Anselm Kiefer on a massive scale at the Beyeler Foundation

The German master of the mythical and grandiose puts on a large-scale overview show


The exhibition space of the Beyeler Foundation is large enough to house monumental works of art; until 17 February it is devoted to an artist who has founded his success largely on the rediscovery of pictorial monumentality.

The artist in question is Anselm Kiefer. He was able to relaunch “history painting” at a single blow; this was in the 1980s, when tolerance was exercised towards revivals and quotations after years of bleak conceptualism. The current exhibition begins with three works dating from 1973, which provide evidence that even then Kiefer was taking risks (not the least of which was practising nostalgia, a dangerous ploy for a German artist) in an unsuspecting period. The thread running through this whole exhibition is the four different types of architecture, visionary or real, which figure in his paintings: the first is “Celestial palaces,” which in the three works mentioned above assume the appearance of the wood-lined interior of Kiefer’s first studio in Odenwald. The shadowy arcades of the next series, “Stone Halls”, begun in 1983, allude to the threatening nature of Nazi architecture. In these stone halls lives the spirit of Shulamith, the Jewish heroine of Paul Celan’s poem “Fuite de la mort” written in 1945.

The other two cycles are more recent. “Clay architecture” is the gigantic (9m x 5m) pyramid seen in Ca’ Correr in Venice during the 1995 Biennale; the reference here is to the symbols linking this kind of architecture and the obelisk, or the relationship between the world of shadows and the solar dimension.

The exhibition ends with the great sky maps seen in 1999 at Kiefer’s one-man show at the Galleria Comunale in Bologna.

It has been suggested that Kiefer’s black humour has diminished somewhat since his move to Provence. The painter (famous in the early 1980s for works like the “Mausoleum for the unknown artist”) now converses with a much larger dimension—the macrocosm—which houses the stars (with the names given them by NASA written underneath), gigantic sunflowers, and the final hymn to the “Sol Invictus” invoked by the legions of the Roman Empire.

But the 56 year-old Kiefer has not lost his taste for the underworld. Since 1993 he has been working on a massive, multi-dimensional scale, constructing pieces consisting of subterranean rooms, installations and other built elements.

The current exhibition contains 25 paintings and 11 gouaches; it is accompanied by a catalogue with an introductory essay by the writer Christoph Ransmayr.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Anselm Kiefer and the Temple of Doom'