Weighty matters

The Anselm Kiefer exhibition that inaugurated the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new wing is still the best show in town.

Art don't reuse 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Art don't reuse 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
The opening of the new Herta and Paul Amir building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was the biggest event in the Israeli art world last year. The new wing was inaugurated with an exhibition by German artist Anselm Kiefer, one of the world’s most respected and prominent artists. Just over four months later, the Kiefer exhibit is still the best show in town.
Titled “Breaking of the Vessels,” the exhibition focuses on Jewish themes in Kiefer’s work and was conceived by the museum’s late director, Motti Omer, and the artist. After Omer’s death, it was Dr. Doron Lurie, head of conservation and a senior curator at the museum who liaised with Kiefer on preparations for the exhibition.
Mounting an exhibit by Kiefer is no easy task, given the large scale and literal weight of the works. The artist uses materials such as lead, clay, plaster and shellac and the works required small cranes and forklift trucks to hang and maneuver them into place. There is a short video at the entrance to the gallery showing some of the preparations, including footage of the artist smashing large sheets of glass for the main installation. Lurie stoically recounted how he went to some trouble to purchase said sheets and then looked on as Kiefer jumped up and down on them.
The works are on display in what is now the museum’s largest gallery space, with two stone enclosures specially constructed for both installations, the aforementioned “Breaking of the Vessels” and West-Eastern Divan. Also on display are 10 impressively large paintings, three gigantic woodcuts and five sculptures from the artist’s “Women of Antiquity” series.
Kiefer is an artist who deals with big themes. For the majority of his working life he has used his country’s history as a backdrop for his paintings, and through the world of Teutonic myth and memory has explored its dark past as no other German artist has done.
Kiefer was born in 1945, close to the end of World War II, in a town in the Black Forest. This was the time when Allied bombs were reducing German towns and cities to dust. In an interview last year the artist stated, “I actually liked the ruins from the war as a child. I used to build little houses out of the rubble.”
This detritus, its flotsam and jetsam, still haunt much of Kiefer’s work; its panoramic scenes of desolate landscapes, the paint- and earth-encrusted canvases resembling ravaged battlefields, the German forests and its world of arboreal myth.
Kiefer however, has inhabited this world for a long time. Too much time in German forests exploring his nation’s hang-ups about “blood and soil” have resulted in him occasionally looking for spiritual sustenance elsewhere, whether that be through the influence of Eastern cultures or the world of Jewish culture, the Hebrew Bible and the Kabbala. Kiefer is a thinking artist known to be a man of the book.
The real stars of this exhibition are the paintings. Most of the canvases are roughly 2.5 meters in height and up to five meters in width. Kiefer’s technique of applying multiple layers of paint and junkyard scraps of metal and other coarse materials make the works look as if they have been wrested from the very bowels of the earth.
Two canvases, Noah and Ararat, deal with the story of the biblical deluge. In Noah, Kiefer has set a small replica of a German U-boat on the canvas, maneuvering a path through a hazardous sea, with ominous-looking mountains in the background. The U-boat appears again in Ararat, a canvas so densely encrusted with a musty, pink-hued paint it resembles a kind of volcanic fossil or the gnarled and twisted bark of some ancient redwood tree. In the Bible, Ararat is the name given to the mountain range where Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood, but today it is a dormant volcanic cone.
Kiefer’s modern take on the biblical story is perhaps a reference to the physical destruction his country and the world suffered during the war. The flood, an apocalyptic event that destroyed everything in its wake, can be seen as akin to the aftermath of World War II. For after this event, Germany, the world and Jewish culture were never the same again.
THE POETRY of Paul Celan has permeated the work of Kiefer since the early 1980s. Celan, a Jewish poet, survived forced labor camps but lost both his parents in the Holocaust. A recent book by German art historian Andrea Lauterwein traces the connection between Celan’s imagery and Kiefer’s use of materials such as sand, straw, hair and ashes in his work.
Three works on display have been inspired by the Romanian poet. All three show vast, snow-covered fields receding into the darkness. In two of the paintings, the fields are dotted with rows of branches and in the work titled For Paul Celan: The Ashflower, burnt books have been placed on small shelves protruding from the canvas.
All is bleak and “ashen” in these landscapes; the colors are gray, black and white, with the occasional dab of amber. The fields are likely battlefields, the rows of branches possibly denoting grave markings. The black markings on the snow might be burnt remnants from the books – or remnants of a grimmer sort.
Kiefer’s historical landscapes are reminiscent of great Romantic artists such as fellow countryman Casper David Friedrich and British artist J.M. Turner. Yet for all his depictions of bleak, desolate scenes, Kiefer has wrought beauty from these battlefields.
Of the two site-specific installations, it is the work titled West-Eastern Divan that is the more visually striking. Its title refers to a collection of poems written by Goethe which was inspired by Muslim poets of the East. Goethe, who also wrote works on botany, tries to evoke the spirit of the East through poetic descriptions of plants and flowers.
Situated in a specially constructed space for the installation are 54 glass panels – 27 panels arranged in rows of three are placed on opposite walls. Each panel houses a variety of mixed media – branches, pressed flowers, seeds and discarded dresses are set in different formations against a background of dried earth and lead. The colors are muted, everything is still and lifeless, hinting at the transient nature of the world.
Amid all this dried earth and plant life Kiefer has written the names of poets and philosophers from both the Eastern and Western cultures – luminaries such as Goethe, Rumi, Spinoza, Darwish and Maimonides. The names are suggestive of the wonder and inspiration offered by the cultures of both East and West and the work could be seen as an elegy to times past, while also offering hope for the future. As the catalogue text states, “this work reminds us, the viewers, of spiritual figures from both religions who, in their writings, sought ways to establish peace and bring repair (tikkun) to the world.”
In an article about the work of Kiefer in 2007, the historian and cultural critic Simon Schama wrote, “this is as good, I think, as art ever gets: mystery and matter delivered in a rush of poetic illumination.”
If I may, I’ll paraphrase Prof. Schama and say “this is as good as it gets, right now.”
“Breaking the Vessels” runs until April 15 at the Golda Meir Cultural and Art Center, 27 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard. Info: (03) 607-7020.