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Saturday, 2 February 2013

Painting of the Month (37): Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Lilith, 1990. Oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal and ash on canvas, with clay, women’s hair, strips of lead and poppy seeds, 12 feet by 18 feet, Hans Grothe, Bremen.
The vision depicted in this painting was inspired by a visit to Sao Paolo, Brazil. Kiefer was shocked by the urban sprawl and decay he saw there. He has always been fascinated by aerial views and this picture certainly looks like it was based on a photo taken from an aircraft. In fact he saw the view from a skyscraper.
The painting is definitely not pretty but the story behind it is fascinating and well worth knowing.
Firstly, I would like to say something about Lilith, whose name provides the title of this painting. According to stories of Jewish mysticism found in the Kabbalah, Lilith was a she-devil who was the first partner of Adam before Eve and was created out of the earth like Adam and not from his ribs. Her name can be made out scrawled across the top of the picture. I think the implication is that this nightmare vision is under her influence; she seems to bring devastation upon the Modernist architecture of Sao Paulo.
Now, sometimes accessing works of art is difficult, but I think that the more one has to work to understand or interpret the artist the greater the final appreciation will be. I hope you will read on and gain some insight and hopefully be interested in my ideas.
Some background to the artist Anselm Kiefer: He was born in Germany five weeks before the death of Adolf Hitler and grew up in the turbulent post-war years in a divided country. Like many Germans of his generation he has tried to come to terms with German history and guilt.
The picture itself depicts a kind of apolcalyptic haze which was created by the artist throwing dust and ash across it's surface. (Ashes to ashes, dust to dust?) He also uses tangled copper-wire stuck to the surface and has actually burned some of the surface area. The painting is huge and fills most of a wall in the Tate Gallery in London. To stand in front of it is an awe-inspiring and emotional experience. The scale is so large that it almost seems life-sized and can make you feel almost giddy.
Dresden, 1945
So, what is a very powerful image for a young German who is fascinated by aerial pictures? - Maybe it's the city of Dresden that was controversially destroyed by 800 Royal Air Force bomber aircraft followed, the next day, by 311 US bombers just to make sure. The city was pretty much undefended. This happened in February 1945 when the allies were about to win the war. I can find no reference to this connection anywhere, although it looks like a rather rather powerful linkage to me. Interestingly the Brazilian architect of Sao Paolo, Oscar Niemeyer (who died last December just before his 105th birthday) was of German descent and the Nazis were renowned for their love of modern imperial architecture - not unlike what Niemeyer created in Sao Paolo. Just saying, that's all.
Kiefer has used real woman's hair stuck to the surface of the picture. This possibly refers to a passage from Goethe's Faust. Here's a quote:
  Adam's wife, his first. Beware of her. 
  Her beauty's one boast is her dangerous hair.
  When Lilith winds it tight around young men
  She doesn't soon let go of them again.
  (1992 Greenberg translation, lines 4206-4211)
Finally, it's interesting to know where Anselm Kiefer lives now. It's in the old traditional Jewish quarter in Paris.


Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Knowing the background of the artist gives one more appreciation of his works.

I enjoyed this post very much.

bazza said...

Thanks Arleen. I was afraid that this post would be a bit too 'heavy'. I am happy if people read it; if they comment, that's a bonus.

Anonymous said...

From the illustrious pen of the fabulous Sir Tom Eagerly:
Hello Bazza old boy. I don't suppose Rolf Harris did a version of this did he? No, I thought not.
Bomber Harris maybe? Just my little joke for the Brits.

bazza said...

Sir Tom: A very little joke Sir Tom, you rascal!

Lost in Space said...

I am fairly sure that I have seen this painting in the flesh, in London, many years ago. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing piece of art, but it is very interesting and for that reason I like it.

Thank you for this post and the history of the artist.

bazza said...

Lost in Space: Thanks for visiting. It was painted between 1987 and 1990 and is owned by the Tate but I don't think it's on display at the moment. You were lucky to have seen it!

Kelly said...

Looks like a scene from a horror movie in the first painting. At least, it gives you that feeling of horror- which I'm sure was intended.

Good to see that Sir Tom left a comment. I thought he'd gotten so drunk that he'd fell off into oblivion. I missed the ol' chap.

Take care, Bazza

klahanie said...

Greetings bazza,

Oh my, that rather depressing depiction of the urban sprawl seems to portray some of the feelings of the artist and his life.

I wonder if Sir Tom could do a rendition of "Jake the Peg."

Thank you for your heartfelt comment on my posting. Meant a great deal.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.


bazza said...

Kezza: You must be correct about the intended feeling of horror. By the way, just for clarity, the second picture is a photograph.
As for Sir Tom, he probably fell off of something!

bazza said...

Gary: Sir Tom, with his extra leg, is the classic case of "I don't know much about art but I know what I like".
Interestingly, your phrase 'urban sprawl' is often used to describe this painting.
By the way, I am happy to see that you are 'out and about' in the Blogosphere!

Dixie@dcrelief said...

12' x 18' - perfect size for the impact it commands. With all of the various elements and mediums, I'd love to actually see it.

The hair reminds me of a spectre, floating across the city in search of any life left to take.

Hauntingly beautiful and I don't know why. Dresden works as a location. Very nice, Bazza. I enjoyed the art piece and your shared information!

Good Sunday to you.

joanne fox said...

Hmm... not quite sure what I think of that one. I expect that to see the full size version is quite a different experience. An interesting story about Lilith, thanks.

John said...

Hi Bazza,
They say a picture says a thousand words (I don't know who 'they' are!)and this picture brings to mind a choking, pollution filled city, that is strangling the very life out of its citizens!
Is the name Lilith where the character of Fraziers' wife came from, she was called Lilith and a bit of a she-devil!?
Always an education to visit here Bazza!

bazza said...

Hi Dixie. Yes the piece of hair is like something floating over the scene.
I have had a lovely Sunday, thanks and I hope you did too. (This morning I went on a guided walk called Karl Marx's London starting at Picadilly Circus and ending up at the British Museum!)

bazza said...

Hello Joanne. I don't think you would want it hanging in your home but it is captivating to see in a gallery partly because of the huge scale. I hadn't heard of Lilith myself until I saw this picture about ten years ago.
I certainly didn't know that Adam had an 'ex'!

bazza said...

Hi John. Of course; I hadn't made that connection. I just checked on and Lilith is not in the top 1,000 names for a girl. Not surprising really with her background!

All Consuming said...

Fantastic post. Love it. Thank you bazza :D

bazza said...

AC: Thank you. Now I'm blushing!