Confronting the Past

In the inaugural exhibition of its new Amir Building, Tel Aviv Museum of Art presents an important exhibition of work on Jewish history and mythology by German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art is that rarest of institutions: an art gallery with an important political legacy. Founded in 1932, the original building of the museum was the former home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, who had instructed the gift of the property in his will. In 1948, it was in this building (renamed Independence Hall after the museum moved to different premises in 1971) that David Ben-Gurion signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 14 May, in a ceremony held in secrecy through fear that the British Army may have attempted to prevent its occurrence. Given this heritage, it seems particularly appropriate that the museum should be staging a major exhibition by Anselm Kiefer, one of the most politically engaged and historically acute of contemporary artists.

Titled Shevirat Ha-Kelim: The Breaking of the Vessels after the event in the teachings of the Kaballah that explains why disharmony exists in the world, Kiefer’s exhibition is the first to take place in Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s impressive new Herta and Paul Amir Building, designed by the Massachusetts-based architect Preston Scott Cohen, and opened to the public on 2November. A dynamic building of complex geometric shape, it is characterised by light, airy spaces, most notably an expansive 87 foot atrium, appropriately called “Lightfall.” Its swooping curves and angles create a refracting effect. The luminous exuberance of the building forms a particularly contrasting environment in which to experience Kiefer’s weighty, dark canvases; a fact that curator Dr. Doron J. Lurie welcomes, stating that “interesting contradictions have always been a part of Kiefer’s work.”

The exhibition centres around a new site-specific installation, also titled Shevirat Ha-Kelim (2011). Kiefer has broken glass within the gallery and situated its shards and fragments in a library made of lead. Half library, half bomb-shelter, the large, folio-sized books appear well-thumbed and dog-eared, but not, by virtue of the solidity and weight of their material, fragile. There are shards of glass protruding from the bookshelves and further debris surrounding the library on the floor. The piece recalls the nightmarish rubble of Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass”, the pogrom in 1938 that devastated Jewish communities in Germany. By situating the broken glass in the library, Kiefer points towards possibilities for healing and mending, through learning, art and literature. Literature, in Kiefer’s work, seems to endure, almost above all else.

One of the most unusual and impressive aspects of Kiefer’s more recent work is the way he has incorporated the symbols, myths and iconographic teachings of the Kaballah into his confrontations with recent history. According to the Kaballah, the Breaking of the Vessels occurred when God’s light could not be contained within the 10 vessels that were housing it, thus creating a state of discord in the world. Harmony is only re-attainable through a process of “tikkun olam”, which Dr. Lurie translates as “world mend”, and which is intended to reconnect Jews with “the infinite.” Above Kiefer’s installation, there hangs a glass crescent, on which the words “Ain Soph” are etched: the Hebrew words for “unending” or “infinite.” In Kiefer’s Shevirat Ha-Kelim (2011), it is possible to see an impulse towards mending and a faith in the durability of learning, but this can only be achieved through a cathartic taking of responsibility, a process of facing up to history with an unshrinking gaze.

Indeed, Kiefer’s work is certainly “unshrinking.” Born in 1945, so with no first-hand memory of the Third Reich, Kiefer has faced up to his country’s history in a way that many were reluctant to do in the years following the Nuremberg Trials in 1949. In 1969, at his graduation show at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Art, Kiefer presented a highly controversial series of staged black and white self portrait photographs entitled Bezetzung (1969), translated as Occupations. The photographs document a performance where the artist mimicked the Hitlergruss Nazi salute in a number of European cities, mainly in France and Switzerland. The work was vehemently criticised at the time, but has come to be seen as an important artwork in dealing confrontationally with feelings of collective guilt and responsibility, an act of self-examination in which Kiefer asked of himself the searing question: “Am I a fascist?”

This “unshrinking” quality enters Kiefer’s art at a literal level, too. His monumental, lead-covered paintings famously required the walls of MoMA to be reinforced when they were hung there for an exhibition in 1988. What you might call “maximalism” has been at the heart of Kiefer’s project as an artist since he began making paintings in the 1970s, prompting the historian Simon Schama to comment that Kiefer is “incapable of making anything trivial.” The paintings in this most recent exhibition are no less colossal, both in physical size and subject matter. New paintings are exhibited alongside paintings from Kiefer’s own collection, such as a number of works that incorporate the writings of Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan. Für Paul Celan, Aschenblume (2006) is a 330 cm x 730 cm canvas of a deserted snow or ash-laden landscape, populated by what look either like heavy books or, more eerily, grey tanks. The painting is named after Celan’s word for ashes that appear to take the form of flowers as they settle. In seeming recognition of the extraordinary power of Celan’s poetic image, Kiefer uses the word almost as an image itself, titling the painting in white in the top left hand corner of the canvas in a characteristic scrawl. If we take Kiefer’s, and Celan’s work to be in part about our collective cultural memory, then a crucial aspect of this painting’s interpretation depends on whether we see the white top-layer as snow or ash: if we take it to represent snow, then Celan’s image will be frozen and preserved. If it’s ash, on the other hand, the word and its significance could be buried forever.

In Schwarze Flocken (2006), an apparently rusting lead book sits, again, in the centre of a deserted snow-field. The decidedly unchanging, even monotonous, character of some of Kiefer’s paintings contributes to their complete refusal of frivolity and triviality. It also helps them to appear part of a large-scale landscape of memorialisation, stretching out in a seemingly infinite rote pattern. Spindly, broken branches are plastered onto the canvas like cracked limbs, or more prosaically, decrepit makeshift fence posts. Something in their shapes also suggests glyphs of a language, just out of reach. Threading through and around these posts or markers is the handwritten text of Celan’s poem Schwarze Flocken (Black Flakes), its elegant loops taking on the menacing appearance of barbed wire. Kiefer’s paintings have the appearance of extreme distress. Thickly smothered in paint and appearing battered or flattened, so that they seem as if they might have been left out in the disconsolate spaces they depict, or roughly trodden under the tyres of a tank. In spite of this, they have the same sense of momentary, desolate calm that Turner mastered in his paintings, just on the edge of impending chaos. Whereas Turner characteristically makes use of a horizon two thirds down the canvas, in Kiefer’s paintings, the horizon most often hugs closely to the top of the canvas, an imposing smoky grey sky, with the result of a particular perspective in which the landscape appears unending.

Shevirat Ha-Kelim also sees the presentation of five new sculptures from Kiefer’s long-running series Les Femmes de l’Antiquité (The Women of Antiquity). Previous incarnations of the series, which takes hollow white dresses made from resin and replaces their heads with symbolic objects, have seen Kiefer treat mythological and historical figures such as Lillith and Myrtia, highlighting their unfair treatment in male systems of mythologising. Femme 54 Phryne (2011) draws on the figure of Phryne, the Ancient Greek courtesan, whose trial (at which she allegedly bared her naked body to convince the jury of her innocence) is immortalised in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Whereas Gérôme’s painting takes a chauvinist delight in the disrobing scene, Kiefer’s project is to restore a sense of Phryne’s dignity and draw attention to her treatment in historical accounts and art. He has placed a large pile of leaded legal folios on top of the dress, where her head would be. There is a strong sense of authority weighing down upon Phryne’s shoulders, even crushing her, as the shoulders of the dress fan out like power-dressing 1980s shoulder-pads to take the weight. Similarly, in Femme 53 Melancolia (2011), Kiefer references a famous engraving of the same name by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer, which depicts a female figure in a state of depression sitting beside a truncated rhombohedron. The engraving is a famous example of how melancholy became a feminised concept in literature and art. In Kiefer’s sculpture, a many sided glass shape in a metal frame sits proudly on top of the resin dress, the stately upright form of which is in sharp contrast to the slumped figure in Dürer’s engraving. Kiefer’s glass form is light and sparkling, again, distinctly distancing it from the dusty shape on the floor in the engraving.

In Kiefer’s own woodcuts, three of which are presented for the first time in this exhibition, he takes the most traditional of artistic forms and expands the vocabulary of the medium into something boldly modern, large-scale and exciting. The three new woodcuts in this exhibition, each one big at 200cm by 300cm, deal with Jewish themes, such as Scechina (2011), which takes its title from a feminine Hebrew word for “dwelling”, and which usually refers to the presence of God in a temple in Jerusalem. Kiefer’s woodcut addresses an Israeli spiritual homeland, as he has done with a sculpture of the same name, incorporating the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Lurie believes these works are an exploration of “creativity, the art tradition and a sense of unearthly spirituality.” Synonymous in the history of European art with artists of the German Renaissance, the woodcut is another of the forms that Kiefer’s exploration of national identity has taken. The very process of gouging out the wood to make the print seems a continuation of the physical, sculptural approach that Kiefer takes in all his work. All the more so, since the woodcutter carves out negative space and what remains, inverted, becomes the image that will imprint. In a sense, Kiefer always seems interested in “what remains.” The process of woodcutting is resonant of Kiefer’s wider artistic project, his interest in memory and in recent history, and his sense of finding out about his own identity through the past of the country he was born in.

Shevirat Ha-Kelim is the latest in a number of important moments in Kiefer’s career to have happened in Israel. In 1984, a large survey of his work took place at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, having previously visited Düsseldorf and Paris. The exhibition was widely praised for its boldness in confronting the national myth-making associated with the horrors of his native Germany’s recent history. In 1990, Kiefer was awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize by then Israeli President Chaim Herzog in a ceremony at the Knesset, a government building in Jerusalem. He donated the full amount of his prize to set up the Ingeborg Bachmann Scholarship to support young and emerging Israeli artists under 35 years old. Apart from the financial benefits of this foundation, Lurie believes Kiefer’s example of an artist who is not afraid to confront history boldly is a particularly important influence on young Israeli artists today: “Kiefer has dealt with the past in order to comprehend the present. With our particularly complicated present [in Israel], a lot of young Israeli artists are doing the same: looking at the past, studying it, trying to deal with it, in order to know how to interpret the present.” It’s this aspect of Kiefer’s challenging body of work that makes him an ideal choice for the newest chapter in Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s history.

Shevirat Ha-Kelim: The Breaking of the Vessels ran from 2 November until 15 April 2012 at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv.

Colin Herd