German artist's work wins French hearts

For Madame De Stael: Germany (above) is on display at the Centre Pompidou till April 18.
For Madame De Stael: Germany (above) is on display at the Centre Pompidou till April 18.PHOTO: REUTERS

An installation in Anselm Kiefer's retropective strikes a chord in the French, who are still reeling from last year's attacks

PARIS • As Paris reeled in the weeks after the Nov 13 attacks, German artist Anselm Kiefer was completing an apocalyptic installation at the Centre Pompidou .

Waves of undulating sand are dotted with upright slabs of mushrooms. A rusting machine gun lays across a hospital gurney made of lead inscribed with the name of 1970s German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.

At the rear, a huge canvas shows a ravaged, wintry forest receding into the distance.

The work, For Madame De Stael: Germany, which is part of a new Kiefer retrospective here, appears to include a pointed message about a new generation of extremists who have taken aim at Europe.

French newspapers have pointed out that the mushrooms resemble tombstones and German news media have noted that Kiefer's themes of destruction and rejuvenation resonate with a traumatised nation.

Not necessarily, said Kiefer, who has worked in France since 1992. "What happened in Paris is a really dramatic, horrible accident and they are criminals, but it is not war," he said recently.

He said the work was influenced by German romanticism, the 19th-century philosophical movement that, he said, spawned dangerous political offshoots such as Nazism and 1970s radicals such as Meinhof who yearned "to be powerful, to be someone, to be great, to have an adventure".

In person, Kiefer, dressed in a black T-shirt and dark pants, was noticeably more cheerful than the air of melancholy that surrounds his works gathered at the Pompidou.

He called for a glass of cognac as he took a break from surveying preparations for the retrospective, which museum officials said had been under discussion for 10 years.

The Pompidou retrospective, which ends on April 18, is part of a recent flurry of attention in Europe for the 70-year-old Kiefer.

A show at the National Library of France through Feb 7 displays his handmade books, some of which are sheets of lead layered with sand, ashes, hair, plants and broken glass. The Royal Academy of Art in London staged its own retrospective in 2014 and the Albertina museum in Vienna will feature more than 30 of his enormous woodcuts starting in March.

The Paris show, arranged thematically and chronologically, spreads across more than 10 rooms on the sixth floor of the Pompidou and includes almost 150 works from public and private collections. Kiefer said he made personal appeals to persuade reluctant owners to lend.

His canvases are lyrical studies of ruins, built up with layers of rubble, ash, sand, scavenged clothes and straw and dense with historical symbols such as a coiled snake associated with seraphim, the biblical angels.

In one room, 40 vitrines display arrangements of found objects such as volcanic stones, ferns and leaden objects in the shape of anatomical organs.

Another room is devoted to works that explore the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical movement involving symbols that Kiefer, who was raised as a Catholic, said had intrigued him since a visit to Israel in 1984.

Kiefer was born two months before the end of World War II in Europe, part of a generation of Germans who grew up in a climate of amnesia and guilt about the Nazi regime, but with no memory of it.

His reception in Germany, where his work has plumbed uncomfortable truths about the country's history, has been considerably chillier than in the rest of Europe and overseas.

Even after the retrospectives in London and now in Paris, he said he considered a similar show in Germany to be unlikely.

"I will not do one very soon," he said. "They don't like me. You know, I had a big success in London, but in Germany, they think I am not modest enough and small enough.

"I still have time, perhaps in 10 or 15 years," he added.

Critics of Kiefer have cited his tendencies towards grandiosity and inscrutability.

Taking stock of his exhibitions abroad, German newspaper Die Welt observed, "Only we in this country still have not quite understood what he has to proclaim."

Matthew Biro, an art history professor at the University of Michigan and author of two books on Kiefer, said the shows demonstrated the artist's relevance.

Biro said much of the criticism of Kiefer was "because he was going his own way".

He added: "Now the art world is moving back to much more engagement with history and politics, which is something he has been doing a long time."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'German artist's work wins French hearts'. Print Edition | Subscribe