I learn something every day about our Anselm Kiefer exhibition. I particularly learn something when taken round by Tim Marlow, our Director of Artistic Programmes, who knows so much about Kiefer from many years working with him at White Cube. He mentioned two key literary sources for Kiefer’s mythographic ideas. One is the writings of Robert Fludd, the early seventeenth-century Rosicrucian and cosmologist, who believed in a close connection between plants and the stars. The second is the poetry of Paul Celan, the Romanian-born, German-speaking Jewish poet and translator who settled in Paris after the war and whose best known work is Todesfuge.
It will be interesting to see what the reaction is of the art world to our Kiefer exhibition. In talking last night to a party organised by BNP Paribas, who are sponsors of the exhibition, I was reminded that he came to public prominence in Britain in the early 1980s through the exhibition New Spirit in Painting held at the RA in 1981 which celebrated the return to subject matter in painting, and the belief that painting could and should occupy the realms of literature, philosophy and symbolism. This idea has become deeply unfashionable without it in any way affecting Kiefer’s public reputation. So, the question is whether or not Kiefer’s work will have any effect on a new generation of artists to explore, as he has, ideas of history and will respond to the profundity of the work.
A busy day for our Kiefer exhibition. The private view last night was more crowded than I have ever known a private view, full of the European art crowd, young, rich and smart, all in their black suits. Kiefer himself arrived, immaculately lean, mainly for the dancing at the after party. Reviews have been wonderful, five stars in the Times, five stars in the Guardian. And the experience of the exhibition is overwhelming, full of a relatively small number of monumental works, tracing his career from its beginning and including works which are fresh from the studio. I strongly recommend seeing the exhibition in daylight because both the octagon, which contains a vast installation called Ages of the World, and the penultimate room, which contains seven grand works of wheatfields (they refer to the so-called Morgenthau Plan whereby Germany was to become farmland), are bathed in natural daylight.
Yesterday, I had a first tour of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition with Kathleen Soriano, its curator. What came across was, first, the extent to which it is conceived as a paintings exhibition, not so much his work as an installation artist, in homage to the scale and history of Sidney Smirke’s grand exhibition galleries; second, the way in which it is suffused by imagery from the Catholic church, including palettes with angels’ wings; and, third, the extent to which it is informed by German woodcuts from his early ‘Attic’ series based on his studio in Hornsbach right through to the collage of woodcuts displayed as folding screens in the last room.
In the early afternoon, we drove from Avignon up into the rough hills to Barjac, where Anselm Kiefer bought an old silk mill in the early 1990s. We started in the undercroft of a large shed, feeling our way through the back passages: