Published  08/04/2024

Anselm Kiefer: Fallen Angels

Anselm Kiefer: Fallen Angels

With a mix of new and old works, Kiefer draws us into a world where good and evil are blurred – and it’s hard not to see parallels with what is happening in Gaza

Anselm Kiefer, Luzifer (Lucifer), 2012–23. Emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, sediment of electrolysis, fabric, and photographic print on paper on canvas, 330 × 760 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

Palazzo Strozzi, Florence
22 March – 21 July


Every painter paints himself, or so the saying goes, the words traceable to the artistic coteries of Renaissance Florence. It is fitting, then, that Anselm Kiefer – an artist whose work is hard to look at without feeling his mythic presence – would have an exhibition at that city’s Palazzo Strozzi (completed in 1538). The theological grandeur of the German artist’s themes – good v evil, for instance, or the end of days – and the operatic scale and tone of his work, its sheer impressiveness, could be seen to cast him as a sort of magician or demiurge. The film-maker Wim Wenders’s ode-like documentary, Anselm (2023), certainly cultivated this image, while its title seemed to include Kiefer in the pantheon of artists customarily referred to by their first name – whose “genius” the 16th-century critic Giorgio Vasari equated with divine inspiration. If this feels uncomfortable (it certainly does for me), I wonder if Kiefer – who made his name as a provocateur in the 1970s and 80s – means it to be, and what value such provocation might have.

Anselm Kiefer, Engelssturz (Fall of the Angel), 2022–23. Emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, fabric, sediment of electrolysis and charcoal on canvas, 750 × 840 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

His monumental painting Engelssturz (2022-23) reinterprets the “fall of the rebel angels”, a subject, popular in Renaissance Italy, in which normally an immaculate, armed Saint Michael the Archangel swoops upon a throng of tumbling, wailing upstarts. Kiefer has rendered the subject in his viscous and palimpsestic way: gold leaf, worn in places, covers the upper register, at the centre of which is Michael – in silhouette, an indelible shadow – wreaking terror on a choppy, gnarled mess of unctuous matter. This, on closer inspection, turns out to be men’s outfits, collaged and saturated, upside-down, falling. Some have heads, their sad expressions intricately demarcated. They do not scream as their prototypes do, but evoke tortured exhaustion. The weathered surface suggests that this fight has been going on for a long time, and over and over again.

Anselm Kiefer, Engelssturz (Fall of the Angel), 2022–23. Emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, fabric, sediment of electrolysis and charcoal on canvas, 750 × 840 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

Michael is terrifying, like a stain left by an angel rather than an actual angel, and we cannot see his face. His partial invisibility makes him an ungraspable force that is more real – and more imaginable in any sky – than any literal interpretation of the subject. When I am right up close to the canvas, allowing it to envelope me, the deathly mire seems to move and morph. Other images come to mind, of other punitive aerial attacks, images of wailing fathers and mothers and children. I can almost hear them beyond the frame, and beneath the rubble.

When I begin to think of Gaza, I cannot stop. Even if Engelssturz bears no obvious historical or political point of reference, I keep thinking of Kiefer’s frequent return to the Holocaust and the second world war in his other work – subjects binding Germany’s history with that of Israel and the ongoing plight of the Palestinians. The original theme of an all-perfect good punishing a rebellious evil is difficult to stomach, especially since it fits the propagandistic narrative of the real-life aggressor. Here, Kiefer’s Michael is drawn specifically from a painting by Luca Giordano of the same subject (1689-1702), in the Museum of Cadiz. In the 16th and 17th centuries, such triumphant imagery served as militant propaganda for Catholic powers warring against “infidels” and colonising newly discovered lands – the current location of Giordano’s painting on the Spanish Atlantic coast might reflect this.

Anselm Kiefer, Luzifer (Lucifer), 2012–23. Emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, sediment of electrolysis, fabric, and photographic print on paper on canvas, 330 × 760 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

But is Kiefer’s Saint Michael entirely good? He is a far cry from the fresh-faced, graceful seraph of old. In Luzifer (2012-23), the archangel is a ravaged wing of a second world war fighter plane, protruding from the canvas like a “Sieg Heil” – a comparison warranted by Kiefer’s own use of the Nazi salute in his 1969 series of performances, Heroic Symbols, which caused widespread outrage when he published photographs of them in 1975. The gesture could be mirrored by the blasted raincoat, presumably the rebel angel Lucifer himself, on the canvas beneath the wing, upside-down, extending from its hilt like a shadow. In gold leaf on the wing’s underside, Michael’s name – מִיכָאֵל – seems to be shining down on the upper part of Lucifer’s raincoat, blinding him with its light. This interplay of reflection and shadow complicates any obvious binary of good and evil: the archangel and the rebel angel extend from each other. That might be the deeper reason why Luzifer and Engelssturz are so painful to look at. Like Heroic Symbols, these paintings are about accountability. It would be brutally unfair to say that the families in Gaza are to blame for their own plight, as so many, by pointing the finger at Hamas, have either claimed or insinuated. But we, as witnesses, are accountable; the reflective dynamic in this richly three-dimensional image could easily extend to us. Now, it is Kiefer’s moral realism that hurts.

I find these two giant canvases, the first occupying the courtyard, the second the opening room, so emotionally overwhelming that the rest of the exhibition feels subordinate to them.

Anselm Kiefer, Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), 1995. Emulsion, acrylic, shellac and sunflower seeds on burlap, 473 × 280 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

Intentionally or otherwise, some respite is afforded by three paintings of sunflowers, two of them covered in gold leaf – Für Antonin Artaud: Helagabale and Sol Invictus Heliogabal (both 2023) – and one, Sol Invictus (1995), featuring real sunflower seeds raining upon a naked, supine Kiefer. The titles of the former two refer to Artaud’s 1934 novel about a godlike, profligate Roman emperor preoccupied with the creative essences of the sun, sperm and blood – which the paintings materialise mostly in the image of sunflowers fusing heavenly light, seeds, growth and creative energy. In the next room, three paintings, in muddy, rusty hues and textures, represent classical philosophy (as it was canonically conceived by humanist intellectuals in Renaissance Europe). One of them, La Scuola di Atene (2022), draws on the composition of Raphael’s depiction of the same subject in the Vatican (1509-11), re-enacting that fresco’s triumphant union of intellect and art. Kiefer’s layered, glimmering and oxidised version suggests both the alchemical materialisation of ideas and the palimpsestic endurance of the canonised past, while also – with more than a hint of Dorian Grayish decrepitude – admitting that past’s trials and tribulations. That Raphael is also the name of an archangel is of little coincidence – sustaining the Vasarian equivalence of creativity and divine inspiration.

Anselm Kiefer, Danae (Danaë), 2016. Glass, metal, resin, lead, sunflower seeds and gold leaf, shellac, emulsion, acrylic and clay, 280 × 125 × 90 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

The vitrines are more successful, providing a contemplative counterpoint to the harrowing scenes of archangelic destruction at the start of the show. Danae (2016) embodies the life cycle with a spindly sunflower, leaden in colour, seemingly dead apart from the golden seeds dropping on to an open folio. In Greek mythology, Danae became pregnant with Perseus despite her incarceration, when Zeus came upon her in a shower of gold (as is probably already clear, Kiefer doesn’t apologise for the phallocentrism of his sources). In Kiefer’s representation, in the fusion of knowledge and the Sun’s locked energy, reproduction persists in the bleakest of circumstances.

Centre: Anselm Kiefer, Locus Solus (The Solitary Place), 2019–23. Glass, steel, lead, resin, gold leaf, plaster, charcoal, asphalt, gravel, ash, fabric, emulsion, oil and shellac, 240 × 216 × 345 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

Locus Solus (2019-23) is more apocalyptic: a gunmetal snake – which could stand for creativity, or a twist in the narrative – slithers amid a desperate assemblage of rubble and huge, possibly human molars, above which hangs a menacing form resembling a giant flake of ash. The effect of the vitrine is to give the viewer a vantage point – and with it the ability to refer to its contents without being consumed by them.

Anselm Kiefer, Verstrahlte Bilder (Irradiated paintings) 1983–2023. 60 painting elements, 600 × 1482 × 673 cm. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

With a cosmos of paintings covering the walls and ceiling and reflected in a giant, pondlike mirror on the floor, Verstrahlte Bilder (1983-2023) envelops the viewer in a scene of creation and apocalypse unfolding at once, the beginning and the end of time converging – or the studio of an angry god, perhaps. It would seem the experience is indulgent, remindful of Kiefer’s colossal takeover of the Palazzo Ducale for the 2022 Venice Biennale. But, as in the Venice show, the dark ferocity of the works, the murky, tempestuous textures and perpetual fires, tug at something dark within us. Whether we choose to confront this or not is another matter, until the next, final room, in which Kiefer tries to make such introspection non-negotiable.

Anselm Kiefer: Fallen Angels, installation view, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 22 March – 21 July 2024. Photo: © Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio.

Here are presented his Heroische Sinnbilder (2009), “Heroic Symbols”, originally performed in 1969, when they no doubt would have been more shocking. Nonetheless, blown up and mounted on lead “banners” hanging on horizontal poles, the photographs have the scale and format of altarpieces. The traditional function of the altarpiece is predicated on contemplation and imitation of the holy subject, through which we are supposed to achieve some form of spiritual uplift. The analogous insinuation of Kiefer’s Sieg Heil might be that we are all worshippers of evil to some extent, and by accounting for the evil within us we can somehow rise above it.

Kiefer is less a god than a rebel angel battling with his own artistic hubris. As megalomaniacal as such a conceit may still seem, as witnesses to this battle we are somehow drawn into it, even encouraged to confront our own accountability for the real apocalypses some people are living.

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