Born in 1945 in Nazi Germany as the Third Reich collapsed, Anselm Kiefer often turns to the dark side of history to provide inspiration and provoke implications for his artwork. Probing deep into images of human devastation, cataclysmic upheavals and recurrent destruction, leavened by hints of regeneration, Kiefer seeks significance in historical cycles, and piles on multiple levels of meaning along with layers of paint and wax. His paintings become sculptural with thick impasto, and his sculptures turn painterly in surface tone and texture. He also pushes on to become bigger and bolder in scale, with paintings that fill entire walls and sculptures that swell towards architectural magnitude.
Such super-sizing demands expansive exhibition space, and a former water cistern at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art seems repurposed to perfection to house three large-scale works on long-term loan from the Hall Art Foundation. Kiefer quotes poetry in “Étroit sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels),” references political history for “The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution),” and toggles between Russian Futurist poetry and mathematical mysticism with “Velimir Chlebnikov.”
“Étroit sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels)” is the height of a seven-story building laid on its side, with eighty-two feet of cast concrete, rebar, rocks and lead strewn across the floor. The materials suggest the rubble of recent disaster while the undulating, interlocking sections create a surging rhythm. The title comes from a work by French poet and diplomat Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) and, high on the wall, Kiefer inscribes lines from the original French [which translate as “One same wave throughout the world, one wave since Troy rolls its haunch towards us”] to suggest echoes of war reverberating from classical Greece to the present. Passages from the poem preceding and following this quote bring love and death into the ongoing cycle, so what remains inexplicit in the installation still hangs in the air, heavy with implication.
If “Vessels” leans on poetry, “The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution)” looks to politics—specifically, the political ideals of twenty women who played important roles in the French Revolution and died in prison or at the guillotine.
Among them, Catherine Théot (1716-1794), a religious visionary, inspired a sect claiming Robespierre as the Messiah. Marie-Jeanne Philippon Roland (1754-1793) helped lead a political faction, but exerted greater influence through memoirs written in prison while awaiting execution. And Charlotte Corday (1768-1793), acting as what today’s National Security Agency would call a lone wolf, stabbed radical revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bathtub.
But don’t expect capsule biographies of these historical characters. Kiefer’s wall text offers names, but no description of deeds. His approach is more evocative than explicative, with the women represented by two long rows of metal beds.
A dusty patina covers the crumpled lead sheets, and each bed bears a hollowed impression filled with pockets of seeping rust, random shards, stones and withered foliage. Looking hastily abandoned but preserved through time, the beds suggest a scene excavated from Pompeii, in tones of an old-time daguerreotype. The empty beds also spiral forward in time, calling to mind current-day scenes of the besieged government school in Nigeria, where terrorists kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in April.
And what about the large-scale photograph hung at the far end of the installation, depicting Kiefer, back turned, striding off into further distance? Is he (or is history) turning away from the political idealism of the women who strove to transform a monarchy into a democracy? Or is he (or is history) moving toward a better future building on their heroic words and deeds? The absence of information in the presence of history allows a free run of imagination.
Imagination and history also freely tangle in “Velimir Chlebnikov.” Contained within its exterior shell of corrugated metal, the installation reveals thirty large-scale paintings entirely covering two walls, floor to ceiling. (It’s one of those mysterious spaces that seem far larger on the inside than on the outside.) The work takes title and imagery from Russian mathematician and Futurist poet Velimir Chlebnikov (1885-1992), who believed that catastrophic naval battles convulse the world every three hundred and seventeen years.
With their overwhelming presence and sheer physicality, the walls of paintings press heavily upward, outward and inward. Viewing the piece becomes an immersive experience, with viewers surrounded, even submerged, by representations of roiling waves, watery blasts and rusting ships. But here again, don’t seek triumphant human heroes. This struggle pits humanity against nature, favoring nature’s destructive force.
As in other works, Kiefer’s palette is dominated by raw ochre, burnt sienna, shades of gray and streaks of black, all punctuated by white. Such colors of scorched earth and industrial decay conjure blasted wreckage on an ocean so thickly plied with layered paint, lead, wax and other materials that it could well be solid ground wrenched apart by an earthquake. The churned-up sea could also be a charred landscape, with dried foliage decorating some surfaces.
Rust-covered, three-dimensional ships—some large, others tiny amidst swollen waves—adhere to painted surfaces. While all ships lurch precariously, one vessel, totally upside down and surrounded by curls of razor wire, seems in most dire straits. In two panels, a hand (actually, a painted glove) hovers top center. Reaching towards classical mythology, is this the Roman god Neptune, stirring up the wild seas? Or, looking more towards Christian tradition, is this the hand of God, guiding mortal struggles?
Whether (or not) we accept Chlebnikov’s theory of recurrent naval battles, the concept of cyclical events casts a narrative loop over history. Cycles roll through the past into the present, and can also spin forward towards the future. So, if we expand Chlebnikov’s premise of global naval battles from ship-to-ship warfare to a more encompassing concept of waterlogged disaster [occurring (or not) every three hundred and seventeen years], we may well wonder about such recent cataclysmic events as Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan, the tsunami that caused the meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima, melting ice sheets in Antarctica….and the threat of more deluge still to come with global climate change.•
Anselm Kiefer, Hall Art Foundation, at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams. Open seasonally, May through November.