Anselm Kiefer

On Framing and Displaying Paintings by Chris Hall

Francois Joseph Heim,  Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824 , 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Francois Joseph Heim, Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Sometimes stuffing a painting into a picture frame can be as confining as a tuxedo, or a straight jacket.  A century ago and before, art could fit more comfortably in a frame.  Paintings were hung salon style, side by side, clustered together, and in close proximity to each other.  The elaborate and ornate gold frames acted as a visual stop, closing the painting off and keeping it from interfering with the neighboring paintings.  But these framing devices worked well with the paintings of the time, which were all created with formal academic techniques such as perspective, giving them the illusion of depth.  The frame acted as a kind of open window through which people would view the painted tableau within.  Modern Art, which favored the pursuit of truth and reality over artifice, destroyed this illusion.  

As painting grew more and more abstract and  perspective fell into disuse, the works became progressively flatter.  Impasto techniques and abstract over-all composition also meant that the paintings began to have aspirations of expanding outside of the frame.  This trend culminated in the epic scale works of the Abstract Expressionists.  These demanding works had territorial ambitions and  sought to overwhelm to the viewer.  The abstract compositions were now active participants in a gallery space, where before, the works of art were objects of passive reflection.  Modern Art paintings do not always play nice with their neighbors, and so galleries and museums began to drop the confined and cramped salon style installation of art, in favor of giving art more breathing room.  Part of giving Modern Art paintings more breathing room meant getting rid of the stuffy and confining ornate gold frames of old.  Instead, the new paintings were given thin, minimal frames, if they were framed at all.  The visual stop of the framing device was just too much for works of art that aspired to be wild and free, and to go on forever into space, expanding out into the world.  

Oddly enough, while the elaborate gold frames of yester-year may seem a bit too stuffy and formal for Modern Art paintings, the evolution of art installation from the salon style to giving works of art breathing room has unintentionally created a new formality:  cold-white, uninviting, and empty gallery spaces.  There is a new trend in art, however, to show small scale works, such as drawings and prints, once again in the salon style.  I believe the informality of salon style installation is suitable for the humble and democratic nature of drawing and printmaking, and the intimacy of salon style installation can also make a gallery space more inviting.  Salon style installation, where everything is displayed from floor to ceiling, is also good way to convey the idea that Art should be organic, without hierarchy, and without excessive pruning from an overly brutal gardener.  


Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

Search for the Sublime by Chris Hall

I long for a spiritual revival in Contemporary Art.  The last time a formal movement championed this was Abstract Expressionism/Art Informal in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The sublime works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others was a refreshing antidote to the dead, propagandistic art coming out of the Eastern Bloc at the time (though it was recently declassified that the CIA secretly championed the movement to help attract intellectuals to the freedom of expression tagline, this, despite the fact that many of the artists were radicals and former Communists).  

But in today’s Contemporary Art theory, which is largely Marxist in nature, there is no room for religion or spirituality.  They too often confuse the sins of organized religion with spirituality, which is more personal in nature.  To these critics, spirituality is considered anachronistic and kitsch (not so much dangerous, because danger is sexy and inviting).  I would like to see more spirituality in art, more of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime, such as described by the philosopher Edmund Burke, but interpreted through a new, contemporary lense.  Humanity needs this nourishment.  We drink eight glasses of water a day and still thirst for the infinite.  

 

Click on the images below for larger size and image details

Anselm Kiefer,  Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior , 2005

Anselm Kiefer, Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior, 2005