Intimacy At the End of the World

by A.V. Marraccini

To examine monumental works of art on a small laptop screen at a distance might at first seem the worst possible way to encounter the new Anselm Kiefer show at the Gagosian Le Bourget. The four works in Field Of The Cloth Of Gold (online at Gagosian Le Bourget, 7 February – 11 March ) are huge, entire white-wall sized, not uncommon for Kiefer, who often works at this scale. Yet Kiefer’s work often begets a strange intimacy uniquely suited to this form of viewing. He has often made small-scale books, and in these as well as his monumental works, use a variety of materials, textures, and scarification of the canvas. To see only closely, personally, what is otherwise only visible as if from a distance parallels Kiefer’s own approach to the monumentality of history. Here, we zoom in, able to see the moments of fracture in each acid wash, each piece of affixed straw or gold leaf.

Though the title of the exhibition refers to an infamous summit of Henry VIII, Kiefer himself has said that this was a later — and not terribly iconographically meaningful — appellation. In these new works he again encounters his lifelong subject; the problematics of German history in particular as a ruin on which modernity is built. The paintings are apocalyptic in nature, but Kiefer is no mere blue-chip John of Patmos; they continue to challenge in a way that renders them more than the usual saleable post-Expressionist abstraction. Consider Aus Herzen und Hirnen sprießen di Halme der Nacht (From hearts and brains the stalks of night are sprouting) (2019 - 2020). The painting takes its title from Celan, a frequent source for Kiefer. The media used on the canvas are also familiar from his oeuvre; the straw recounts his ‘Margarethe’ series of works that draw on the imagery of Celan’s Todesfuge.

The straw or wheat represents the golden hair of Magarethe, the archetypal German woman in contrast with Shulamith, the archetypal Jewish woman prisoner of the concentration camp. Margarethe has the golden hair of the agrarian hearth and home central to the Facist aesthetic. Shulamith has ‘ashen’ hair — either because it is a kind of deep chestnut-grey-brown instead of blonde, or doubly, because she has already been killed in the gas chambers and her body incinerated into literal ash. Aus Herzen und Hirnen has straw affixed to the canvas, and what at first seem to be ominous scythes looming over a field-world ready for reaping. Yet the Celan poem Kiefer uses in this painting is actually ambiguous—the scythes sprout the stalks into life in the night. Kiefer’s use of gold ground here also evokes his ongoing interest in sacred and Kabbalistic themes, at once serving as an inverse sky and also a kind of blankness, like that found behind Christ on the Cross or the Virgin on medieval altarpiece panels.

These paintings were made before Covid-19. The titles of the other three on show in the gallery together are: Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) (2019), Wolfszeit (Axe-Age—Wolf-Age), Ein Wort von Sensen gesprochen (One Word Spoken by Scythes) (2019 – 2020). Each references the end of the world in terms of World War II battle plan, a Viking Edda, and these same Celan lines. In some sense, the end of the world happened again between the time these paintings were made, and when the Gagosian started to exhibit them. For Kiefer, it is always, in some sense, the end of the world; a reckoning of memory, history, and cruelty. Kiefer is an artist not only unique suited to post-war German memory culture, but also to this moment, in which we struggle to configure ourselves in the ruins. How do we become? To whom will we be held to account afterward?

Aus Herzen und Hirnen, through a screen, is paradoxically more haptically accessible than it is in a white cube hang. You can, mediated by the thin glass of the laptop, run your fingers down the scythes into the rough straw as wheat or grass, which does not prick but should. The absence of feeling becomes a reminder of presence. The scythes that fill up a browser window evoke so many deaths, whether recent or historical, and hang over the viewer in a different, yet still powerful, way from a wall viewing. Perhaps the viewership at a distance of this exhibition is inferior, but its mediated inferiority is just the kind of subject Kiefer treats. Later lines from the Celan poem he references read:

schweigt nun dein Aug in mein Aug sich,
heb ich dein Herz an die Lippen,
hebst du mein Herz an die deinen:
was wir jetzt trinken,
stillt den Durst der Stunden;
was wir jetzt sind,
schenken die Stunden der Zeit ein.

A glimpse
now silent, your eyes in my eyes,
I lift your heart to your lips,
you lift my heart to yours :
what we drink now
quenches the thirst of the hours;
what we are now
gives the hours of time.

Even in a broken world about the end, against the eerie radiance of spackled gold and affixed straw, we can stand under the scythes and drink in each other’s lips. Kiefer’s work can be unrelenting, damning, and hard to view. The Le Bourget show is no exception. But fractured as we are by the end of our normal worlds, it is somehow also the perfect time for Kiefer’s oeuvre, which always has, and seemingly always will, stand as testament to loss. Mourning gives our hours time. Kiefer teaches us how to mourn with a dark and intentionally flawed radiance.