There is another phrase for ‘mixed media’; one that doesn’t harbour vaguely embarrassed recollections of GCSE art projects. It is Anselm Kiefer.
The German artist’s largest exhibition in London thus far couldn’t have found a better nest than the White Cube group’s space in Bermondsey. The stark, vacuum-like gallery holds up a mirror to Kiefer’s twenty pieces (work ranging from 1988 to the present, though mostly new), which are spread across the four rooms of the South Gallery.
It is right that they have been given as much of their own space as possible. They are demanding works, comprising disturbing sculptures and several of his signature vast canvasses. The theme of the exhibition is alchemy, and almost every work has a fascinating story behind it (helpfully supplied in a leaflet by the gallery).
This is a fitting theme for an artist whose materials range from metals through plaster, resin and dried flowers to ash and salt. You are never certain what it is you are looking at. The pieces seem to transform before your eyes, they rust and decay but simultaneously remain and form anew as further details creep out at you: the WWII aircrafts slipping out between the pages of an immense, winged book in Sprache der Vögel (Language of the Birds) for example.
Books and warplanes seem to obsess Kiefer. The latter are no surprise with an artist who constantly revisits The Holocaust, perhaps in an attempt to work through German post-war guilt. Giant skeletons of sunflowers grow out of a bouquet of an aircraft’s wrenched off wing in Finis Gloriae Mundi (The End of the World’s Glory), planes gather like bees around the artificially-rusted pages of another book in Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (The Rose Gives the Bees Honey).
But the books are interesting. Mythology? History? Or shape perhaps. He likes things that fold (pages) wrought in materials that one doesn’t associate with folding (lead, steel). Other things you might come across that fold: stacks of collapsible chairs, wings. Wings, too, worry his work. In the hauntingly beautiful Il Mistero delle Cattedrali (The Mystery of the Cathedrals), the white shadow of an angel’s vast wings loom through a huge paint and oil spattered canvas.
Il Mistero delle Cattedrali is a journey through a decaying world of metallic shades by an artist at the height of his talents. It is the culmination of a lifetime’s study and fascination with varied but strangely linking topics: Kiefer has come so far in his art as to create his own Philosopher’s Stone.
Do not miss it.
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