish his masterpiece.

That artist cannot finish because he cannot stop slathering on paint, and Kiefer would understand. Like the unknown masterpiece, his dark but colorful Brünnhilde’s Death tumbles into abstraction. The personal has become the political, but it is still artistic and personal. The Met points out that he gained notoriety by posing in his father’s army uniform with a Nazi salute. He adopts the same pose in self-portraits set against a plummeting, barren landscape. When he quotes Wagner again for My Father Pledged Me a Sword in 1975, he takes the text literally.

Then again, maybe not literally, since surely his father did no such thing. Rather, he means it as an aspiration, and he means aspirations as grounds for responsibility. If art has always had the same longing for the infinite as fascism, at least in his eyes, it has to share responsibility. His salute appears in 1970 encased within a sky-blue hemisphere as Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven. Another languid Wagnerian figure contemplates death, like Hamlet, but the skull in her hands could just as well be an artist’s palette, most likely his own. When Kiefer calls a landscape and open sky dotted with more blood or flowers Sick Art, he scorns Hitler’s equation of blood and soil and the assault on “degenerate art,” but he still sounds a little guilty.

Where German Expressionism never distinguished the personal from the cultural or political, Neo-Expressionism has a harder case to make before it can engage the present. Georg Baselitz or Julian Schnabel positively wallows in the personal, while Kiefer obsesses over a past that he himself cannot remember. He was born only in 1945 and grew up in a divided Germany with its own dreams of a nation. Still, he believes, people all too often want to forget, but the past refuses to let go. Big Iron Fist sounds like fascism, but it refers to a slogan in the Cold War for NATO. He can be portentous or pretentious, even in his book art, but he asks all of western civilization along with him to think big.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

Comment on "A Scandal in Bohemia"

With press invitations, do not comment: email me.