You have to be a very successful artist and perhaps, more pertinently, a very rich artist to incorporate diamonds in any quantity into your work. Damien Hirst famously did so with For the Love of God, which has, unfortunately, given rise to the huge numbers of spangly plaster skulls and tee shirts, which are now sold in London tourist shops. Anselm Kiefer, whose work is currently showing at the Royal Academy in a major retrospective, also does so, though in a more restrained and subtle way. A little notice by the side of the paintings simply says ‘mixed media’; no mention of diamonds at all. It is only as you try to work out how he achieves the sparkly effect that makes two of his enormous paintings glisten like a night sky, and, in so doing, lean forward, so setting off an alarm, that you begin to wonder. Then you realise that you have crossed a discreet line on the floor and that – yes – they are real diamonds. Apparently quite a few other people did not realise what the line signified, or they were would-be diamond thieves, because the alarm seemed to go off pretty regularly throughout the time I was there.
With the exception of the diamond studded works, one of the joys of this comprehensive and hugely impressive exhibition is that it provides the opportunity to get really close and see how Kiefer manipulates his materials, paint, straw, lead, clay, sand, wire, electrolysis sediment, whatever that is, and even the odd sunflower plant. The works are massive and I was struck by the sheer energy and physical hard work that must have been employed in making them. Up close, the texture is riveting; you get drawn into the paintings. From a distance they appear dark, brooding, monumental, as indeed they are. They are nearly all in some way associated with his reflections on the horrors of the Nazi era and what he sees as his compatriots` tendency to erase them from the collective memory and carry on as though it had never happened.
The works shown in the Royal Academy range in time from the early paintings which include a water colour of himself making the forbidden Nazi salute, through the dark interiors with which Kiefer made his reputation, up to some large installations which were created specially for the exhibition.
Themes keep appearing and reappearing so the effect is cyclical rather than a progression. In particular the symbolic dark sun flower comes back time and time again. Some of them I liked; others less so, but they were always dramatic. It was particularly interesting to be able to see the iconic Ash Flower – a huge interior dissected by the dried stalk of a real sunflower turned upside down.
I had noticed that the Kiefer painting shown in the Royal Academy 2014 Summer Exhibition, though predominantly monochrome, included hints of colour and was interested to discover whether his work showed any sign of becoming less gloomy and more optimistic as the years progressed. After all, Kiefer was born in 1945 just as the war was coming to its conclusion. When he started working as an artist in the late 1960s, many of the people in authority from minor officials to members of the government would have been acquiescent to the Nazi regime. Today those who were born, as he was, as the war ended have for the most part retired; the generation who make the decisions in Germany now have no association with what happened then. There is not even the guilt of what their parents might have done. But it appears that it is difficult for Kiefer to forget the past. In the 2013 work Language of the Birds, the huge German eagle wings atop the pile of books or canvases suggests oppression and censorship; for the most part the colours in his recent work remain the sombre browns and black with which he is associated.
There was one interesting departure in all this. Towards the end of the exhibition was a room devoted to some water colours. They showed a model in a variety of erotic poses; they were lively, passionate,vibrant and unashamedly sexy. In some, the model was shown with her legs spread, in another she glances over her shoulder, giving us a knowing look. In others she seems to have been caught in the throes of ecstasy. The accompanying blurb cited some classical references but the paintings themselves avoided the intellectualism associated with most of his work. There is clearly another side to Kiefer apart from the angst; it suggests that he has other outlets for his energy apart from his art!
Anselm Kiefer exhibition is showing at the Royal Academy until 14 December