Archive for Caspar David Friedrich

Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part I)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.

By LIZ HAGER

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

—Réné Magritte

onesipe-aguado-woman-seen-from-backOnésipe Aguado, Woman Seen From the Back, 1862,
Salted paper print from glass negative, 12 1/8 x 10 3/16″
Metropolitan Museum)

The human face is a paradox; in the countenance of one is reflected the multitude.  Other human characteristics—fingerprints or retinas, for example—may be more reliable as unique identifiers, yet it is the face that has come to symbolize our sense of self. The face reassures us not only of our own individuality, but of our connection to kin, the Homo Sapiens tribe.

It follows then that a portrait is both a likeness of a particular individual and a mirror of us all. A portrait—the face of another frozen in time—seduces us by inviting us to stare unabashedly. We gaze into the subject’s eyes, and that reflective embrace subtly reminds us of our shared commonality across time and space. Portraits comfort us; we are not alone in this world.

A portrait also records a person  as s/he was seen by the artist and, to some extent, as s/he wanted to be seen by others. And because no work of art is created in a vacuum, a portrait also contains traces of the collective identity—those unique social, political, institutional, and cultural conditions which necessarily influence the specific way a portrait is rendered.  Through the various clues provided or, in many cases, omitted by the artist, we read (or intuit) elements of individual, as well as the collective, identity.

What about Onésipe Aguado’s beguiling photograph from 1862—Woman Seen From the Back? The image shrewdly plays with our notions of portraiture.  On the one hand, the subject is clearly human and our curiosity cannot be contained. Who is this woman and what does she look like?  Without a face, or any telling details of background or visible accoutrements, our focus is directed instead to the exquisite shapes of the sitter’s backside and her costume—the intricate knot of hair, the dots of the comb, the uneven parallelogram of her exposed back, the patterned rectangles of the ruffle, the diagonal folds of her shawl. Though she has no face, this sitter definitely seduces us.

Woman Seen From the Backside is neither fish nor fowl, neither portrait or non-portrait.  Perhaps it is altogether a different genre—a human still life. Though this woman has no individual identity, the photographer has provided the clues that assist us in reading her “collective identity. ”  Through her mid-century costume we can identify her in time (mid-19th century) and  the social strata to which she belong (a woman of some means, unless of course Aguado dressed her, which says something about how the artist saw her). In this way, we do form a tenuous connection with her; she is our kin.

By giving us her backside Aguado has objectified her. And yet, although we can’t see her face, through the backside details, she nonetheless retains an element of humanity. What a feat of magic he has performed!

Olympe Aguado, Self Portrait with His Brother Onésipe, 1853,
Collodion print, 250 x178 mm,
(© Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Estampes et de la photographie)

Aguado did not name his model, which adds to the mysteriousness of the photograph. From the rather pedestrian title the photographer did confer on his image (assuming of course that Aguado himself named it), he clearly had other ambitions on his mind. Interestingly, Maria Morris Hambourg, in her essay for the catalog of the Metropolitan’s The Waking Dream exhibit, surmises that this image is most likely an extension of Aguado’s work investigating photographically-induced foreshortening (i.e. depth of field).

As a mid-19th century photographer, Aguado would have taken subject and compositional cues from contemporary painters. Picturing figures from behind, although rare, was not unknown.  Casper David Friedrich made striking use of this compositional structure  in his 1818 oil Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

* * * * * *

Footnote: Onésipe and his brother Olympe Aguado learned the rudimentaries of photography from Gustave Le Gray.  Although he had limited engagement with the medium, Onésipe is now credited (along with Edouard Delessert) with inventing the popular carte-de-visite format, although it was patented and popularized by Eugène Disdèri.

Wider Connections

Encyclopedia of 19th-century Photography
More Onésipe Aguado images
Gustav Le Gray at the Getty
“The Rise of Photography in France

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