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(Detail.) Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1982–2013, woodcut on canvas. Private collection; Courtesy DIEHL Gallery, Berlin

Meeting a Kindred Soul. First Impressions 0

Review: “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s” at the “Arsenāls” exhibition space of the Latvian National Museum of Art

Pēteris Bankovskis

 With the support of the State Culture Capital Foundation

“Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s” (“Wahlverwandtschaften”), an impressive panoramic view of German art created over the last half-century, has recently opened at the “Arsenāls” exhibition space of the Latvian National Museum of Art; it will close on 21 August. A grandiose exhibition on (not only) Latvia’s scale, it features 53 German artists and more than 70 of their works. Displayed in the recreated space (as executed by Martins Vizbulis and colleagues) are artworks by Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Hanne Darboven, Jörg Immendorff, Martin Kippenberger, Markus Lüpertz, A. R. Penck, Gerhard Richter, Rosemarie Trockel, and many, many other artists with mostly excellent bodies of work. Each of the aforementioned artists have had either scholarly or popular books written about them (which also applies to many of the other artists featured in the exhibition), and their art has been exhibited in the world’s largest contemporary art museums. Practically unprecedented for the local art scene – in terms of ambition, work, and capital investment – the exhibition has the company Forta Medical and the entrepreneur Guntis Rāvis to thank for its existence. Mark Gisbourne – the Berlin-based British art historian, curator, and prolific author – has curated the exhibition; one that is so saturated that I sincerely hope that it is seen by as many ‘observers of the interactions between art and the present moment’ as possible.

Gerhard Richter. Red, 1982, oil on canvas. Courtesy Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin. Publicity picture

“Wahlverwandtschaften”, which directly translates as “elected affinities” in English, has been given the Latvian name of “Gara radinieki” (Kindred Souls). Those acquainted with German literature will recognize this as also being the title of a novel by Goethe. A scandalous book for its time, it tells the story of two seemingly loving couples, and how these four people attract and repel one another as their relationships develop. Being not only a writer, politician, “lover of style”, and so on, Goethe was also a natural scientist, and in it this novel he describes and explains the relationships of his characters by way of chemical mechanisms and reactions. One often hears the term “having chemistry” applied (both correctly and erroneously), for example, to two actors in a production, or to two celebrities covered in the tabloid press. As one would expect from a person of letters, Mark Gisbourne presupposes this “emotional chemistry” of Goethe as having come from the alchemist digressions of Paracelsus (1493-1541). In his opening address for the exhibition, Gisbourne also threw out a scant allusion to the German Christian mystics – take that as you will.

Georg Baselitz. Finger painting - birches, 1972, oil on canvas. Courtesy Hall Collection. Publicity picture

It may well be that many of us here in Latvia feel like kindred souls in regards to the Germans. Even if we don’t feel that way, we are; after all, even the first Latvian dictionaries (essential elements confirming thought) were put together by speakers of German, i.e., people belonging to the German sphere of culture. Nevertheless, let’s allow the “700 years of bondage” to remain a contribution to “Latvian-ness”. The kindred spirit is here and now, as well. It has arisen from our shared traumatic experiences: both World Wars; Germany’s humiliation at Versailles after WWI; the Soviet occupation of Latvia before and after WWII; the bombing of Germany, its loss of nationhood, its split – then reunification; Latvia’s tragicomic wish to restore nationhood upon an ideal, between-war model that has long ceased to exist; our obsession with mourning protocol for flying the flag; and all sorts of other things. Perhaps, under the influence of precisely this slipshod sketch of a discourse, some viewers of the exhibition may hope to directly observe this evocation of a “kindred spirit” in a context of German-Latvian cultural kinship. They will be disappointed. For Gisbourne’s objective is different – he has formed the exhibition as a fact of art, one in which this “emotional chemistry” is to be understood as ongoing since the 1960s, this drama of the German inner introverted quest for kinship; and I’ll add, this drama’s “chemical marriage” with the recovery, and bedazzlement, of the finally-attained relativizing reality of the Western world’s consumerist society.

Katharina Grosse. Untitled, 2009, acrylic and soil on canvas. Courtesy König Gallerie, Berlin. Publicity picture

On my way to the exhibition, not yet knowing anything about its breadth and content, I pondered what sort of title I could give to my thoughts on what I may see there; something like: “Germany, Absent Anselm Kiefer”. It seemed to me that, no matter how well the exhibition may be organized, getting Kiefer’s works to Riga would be highly unlikely – because of their huge size, their expensiveness, and lots of other reasons. That notwithstanding, there really are works by Kiefer in the exhibition; but as to the title of my thoughts, there’s still some thinking to do: on one hand, Kiefer has been living in self-imposed exile in France since the 1990s; but on the other, what would modern-day German art be without his contributions? Even quantitatively. To get a grasp of Kiefer’s productivity, think of the lifetime body of work by Ilmārs Blumbergs, except multiply it in proportion to the difference between Latvia and Germany in terms of geographical and historical dimensions. I’ll just add that, ever since I first saw Kiefer’s works at some exhibition in Germany, I have felt that, from that moment on, he will be my “kindred spirit”.

Three important works by Anselm Kiefer are currently on view at the “Arsenāls” exhibition hall: the 1986 “painting” on a lead base, “Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde”; the 1982-2013 woodcut on paper, “To the Unknown Painter”; and the ca. 1986 [according to the label and the catalog – P.B.] “painting” on a lead base, “Black Bile”. I’m placing the word “painting” in quotes because the above-mentioned, as well as most of, Kiefer’s works are created in a complex technique in which the most unusual of materials and methods are used in order to attain the hoped-for result in each work; in abstract layman’s terms – it’s the artist’s own personal technique.

“Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde” is Kiefer’s examination of an event that takes place in the fathoms of the Nibelung legend. In 1975, with the traditional method of using oil paints on canvas, Kiefer created a version depicting a snowy plowed field leading off into the distance; illustrating perfect linear perspective and executed in a rather free-form way, there’s a scribbled “Siegfried vergißt Brünhilde” lying parallel in one of the furrows. Another oil painting done in 1975, and with the same title, sold at London’sSotheby’s on 18 October, 2013, for £266,500. In that work, most of the painting consists of a deep darkness, but in the forefront there are what look like dancing flames and an Erlenmeyer flask. A third, smaller examination of Siegfried was created in 1976; done in a complex technique that also involves photography, in the forefront of the figurative work there is a naked Siegfried kneeling in the pose of a bound slave. He tries to reach for the toadstools (to forget? to die?), but further in the background, a monumental Brunhilde stands and watches his sufferings. The work on display in Riga, made in 1986, could be said to be putting an end to the unrest caused by the Siegfried saga. In this case, the lead plate brings to mind associations with coffins – the kind in which soldiers are brought home from foreign wars, or with protective armor that shields dangerous and uncontrollable radiation. Delicate dried twigs (practically grass) have been glued to the unevenly charcoal-covered lead surface, and lightly bend over in the winds of forgetfulness –- a kind of attempt to seal up one of several burning trains of thought. 

Anselm Kiefer. To the Unknown Painter, 1982–2013, woodcut on canvas. Private collection; Courtesy DIEHL Gallery, Berlin

A 190cm x 330cm-large wood engraving documents an important period of Kiefer’s artistic struggle –- a dedication to an unknown painter – as we read on a label that was later made and affixed to the image of a grandiose building. From 1980 to 1983, Kiefer worked on a series of paintings in which he depicted projects designed by the renown Nazi-era German architects Albert Speer and Wilhelm Kreis. “To the Unknown Painter” (1983) was a clear reference to the Court of Honor of Speer’s design for the New Reich Chancellery, which was to be a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. The thought came to me that this depiction of a structure – the remains of which were demolished by the Soviet occupying forces – could have been made as a sketch for a painting, and in later years, once it had already become a part of a collage, it simply floated above the waters of the “river of time” (or perhaps, a current of cheap forgetfulness). Or, is it yet another sealed-up battlefield? Is this one of Kiefer’s reflections (neither the first nor the last) upon the artist’s place “after Auschwitz”?

Anselm Kiefer. Black Bile, 1986, organic material, wax crayon, chalk on lead, artist’s frame. Private collection; Courtesy Galerie Bastian, Berlin

The third work by Anselm Kiefer on view in Riga is, as I already mentioned, “Schwarze Galle”, which translates as “Black Bile”. I don’t know if the indicated date of the work is correct. In any case, other sources, such as Martin Depper’s article “Melancholy in Color” [1], point out a different date – 1989. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Depper, and that this piece, along with the 1988 work “Melancholia”, says something about Kiefer’s feelings and thoughts during the late 1980s, and yes – also in relation to his large solo show in the USA. Simon Schama, a historian and admirer of Kiefer’s art, has written: “There is no doubt that Keifer’s impolite wish to play with fire has resulted in his being accused of arson. In Germany he is still looked upon with suspicious disgust, and his 1088-89 traveling exhibition in the US was also not received with universal delight. Arthur Danto even went as far as accusing Kiefer of deceitful hypocrisy, admonishing him of sinking into a half-witted cult of Wagnerism, and implying that he disseminates the mysticism of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden), which he himself purports to deplore.” [2] Attacks came from all sides. The art critic Jed Perl ominously pointed out that Kiefer, like no one else, uses the Holocaust to play around with it like a symbol. Referring to Primo Levi’s final completed book before his suicide, Perl wrote that Kiefer attempts to revive the importance of the concepts “Germany” and “Fatherland”, notions which have been permanently lost to so many [3].

We’ll leave this “Holocaust discourse” alone this time, however, at least in terms of “Germany” and “Fatherland”. Perl and others of like mind are right. No matter how much they might not like it, Anselm Kiefer, it seems to me, truly speaks the most radically and courageously about how Germany – loser of two wars, and essentially transformed by collective guilt and the Marshall Plan – has not gone anywhere. Kiefer’s Germany is uninterrupted: the Teutoburg Forest and the battle that took place in it, as described by Tacitus, in which the German chieftain Arminius defeated the Varus-led Roman legion, is significant to it – as are: the ring of the Nibelung lying in the watery depths of the Rhine, the Reich Chancellery, and Buchenwald. It appears that in Kiefer’s historic thinking, there is no silencing nor tendency dictated by conjecture. That is why, when looking back at the atrocities committed by the human race, one cannot help but be overcome by sadness, depression, and melancholy. “Black Bile”. An irregular polyhedron with rhombus-shaped facets, drawn with chalk on processed lead; glued around it in a seemingly chaotic composition, as written in the annotation, is organic material. More precisely – intestines. The kind that are used to encase sausages. The black bile thing is pretty clear, now. As Agnese Gaile and Aija van Hofa surmise in their commentary, the Hippocratic Collection of writings unequivocally indicate that “the increase in volume of black bile in the body and its penetration of various ‘organs’ […] influences a person’s psychiatric state or even sanity.”[4] Further in their commentary, the translators add that it was only after Aristotle’s era that “melancholia”, or an overabundance of black bile in the body, was systematically linked to depression or nervousness in Greek texts.

This is how melancholia enters the European cultural sphere. In the artwork on display in the Riga exhibition, melancholia enters through the title, but most of all – through the polyhedron which, as one can easily imagine, brings the viewers thoughts to Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) famous engraving, “Melencolia I”. Indeed, the polyhedron – similarly mysterious and variously interpreted – is practically identical in both works. The rest differs; even though, if one thinks about it, the shape taken on by Kiefer’s glued-on intestines compositionally echoes the silhouette of Dürer’s winged woman. Much has been written about Dürer’s engraving, with even Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), the “father” of iconography, having given his two cents on cracking its mysteries. But there have also been attempts at linking Dürer’s melancholia with that of Anselm Kiefer. One of these is Peter-Klaus Schuster’s article “MELENCOLIA I: Dürers Denkbild.” Referencing the often-cited linking together of Saturn, Elementalism, lead, and the color black, Schuster charges that it is specifically Saturn that rules over black bile, and therefore induces melancholia; lead, earth and the color black, on the other hand, are crucial aspects of Anselm Kiefer’s artistic palette throughout his almost 40-year body of work. Together with lead, also important are the dried (mummified) remains of plants – as in the 2015 installation “Saturn – Zeit”, on view last year in Kiefer’s retrospective exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Therefore, one shouldn’t wonder that the Saturnical beginning’s dark side, facing oblivion and destruction, is what is repeatedly emphasized [5].

I found the following adage on the internet: “Schlafen die Gedärme nicht, schläft auch der Mensch nicht” (When the intestines don’t sleep, man also doesn’t sleep). Whereas in Latvia, one occasionally hears the following rather crude rejoinder: “One can loose one’s guts hearing something like that!” These examples lead one to think that the intestines, which we so often tend to demean in status, are, nevertheless, not completely hidden behind the horizons of one’s consciousness. And the fact that the lion’s share of the graphic language in Kiefer’s black bile testimonial has been entrusted expressly to intestines that have been cleaned and dried (ergo, dead) – means something. Perhaps even the supposition that melancholia, the black bile of which saturates history, no longer has a living human which it can inhabit. Is such a pessimistic inference possible? Kiefer’s body of work tells me that it is. It is not for nothing that hundreds of pages have been written about the significance of Paul Celan upon Kieger’s artistic course. 

The works of Anselm Kiefer on display in Riga are undeniably pessimistic. But it would be wrong to say that they (and his whole body of work) are so because Kiefer measures today’s negations of “progress” with some mystical golden age of human history. There is a lot of mysticism in Kiefer’s works, but its mistiness is such that the “hero” has no chance of finding the magic stream (true love), of washing his eyes, and then prevailing. This is how it is in the group of works dedicated to the history of German spirit, three notable examples of which we see in Riga: installations and painterly works dedicated to the Old Testament, ancient Mesopotamia, and other stories.

In the most trustworthy modern-day Latvian dictionary, melancholia is defined as seclusion, and also as despondency and dejection [6]. It seems it couldn’t be any clearer. One could even say that melancholia is one of the inescapable elements of normal human existence. Alongside, and in combination with, others, of course. Anselm Kiefer’s body of work, in my opinion, nevertheless accents the melancholic spirit’s inability to connect with the rest of a person. Can that even be? Robert Burton (1577-1640), author of the most famous book on melancholia (see: Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1989–1994, edited by Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair, introduced and commented by J. B. Bamborough; a scientific publication in three volumes), would assuredly say that it is possible. In the introduction to his admirable book, Burton writes: “...what's the world itself? A vast chaos, a confusion of manners, as fickle as the air, domicilium insanorum [a mad house], a turbulent troop full of impurities, a mart of walking spirits, goblins, the theatre of hypocrisy, a shop of knavery, flattery, a nursery of villany, the scene of babbling, the school of giddiness, the academy of vice; a warfare, ubi velis nolis pugnandum, aut vincas aut succumbas [where you will not want to fight, or overcome or succumb], in which kill or be killed; wherein every man is for himself, his private ends, and stands upon his own guard. No charity, love, friendship, fear of God, alliance, affinity, consanguinity, christianity, can contain them, but if they be any ways offended, or that string of commodity be touched, they fall foul.”[7]

Conscious of one’s presence (today we might say: Dasein) in such a world of “black bile”, a person might truly be overcome by seclusion, despondency and dejection. However, there is one antidote to this state of melancholia. It is not for nothing that Dr. Samuel Johnson, the creator of the English language dictionary, once said that Burton's “Anatomy of Melancholy” “...was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise." Why so? Elsewhere he explains to Boswell: “The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” [8]

Perhaps Dr. Johnson’s formulated maxim is the only thing that allows a person to “to take arms against a sea of troubles”. In any case, those artist’s who have had fate heave the weight of the world upon their shoulders, follow this sketched-out-by-Burton, finalized-by-Johnson guideline; especially if a fellow confederate says, as one might recall: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Interestingly enough, the German translation of Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” first came out after the fall of the Berlin Wall [10]. Obviously, the translating of “Anatomy” is not easy; almost half of its more than one thousand pages of text consist of transformed quotes, mostly in Latin, from various antique and later sources. However, knowing the ability and experience of German publishers, this does seem unusual. Unless, of course, one subscribes to the following notion: that throughout all of the previous centuries, beginning with the Reformation and right up to the point of a unified Germany accepting a perspective of the unknown, the German spirit had not stopped reaching for the ring of the Nibelung – and had kept itself alert with schadenfreude. And messengers of melancholia, such as Anselm Kiefer, could not make positive the mood of neither the conservatives, the liberals, the right-wing capitalists, nor the leftist “armies”.  

[1] Martin Roman Depper. Melancholie in Farbe. In: Nachmärz: Der Ursprung Der Ästhetischen Moderne In Einer Nachrevolutionären Konstellation, ed. Thomas Koebner, Sigrid Weigel, Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, S. 117–143)

[2] Simon Schama. Landscape and Memory. Vintage Books, New York, 1995, p 133

[3] Jed Perl. A Dissent on Kiefer. The New Criterion, December 1988. In: Against the Grain, ed. by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995, pp 150, 151

[4] Hipokratiskie raksti. Izlase. Agneses Gailes un Aijas van Hofas tulkojums no sengrieķu valodas, ievads un komentāri. – R.: Liepnieks un Rītups, 2003, p 293

[5] Peter-Klaus Schuster. MELENCOLIA I: Dürers Denkbild. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1991, S. 154. For more on Saturn’s connection to melancholia, see: Saturn and Melancholy; Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2005

[6] Latviešu literārās valodas vārdnīca. 5. sējums. – R.: Zinātne, 1984., p 142

[7] Citation from the internet: A reprint of the sixth edition of Burton’s book (1652) – Chatto and Windus, London, 1883

[8] James Boswell. LIfe of Johnson. Oxford University Presss, Oxford, New York, repr. 1991, pp 438, 1042–3

[9] “to take arms against a sea of troubles”

[10] Robert Burton: Anatomie der Melancholie. 1. Aufl. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, München 1991, ISBN 3-423-02281-7 (gekürzt und übersetzt von Ulrich Horstmann)